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King of Pain: Interview with Marathon Legend Steve Jones

The former world-record holder talks about running past and present.

Long before elite-level races were set up to be time trials with pacemakers, marathons were won by hard training, tactical mid-race surges, pure guts and attrition. And perhaps no one exemplified that better than Welshman Steve Jones, a Royal Air Force aircraft technician known for his tenacious running style. With a blue-collar work ethic and a tough-as-nails demeanor, Jones took the world by storm, running away from a deep field at the 1984 Chicago Marathon and setting a new world record of 2:08:05. He returned to Chicago in 1985 and, after going through the halfway point with an unthinkable split of 1:01:42, won in 2:07:13. His career race résumé and tenacity earned him respect from his peers, race directors and fans. He also won the 1985 London Marathon, the 1988 New York City Marathon and the 1992 Toronto Marathon, and placed second in the 1987 Boston Marathon and 13th in the marathon at the 1993 IAAF World Championships. (He also finished eighth in the 10,000m at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and lowered the half marathon world record to 1:01:14 in 1985.) We caught up with “Jonesy,” who recently turned 60, in his adopted home of Boulder, Colo., to talk candidly about running past and present. Now a part-time coach who works as a painter, Jones is still passionate about running.

What’s your first recollection of running?

I was 15 years of age and I remember running and it was the first time in my life I realized I had a competitive element inside me. It taught me a lot about myself. I finished fifth in the 3-mile race, wearing a pair of Woolworth Plimsolls slipping around in the mud and the snow. I can remember it like it was yesterday. I had a Beatles tune in my mind—it was “She loves me, yeah, yeah, yeah …” —and every footstep was in step with that tune and it was getting me closer to the guy in front of me. It was the first time I realized I could be good at anything and it changed my life. When the next race came six weeks later, I hadn’t run another step but I finished sixth in that race and it sort of snowballed from there.

What defined you as a runner?

One of my first coaches, who got me from being a B-team runner in my Air Force unit, to standing on the starting line at the Olympic 10,000, told me I have an insatiable appetite for hard work. It always stuck with me. Anything he threw at me, I could take. I gave it everything I could every single day. That was my enthusiasm and nothing took me away from that. I juggled everything in my life—my job, my marriage, my young family—just so I could focus on my running.

RELATED: How Steve Jones Ran His Way to Legendary Status

You were a rare runner who excelled running on the track, on the roads and on the cross country course. Which was your favorite?

I really think cross country is the purest form of running. It’s very basic. It’s a sport everybody can run, no matter if you’re at the elite level, a club runner or a just a jogger. It appeals to your basic instincts and there is always a competitive element in there. It’s running against the weather, it’s running in the mud or it’s chasing people in front of you.

What was the key to your success?

I trained really hard and it paid off for me. I’ve always been physically very strong and done very physical work for a job. It paid off in the end. I didn’t need to go to the gym, I didn’t need to over-stretch. I didn’t need to cross-train or do yoga or anything like that. I ran without heart-rate monitors, without sports cords or yoga or chiropractors or physical therapists or massage therapists. For me, it was about getting up in the morning, running to work, running at lunchtime, go back to work and then run home from work. It’s that kind of mentality, but I knew every stride was helping me.

Sometimes I’d be out there at midnight, doing 4 x 5 minutes on a country lane and all I could see was a little dot of a light at the end of the road. I would be charging down that street in the pitch black, and in my head, Carlos Lopes, Mike McLeod and Brendan Foster were on my shoulder. I just drove myself, mentally, as much as physically.

RELATED: 6 Ways to Simplify Your Running With Steve Jones

How has the marathon evolved in the past 30 years?

It’s obviously more competitive. There are more pacemakers in the races now. It’s not so much man-to-man racing anymore, it’s time trials. I think the sport has lost a little bit of appeal to me as an elite runner from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s because it’s not about the guys going out there and running to hurt themselves anymore. It’s about having six people around you at 20 miles and all but one drop out and it leaves one guy to the finish line. Yes, it’s still running 26.2 miles and they’re running 2:03-2:04-2:05, which is significantly faster than I used to run, but you don’t see that competitive element anymore. It’s almost like a gang race, almost like they’re ganging up on everyone in the race to get the right outcome. As long as a Kenyan or an Ethiopian wins, they don’t really care about anybody else. It would be nice to be a little more selective—who you accept entry from or invite to your races—to have the right mix of core international racing element.

Do you miss the thrill of racing?

Mostly I miss the fitness. There have been times in the past few years when I have missed certain aspects of running, whether it’s being on the start line of a major marathon or a local road race. But I don’t miss the training. But then sometimes I miss the training, but I don’t miss the racing element. For the most part, I have no regrets. I did it all. I enjoyed myself. I enjoyed myself and I don’t live my running through my athletes. I have had runners who have joined my group who have known nothing about me and who have left my group knowing nothing about me. It’s not about me, it’s about them.

