30 years ago today, Steve Jones took the marathon by storm.
Steve Jones was never a runner to chase times. His only goal as a runner was to race, to outrun the runners around him. “And not just beat them, but annihilate them,” he said recently. And often during his storied carrier, that’s exactly what he did.
While reflecting on his world-record run 30 years ago at the 1984 Chicago Marathon on Monday night in Boulder, Colo., Jones said his only goal in the race that cool, rainy morning was outlasting the talent-rich field that included recently minted Olympic champion Carlos Lopes of Portugal, Olympic silver medalist John Treacy of Ireland and world record-holder and 1983 world champion Rob de Castella of Australia. That he ran a new world record of 2:08:05 was only the result of his competitive efforts.
In fact, when the lead pack passed through the 10-mile mark in about 48 minutes flat, Jones turned to de Castella and asked, “Is that clock right?”
“Deke shot back, ‘Why? Is it too slow? You can speed up if you’d like,'” the 59-year-old Jones recalled in his subdued Welsh accent after a group run from Fleet Feet Sports Boulder honoring the 30th anniversary of his record run. “I knew 48 minutes was quick, but the point is I didn’t pay attention to the time. I didn’t know how fast we went through the half. I was just watching the guys around me. It was all about racing those guys, beating those guys.”
Long before elite-level races were set up to be time trials with pacemakers, marathons were won by hard training, tactical mid-race surges and pure guts. And perhaps no one of that era exemplified that better than Jones. With a blue-collar work ethic and a tough-as-nails demeanor, Jones had been a very good runner in cross country and the 10,000-meter run on the track. But it was the marathon where his grind-it-out-tenacity allowed him to win races through attrition.
When it came to the marathon, Jones was as good as they get—a pure bad-ass willing to push himself to the brink of extinction in that painful realm that creeps up to all of us after the the 20-mile mark.
He returned to Chicago in 1985 and won again, missing the world record Carlos Lopes had set in the spring by a mere second. He also won the London Marathon and New York City Marathon in his career and placed second in Boston too.
But it was the 1984 Chicago Marathon that sent Jones on the path to becoming a legend. He had earned a bronze medal in the 1983 World Cross Country Championships and placed eighth in the 10,000 meters on the track in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. But because many of the top runners in the Chicago field had run the marathon in those Olympics—including de Castella, Lopes and Treacy—Jones knew he might have a leg up on the competition if he could stay with the leaders through 20 miles.
When Kenyan Gabriel Kamu recovered from slipping on the wet pavement and threw in a surge near the 18-mile mark, Jones was ready.
“I thought, ‘it’s time to go’ and I went with him because I didn’t want to miss it,” Jones said. “I chased him down and we ran together for a little while and then he dropped off and I was alone at 20 miles. From there, I didn’t think anyone would catch me. You’re running scared the last 6 miles, but I never turned around. I didn’t look behind me. I just focused. My legs started to get a little sore at 22 or 23 miles, and I thought, ‘OK, this is what it feels like’ and I kept running hard.
“I was listening to the helicopter above and the police sirens ahead of us and people shouting. I was totally aware of where I was. It’s not like I was in a zone or something like that. I knew I was running hard, but it was probably one of my more relaxing runs, honestly.”
Jones moved to Boulder in the late 1980s to train with some of the world’s best runners and made it his permanent home in 1990. After retiring in the early 1990s, he and his family blended into the Boulder community. But he has never lost his connection to the running world and has been coaching elite and sub-elite runners for the past 10 years or so while balancing his work as a house painter.
Jones has remained as understated as he was as a competitor. Although self-assured and full of dry humor, he was—and still is—nothing if not earnest and hard-working. (When he had to drop out of the 1983 Chicago Marathon because of an injury, he offered to return his per diem athlete fees to the race director because he didn’t feel as if he’d earned it.)
In 1985, when he successfully defended his Chicago Marathon title, he went the halfway mark in 1:01:42 at a time when the world record for the half marathon was 1:01:14 and remained on sub-2:04 pace at the 20-mile mark. (That’s faster than the half-marathon split Kenyan Dennis Kimetto posted en route to shattering the world record in the marathon with a 2:02:57 on Sept. 28 in Berlin.) Although he wound up missing Lopes world record by a second in 1985, his time of 2:07:13 that day still stands as the British record.
Even when Jones crossed the finish line in Chicago in 1984, he had no idea he had broken de Castella’s 1981 world record of 2:08:18 by 13 seconds.
“Someone stuck a mic in my face and said, ‘Steve, do you realize you set the world record in only your second marathon?’ And off the top of my head, I said, ‘well, it’s only the first one I’ve finished,'” Jones said with a laugh. “It all changed from there.”
But what didn’t change was Jones’ simple approach to running. He never wore a watch and was never afraid to run hard, either in a race or in training. Fellow Boulder resident Mark Plaatjes, the 1993 world champion in the marathon, said of all the world-class runners who trained in Boulder in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jonesy was the most unwavering.
“We’d start a long Sunday run with a group and he’d go out at 5:20 mile pace,” Plaatjes said recently. “There was no easy day with Jonesy.”
Although he was one of the best marathoners of any era and well-respected at the time, his no-frills attitude, self-effacing humor and workmanlike demeanor have transcended time. While other runners have faded into the annals of history, Jones has remained a popular figure in the running world—he still attends several marathon race expos every year on behalf of his longtime sponsor Reebok—and his gritty racing persona has gained traction among newer, younger runners—likely from watching grainy old YouTube videos of the final miles of his Chicago win in 1984, his bold solo effort in Chicago in 1985 and the final two laps of a European 10,000-meter race from the early 1980s—the latter of which has been viewed more than 5.1 million times.
He’s still hailed as a hero in his native Wales, where more than 100 runners honored him with a run on Saturday in the city of Tredegar.
Jones continues to pass his relentlessness along to the runners he trains. Some runners have had success under Jones, others have buckled under his subtle but very intense ways.
“It’s about beating the competition. That was my goal, racing the guys out there. And if you beat them or race well, then you’re going to run fast. You can’t race the clock. You have to race other runners” he said. “My best marathons were very competitive times and I always got the best out of myself. But I always had a racing plan of ‘I’m going to go now.’ And when I went, it ‘was win or bust.'”
Although Jones has said a few times that he’d like to go back and run the Chicago Marathon again—and he said it again Monday night that he plans to run it in 2015—it wouldn’t be to recapture any lost glory. He’s content with with his life as a painter and part-time coach.
“I’m in a good place right now, coaching and working. If that’s all I did for the rest of my life, I’d be happy,” Jones said. “I’m not living vicariously through them. I’ve done my running. There’s nothing I haven’t done. I just want to hep them get to where they want to go.”