With the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships set to hit Cardiff this weekend, we speak to Steve Jones, the iconic Welshman who held the 13.1 mile world record for one month and four days.
Running with a “slight hangover” and with just “four to five hours sleep” is not textbook preparation for running a world record, but Steve Jones was no textbook athlete.
On 11th August 1985 the RAF technician from the former steel town of Ebbw Vale shrugged off the grogginess and secured the AAA Half Marathon title, clipping 18 seconds from American Paul Cummings’ world record in the process. It was a performance that was typical Jonesey.
“If you believe the myths and legends [I drank] ten pints of cider, but it was probably closer to five or six pints,” recalls Jones, who had been attending the wedding of his best friend in Swansea on the eve of the race.
After the wedding wrapped up at midnight, Jones, then 29, was in bed in Cardiff by about 1am. Early the next morning he made a journey of around 115 miles north east across the English border to Birmingham.
“I was pretty fit at the point, [the alcohol] didn’t seem to affect me, judging by how I ran,” he remembers. “I may have been a little sluggish warming up, but usually when I put on my racing gear on and the gun went off, I was a different animal.”
The approach and attitude he adopted that day was no different to the dozens and dozens of races that came to define the Welshman. “I went to the front and ran hard,” he recalls. A little over one hour later he was a world record holder.
Fuelled on a non-diet of meat pies, Coca Cola and Mars bars, Jones was an uncomplicated but utterly compelling athlete. For a period during the mid-80s he was the most feared marathoner on the planet.
He took races by the scruff of the neck in an effort to “destroy” the opposition. In 1984 he sliced 13 seconds from the world record when triumphing in the Chicago Marathon. It was his debut over the distance. He wasn’t even wearing a watch. In April 1985 he defeated Charlie Spedding in an epic duel – even taking time out to relieve himself – at the London Marathon.
His record in Birmingham was just another chapter in an extraordinary career. He recalls the weather conditions that day being cool, but far from perfect. He was up against two of Briton’s leading distance runners of the time – Steve Kenyon and Carl Thackery. Beyond those details his memories are a little hazy.
“From the top of my head I couldn’t even say who ran with me or when they started dropping off,” says Jones. “I just put my head down and kept pushing, pushing and pushing. I had no thoughts of going for the world record. I had no idea what the world record was.”
He was only first aware he might be threatening the world record just 50 metres or so from the line. Jones finished in 1:01:14, smashing the record and beating second place Thackery by more than a minute.
“I could see it was pretty fast, but I didn’t really register it was anywhere near a world record,” says Jones, who says the half-marathon back then was a relatively fledgling event. “To me, it was never about world records, it was just about beating the other guys in the field.”
Just one month and four days later, American Mark Curp ran 1:00:55 in Philadelphia to take the world record, but Jones did not dwell on the loss.
“It was not a big deal for me,” he says. “I could have held it for 30 seconds, it didn’t really matter. It still put me in the record books.”
After his world half-marathon record, Jones went on to enjoy more success. Just two months after Birmingham he retained his Chicago Marathon title, coming within one second of Carlos Lopes’ world record, his 2:07:13 that day still stands as the British marathon record. In 1988 he won the New York Marathon.
Yet to many, Jones is best remembered for his wholehearted commitment to racing. It was an attitude that backfired spectacularly in the marathon at the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart.
Undaunted by the opposition or the distance, he set off at a blistering pace, leading the field by more than two minutes at halfway. But his race quickly unravelled: he suffered from chronic dehydration because he was unable to take in sparkling mineral water at the feeding stations and his race quickly unravelled. He finished second last in 2:22.
Jones running the 1985 London Marathon, which he won in 2:08:16 (including toilet break)
Today Jones lives in Boulder, Colorado, working as a painter and decorator and coaches a group of around a dozen athletes. He also advises a group of current British athletes led by Freya Ross and Susan Partridge, who are both targeting a place in the marathon at the Rio Olympics.
“I enjoy it. They all set their targets and I help them try to achieve it. I simplify. It is not complicated. It is about trying to run instinctively and being a little spontaneous now and again. I try to focus on the running instead of all the stuff the popular magazines will have you believe in nowadays,” adds Jones, who himself raced with no planned splits, no watch or special drinks.
As an ambassador for the 2016 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, Jones, now 60, will return to his native Wales. Understandably he can’t wait for the event to hit Cardiff.
“It is really exciting to stage the event,” says Jones, who has been teetotal for eight years. “There’ll be 15,000 people running and with four previous or current world champions and Mo [Farah] running, it will do a lot for the event, a lot for Wales and a lot for British athletics and distance running in particular.”