The voice on the other end of the phone is eight time zones away in Liverpool, England. The voice is vibrant, strong. The man speaking is ebullient, a raconteur. The man is 61-year-old Geoff Smith, winner of the Boston Marathon in 1984 and ’85.
If you’re a running geek, you knew about the Boston victories. But did you know Smith was a firefighter his first 10 years out of public school, that he didn’t begin seriously running until his early 20s, that he first ran for his local fire station?
“I pulled dead bodies out of fires, responded to motor accidents,” he says. “Battled buildings engulfed in flames. Ship fires, grass fires, home accidents. You name it, I’ve done it in the fire department, and I loved every minute of it.”
He was a stockbroker for 10 years, a special education teacher for another decade.
“I had the worst of the worst,” Smith says his bygone teaching days. “And it was the best of the best.”
Smith settled in Massachusetts three decades ago, but he was born in Liverpool and in some ways never left. If you follow him on Twitter (@geoffsmith1984) you know he’s been posting pictures from Liverpool this week.
“Things to do,” he says.
It’s all a lead up to Sunday’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Liverpool Marathon and Half Marathon. Smith will jog Saturday’s 5K, then serve as Sunday’s official starter. Since leaving Liverpool to attend Providence College, Smith has returned home at least once a year. He’s staying at his parents’ home this week, barely a mile from the home in which he was raised.
“You can’t take the scouser out of me,” he says.
“Scouser” is a term describing a Liverpool local. Its derivation stems from a local stew.
“A little bit of this, a little bit of that,” Smith says, describing the stew, not his life.
Smith’s Boston victories came in challenging conditions. In ’84, runners were pelted with a blustery headwind, the temperature in the low 40s. Smith won in 2 hours, 10 minutes, 34 seconds, winning by 4:15.
In ’85, Smith set out to break Steve Jones’ world record of 2:08:05. He turned the first half in a record 1:02:51. But the temperature climbed near 80, Smith’s hamstrings cramped on Heartbreak Hill and he slowed to a 2:14:05 victory. Still, he won by 5 minutes, 6 seconds.
Reflecting on his second Boston win, he says, “I didn’t take enough fluids. It just wasn’t there that day.”
Still, unlike many people in life, not just in sport, he wasn’t afraid to take a chance, step outside his comfort zone and push the pace on the uncomfortable run from Hopkinton to Boston.
“My life is about stepping outside the comfort zone,” he says.
There was leaving England for college in the states.
“I quit everything so I could be a better runner,” he says.
Until about four years ago, there was teaching special education for middle-school students. He received a correspondence from one student, a girl, who went on to become a nurse. The girl loved the Beatles. “Knew more about them than I did,” Smith says. “Anything in the 60s and 70s music, she knew it.”
When Smith vacationed in England, he returned with Beatles calendars for the girl.
“Hey, Mr. Smith,” the girl wrote to Smith. “You were our best teacher. We miss you.”
Of his stock broker run, Smith humorously says, “I had a great time as a stock broker, but I didn’t like it.”
He will speak to a junior high graduation class soon and already knows his message.
“Look around at the people sitting next to you,” he says, breaking into speech mode. “You won’t know them in a few years. You definitely won’t know them in 20 years. And whatever you’re studying doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what you’re going to do.
“You’re going to change jobs multiple times. You’ve got to be ready to adapt. If you don’t adapt, you’ll die.”
For health reasons, Smith adapted. He has undergone two hip transplants, one 17 years ago, the other about five years ago. He didn’t run at all after the first transplant. About 2½ years following the second transplant, he started jogging.
“It took me almost 20 years to realize I was getting heavy,” he says.
He runs four days a week now. “I don’t use miles, I don’t use a clock,” he says. “I use an internal clock.” Two runs last about 45 minutes, a third around 60. He’s training for a half marathon, his weekly long run now stretching to 100 minutes.
Smith represented Great Britain in two Olympic Games. In 1980, he finished seventh in his 10,000-meter heat and didn’t advance. In ’84, he DNF’d in the marathon.
His other career highlight was placing second in the 1983 New York City Marathon to Rod Dixon. There’s an iconic picture from that marathon, Dixon’s arms raised overhead in victory just past the finish line, Smith sprawled out on the pavement immediately behind him, vanquished, his mouth agape, attended by medical personnel.
“He’s a very, very good man, who is fascinating,” says Tracy Sundlun, senior vice president and co-founder of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series. “And I would say, when you look at the pantheon of major marathoners in the last 35 years, since it became a major sport, he probably receives less acknowledgment for what he’s done than just about anybody else you could think of. He’s a two-time Boston Marathon winner, for goodness sakes.”
Smith will let others worry about perceived slights. He’s not complaining. He does some motivational speaking and coaching now.
“A little bit of this. A little bit of that,” he says, this time not talking about stew.
He’s the race director for the Narragansett Bay Half Marathon, which will be raced for the second time on July 19.
“I’ll be up at 3 o’clock in the morning, organizing with my partners, out marking the course, putting up cones, coordinating with the police and volunteers,” he says. “Once I’ve done all that, I’ll stand on the line and run.”
He pauses. You can sense the man smiling eight time zones away.
“People will get a chance to run with me and kick my butt,” he says.