What do you get out of coaching?

I coach at a different level than some of the other groups in Boulder. I have a small elite athlete base and a larger semi-elite group of club runners. My job as a coach, mentor or advisor is to help them improve. Not necessarily to help them win Chicago or London or New York or any of the competitive Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathons. It’s about getting the best out of themselves. And if I can help them do that, then I’m doing my job. My job isn’t to get them to the start line of the Olympics right now. Hopefully with the right development and the right adaption of my philosophy, it could get some runners to those places. But it’s one step at a time.

You were known for training hard and turning yourself inside out on race day with a win-or-bust tenaciousness. Is it hard to coach that?

It’s not easy to coach that. And that’s the biggest challenge I have as a coach. If you talk to the runners I work with now, they will tell you they’ve seen the benefits of my philosophy and the type of training I’m asking them to do. Are they there yet? No, they’re probably doing 80 to 85 percent of what I was doing. While they might be young enough and strong enough to try to cope with it, I’m not ready to lay it all on them right now. My philosophy is based on what I did. I made it to all of the major championships in cross country, track and road racing, so I know it works. I was an experiment of one, so they just have to trust me.

How big of a problem are performance-enhancing drugs in running?

It’s a problem, but I think it can be eliminated to a certain extent. We’re not tough enough on the people who get caught. There is no deterrent. If you get caught, after a two-year ban, you’re back in there again at the Olympics, running New York or Chicago or the world championships. In my mind, the sport should have lifetime bans. I know people will say that after two years off, they pay their dues. But you never know what they’re doing in those two years. It’s sad. Yes, it went on in my time. Back then it was mainly the Eastern Bloc runners doing it. Since the walls have fallen down, we’ve found out who was doing it. I remember having great races against some of those people and every major finalist—Commonwealth, European, Olympics or Worlds—I made those finals, but those people who took the drugs were instrumental in breaking the races up and ruining it for everybody else. Is it going on now? I hear it is. I hear rumors, but I kind of keep my head in the sand because it doesn’t affect the people I work with right now.

How has running changed?

Mass participation has hurt the sport, in my mind. It’s made a lot of people a lot of money. I have to be careful what I say because I get called out on it sometimes, but I don’t believe that starting and finishing a marathon makes you a marathoner. I don’t believe that. If you’re racing it to go as fast as you can, that’s completely different than being part of an event and just wanting to get from point A to point B. Like I said, I’m a purist. That’s not to say I dismiss people who are doing it. I have tremendous admiration for people who do that. I get emotional when I’m watching a marathon and see people after three and a half hours finishing a marathon. You start to cry, because you know what they’re going through. The guys at the sharp end go through the same thing as well. They want to stop after 20 miles or they have a blister on their foot or they hit the wall and are weaving all over the place. That’s the best part about all of this: you experience what the runners up front are doing.

What bothers you about running today?

The industry is huge, and the industry is running the sport now, not the sport running the industry. I really believe, if you go back to my era, you had well-established marathons in the UK and you’d get 200 runners. But they were all runners who were running hard and running fast times. Now you’re lucky to get that many in a half marathon. The rest of the people just want to be part of the event. I think it’s great in many ways, but the competitive sport hasn’t grown. The pinnacle hasn’t gotten higher or sharper because of these events and you would have thought after all this time that it would have. But the focus has changed and now there are absurd headlines, and I have to say, you are just as guilty, publishing articles like ‘5 Weeks to a Faster 5K’ or ’10 Weeks to a Marathon PR.’ It’s bullshit. It’s just selling magazines or it just caters to people who are running 4 hours for a marathon or 25 minutes for a 5K.

You’re not a proponent of heart-rate monitors, smart watches or modern sports nutrition. Why not?

There is no easy way. And that’s what all of these gadgets try to show you is some kind of easier way of training. But there isn’t one. I ran without heart-rate monitors, without sports cords or yoga or chiropractors or physical therapists or massage therapists. I’m a purist at heart. To me, it’s about having your running shoes on your front doorstep and putting them on and going out and running hard. It’s not about measuring how far you’re running, it’s not about checking your heart rate or drinking the right drinks and eating the right foods. All it’s doing is teaching runners to run within their limits so there is no ability to run to their pain threshold or several other thresholds.

Distance running is all about stress and coping with stress. All these gadgets and gimmicks, they take the stress away from it. So when you’re in a race and you don’t have all that stuff on your arms or your pockets or your favorite drink, you don’t know how to cope. You miss your first water stop and you think, “Oh my god, my race is screwed.” But it’s not, you’ve still got eight more water stops to get to. It’s just different to what I was used to. Towards the end of my career, heart-rate monitors started to come in and special drinks too. I broke a world record on Mars bars and Diet Coke, so I’m a good argument against all of the other stuff.