Every year around Chicago Marathon time, mid-October, people want to talk to Steve Jones. He’s enjoyable at other times of year but, like pumpkin spice dark chocolate toffee curry simmer sauce, seems to sell well seasonally. It could be because in two successive autumns—1984, when he set the world marathon record, and 1985, when he missed it by one second—Jones put on a display of balls-out courage at the Chicago Marathon that’s almost extinct today.
Let’s huff a little old school Jonesy to get in the mood before we appreciate what he has to say about running and runners today.
Jones was the type of animal you’d see hunched up at the side of the road, heaving after the first interval, and the sixteenth. The Welsh airplane mechanic took off in the Windy City in a singlet and shorts—no watch, no pansy sports drinks—at a suicidal pace, doped up on Mars bars and Diet Coke. In 1985 there were pacers, but when he pulled even with them in the third mile of the 26.2, they inquired if the pace was adequate, he said no, and carried on. No one in the world class field went with him. He assaulted the first 13 miles, passing two minutes ahead of world record pace, virtually ensuring the remainder of the race would be spent in the worst hell imaginable, every cell shrieking. He said later, “I knew it would hit me at some stage in the race, and it was just a matter of carrying on until it did.”
He could have won and pocketed the prize money in much more comfortable fashion. But he didn’t. You can watch the full agony or skip to about 16 minutes in this clip.
There, that wasn’t very nice, was it? Sets the tone for some plain speaking.
These days, Jones, 60, lives and coaches in Boulder, Colorado. What running he does he claims is accomplished under cover of darkness so no one witnesses the incident and calls 911. His courage now comes out in the form of unapologetic honesty. Accordingly, Competitor recently asked some opinion questions, and Jones responded as a straight shooter who never played politics, and is now, if possible, even less inclined to do so. Calling out pseudo-marathoners, gadget makers, and even the publication conducting the interview, Jones’s adult dose articulates what many in the running community are thinking but afraid to say.
Jones answered Competitor’s question of how the sport of running has 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.
And this about sports drinks and smart watches and heart rate monitors ...
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.
And regarding what bothers him 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.
Strong stuff, but most provocative is what Competitor edited out of the above answer. “And that’s not running in my mind” was cut from end of the online version of this quote, but lives on in the print version.
Jones said via email of the omission, “Whatever changes from the original article were not made by me. The times I quoted are and were examples in general, as opposed to clear cut times.”
Brian Metzler of Competitor did not respond as to why, of all the potentially offensive, advertiser averse things Jones said, he decided to cut that sentence. It’s amazing, and commendable, that calling Competitor magazine’s stock-in-trade articles bullshit, and advertisers Gatorade and Garmin’s products unnecessary, somehow made it through the editing process.
Jones’s brand of hair-still-on-it running and opining should be required literature for any runner, competitive or recreational, because it’s perishingly rare that someone can really walk (run) that kind of talk. It needs to be preserved like an artifact.
photo credit: Getty Images