Steve Jones, whose British marathon record lasted 33 years until Mo Farah recently broke it, tells us how running off-road led to his success
Thirty-three years ago, long before sports science, GPS and hi-tech shoes, when elite athletes had full-time jobs and runners operated off sheer guts rather than following pacemakers, Welshman Steve Jones set a British marathon record that lasted until Mo Farah broke it in April this year.
He is one of the least-heralded British sporting greats, but his mark of 2:07:13 means he is still the second Brit ever over 26.2 miles. It was off the road, however, where his success was built and this is the bedrock of his philosophy now as a coach. We spoke to one of the unsung heroes of distance running on a recent trip from his current home in Boulder, Colorado, back to Wales.
“Cross-country was always my background,” says Jones. “Wherever I’ve lived it’s been close to the country, close to mountains. There was a time from 1990 to 2005 when all my running was on trails and hills in Colorado. Before that I was on the trails on the heritage coast around Llantwit Major and Ogmore [in the Vale of Glamorgan] when I was at RAF St Athan. And of course, being brought up on a hilltop in Ebbw Vale, the mountains were the next street, so I’ve always run mountains and trails. I did 50-55% on country or trails throughout my career,” he explains.
The ex-RAF technician’s time spent on the hills of his homeland has hewn a toughened character and no-holds-barred approach to racing. For example, having broken the world record in 1984 with 2:08:05 in Chicago in his first completed marathon, he returned to the Windy City the following year and ran the first half in a mind-blowing 61:42. He inevitably suffered as a result and missed Carlos Lopes’ world record by a second. Jones also won the New York and London marathons sponsored by Reebok – for whom he is now an ambassador – before moving to the US and becoming a coach.
“I try to get [my athletes] off the road four times a week and usually our Sunday runs are on dirt trails up in the mountains of Colorado,” he said. “I just think it’s part of building that endurance and strength base to move on to something else. I’ve always believed that good track runners and good road runners will be good trail runners. I still embrace that element of running.”
Far from it being a ‘spiritual’ experience, Jones loves the work ethic of running trails. “I’m not the kind of runner where I have to feel at one with nature or the trails. I feel that’s a load of bull***t myself,” says Jones, without mincing his words. “To me it’s just the enjoyment of running – it doesn’t have to be something that solves my problems. I knew I had to work hard through ploughed fields and up mountains. I relished the hard work – I really enjoyed it.”