Paula Radcliffe ought to have little trouble keeping up with Jonesy on the streets of New York next Sunday. In addition to Britain's (and the world's) fastest ever woman over 26.2 miles, Britain's fastest ever man at the classic distance happens to be entered for the 2009 ING New York City Marathon. "I'll be running round with an old RAF friend from Cardiff, Rick McTaggart," Steve Jones said. "We'll probably run about five hours, so nothing to write home about."
It was different on 21 October 1984. Jones blitzed to a world-record time in Chicago that day, clocking 2hr 08min 05sec in his first completed marathon. He has been the British record-holder ever since, improving those figures to 2:07.13 in Chicago in 1985, when he missed the new world record set by Portugal's Carlos Lopes by one second. Not that the former RAF aircraft technician from Ebbw Vale – at 54, now a house-painter and grandfather happily settled in Boulder, Colorado – was celebrating the 25th anniversary last Wednesday.
"To be honest with you, I think it's a little sad," Jones confessed. "I mean it's great to have the British record, and it appears that I might have it for some time yet, but I think it's a little sad that the rest of the world – well it's the African nations really – have kind of moved on and we haven't."
There are many sad statistics that can underline the decline in British men's marathon running, such as 25 sub-2hr 15min clockings in 1984; just one in 2009 (Dan Robinson having recorded a fine personal best of 2:12.14 in Amsterdam a fortnight ago). "But do we just dwell on the past or do something about it?" Jones said. "We can't go comparing what Charlie Spedding or Allister Hutton or myself or Eamonn Martin or Paul Evans were doing. We just have to turn things round for the guys of today. And the names that I just mentioned are the guys who should be mentoring and inspiring."
Jones is doing just that, for the benefit of distance runners of all nationalities, as coach of an elite profes- sional training group and also a club group based in Boulder, the long-time altitude training mecca in the foothills of the Rockies that was home to the Robin Williams sitcom Mork and Mindy. His elite group includes Jorge Torres, who ran for the United States in the 10,000m in the Beijing Olympics and who will be making his marathon debut in New York next week, and Fiona Docherty, the former New Zealand triathlete who made the World Championship grade as a marathon runner in Berlin in August.
Jones has also been helping Scotland's Freya Murray make impressive strides of late. As part of Scottish Athletics' endurance initiative, the 26-year-old has spent two spells working with Jones's club group in Boulder, and the benefits were clear when she won the BUPA Great Yorkshire 10km road race in Sheffield in September, clocking 32min 28sec. "Is it just the training here?" Jones ponders. "No, probably not. Is it my influence? I'd say some of it probably is – but in more of a mentoring, inspirational way than a coaching way."
And, he might have added, with the kind of uncluttered approach Jones brought to his own running, as a raw, heart-on-the-sleeve Alf Tupper type – a steelworker's son whose racing philosophy was "always to devastate the opposition", who was fuelled by Coke, Mars bars and meat pies when he broke the world marathon record in Chicago and by 10 pints of cider (the night before) when he clocked a world half marathon record of 61min 14sec in Birmingham the same year.
"What I do is make it simple," Jones, now a teetotaller, says. "There's no science in it – no heart-rate monitors. It's just running – running instinctively. Anyone who saw Steve Jones run in the Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties knew that he ran by the seat of his pants nearly all the time. You don't see that any more and that's what I'm trying to teach these guys. None of it comes out of a book. It all comes out of my own experience."
Like the time in 1988 when no one in New York could keep up with the Jones boy, when he won the Big Apple's big marathon by a margin of 3min 20sec. It remains the biggest winning chunk since the race spread from Central Park to the city's five boroughs back in 1976.
His fastest three marathons
Chicago 1984 Having failed to finish on his marathon debut in Chicago 12 months previously, Jones smashed Rob de Castella's world record, beating the Australian world champion and the Portuguese Olympic champion Carlos Lopes in 2hr 08min 05sec. "I didn't even know what the world record was," he said. "I just ran to win."
London 1985 Jones prevailed in 2hr 08min 16sec – despite having to stop for an emergency road-side dump while running neck and neck with fellow Briton and Olympic bronze medallist Charlie Spedding with four miles to go. "I didn't shake hands with him at the finish but that wasn't because he had beaten me," Spedding said.
Chicago 1985 The world record had moved on to 2hr 07min 12sec, courtesy of Lopes in Rotterdam, and Jones could probably have bettered it had there been a clock on the lead vehicle in Chicago six months later. Storming through halfway in a stunning 1hr 01min 43sec, he finished in 2hr 07min 13sec, still a British record.
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