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True Toughness: Steve Jones and the Chicago Marathon

I often watch old race videos on the internet. Sometimes I watch when I’m looking for inspiration, sometimes I watch to get pumped before a big workout, and sometimes I watch simply because seeing people hammering on the roads is a beautiful thing. Whatever the reason for watching, my all-time favourite race video is the 1985 Chicago Marathon. Steve Jones’ performance in this race is a thing of legend, it is stunning, and as an aspiring elite it is also kind of unsettling.

A quick Google search of Steve Jones will lead you to a plethora of articles and interviews which aptly capture why this guy is so highly regarded as a legend of our sport. Steve was the ultimate blue collar hero, a fierce and fearless competitor. His masterful performance at the 1984 Chicago Marathon changed the marathon game. There he executed a brilliant race and set a new world record while crushing a field of the very best in the sport. In 1985, however, he took the marathon to a different level altogether.

There are many ways to approach a marathon. The tactics involved can be tricky. They have been scientifically analyzed and philosophically debated. Some runners try for the elusive negative split; others will try to run as even as possible, whilst most folk simply accept the fact that they will probably have a positive split and just hope that they don’t fall apart too badly.

As far as I am concerned there is nothing harder, or more risky, in our sport than approaching a marathon with a plan to attack it. To get on that line and just say “eff it” and go balls to the wall. It is an absurd tactic. Sure, it is probably the easiest tactic to execute – the gun goes and you run as hard as you can until you tip over. But most people are too smart for that, they respect the distance, they fear it even. There is just too much room for error in an aggressive marathon race plan. You can throw down in a 5K or 10K, and if it doesn’t pan out then you only have a few kilometres to suffer and regret your poor decision making. Then within a few minutes of finishing you can pull yourself together and are no worse for wear minus a bruised ego and possibly some vomit on your shoes.

To truly appreciate Steve Jones’ 1985 Chicago Marathon race I think you have to have personally experienced that blowing-up feeling. That sensation that combines the feeling of utter exhaustion and physical agony. Often this is a result of an overreaching race plan or a poor pacing miscalculation. I believe that most runners can relate to that feeling in one way or another. It has happened to us all – be it in a race, workout or long run. You start out feeling good, feeling frisky. You figure “why not?” and decide to test your limits. Fast forward a few kilometres down the road and suddenly that friskiness is gone, replaced with lactic acid and regret. You have reached too far and suddenly things are getting bleak. You try to gut it out, you get to grinding, but there is still way too far to go – the writing is on the road, folks. You falter, you fail, you blow up. When this happens all you want to do is curl up in a ball on the side of the road and make the pain go away.

I’ve been there a few times: in the 2012 Rotterdam Marathon at 30K I was certain that I was going to run 2:10. By 38K I couldn’t see straight and at the finish I threw up all over some poor Dutch medic and ended up in the medical tent for two hours. It took me six months to get my legs back after that race, it was absolutely horrible. This is a feeling that you have to remember when watching the 1985 Chicago Marathon, because I can assure you that this is how Steve Jones was feeling for a good 10+ kilometres. His composure and ability to suffer is on another level.

I watch The 1985 Chicago Marathon with absolute awe. It is a tale of two halves, or more accurately a tale of the first 32K vs. that last 10 – both are beautiful in their own way.

In the first 32K Jones exhibits seemingly effortless grace as he floats along the Windy City roads at paces never before touched in a marathon. His speed and efficiency is flawless. Jones got on the line that day and simply showed no regard for the beast that is 42.2K, squaring up and attacking that marathon.

When the gun went off on the morning of Oct. 20, 1985 it was immediately apparent that Jones was in no mood to mess around. He covered his first three miles in 14:16 and had already gapped a group of world class marathoners, including another all-time legend in Robert De Castella of Australia. At five miles it was just Jones and Kenyan runner Simeon Kigen. That was when Jones became an absolute beast. From miles 6-10 he dropped splits of 4:34, 4:39, 4:37, 4:39, 4:39. He came through 10 miles all alone in 47:01. That’s 2:03:16 marathon pace, or almost four minutes faster than the world record at the time.

Jones continued through the half in 61:46. Stop. Think about that. In 1985, the world record for the half-marathon was 60:55. Steve Jones split less than 50 seconds off that in a full marathon.

These stats are all quite mind boggling. But it’s the last 10K that truly makes this my favourite race of all time. The first 32K Jones ran in 1985 are awe-inspiring simply because of his pace. Running 2:04 marathon pace for that long, especially nearly 30 years ago, is mind blowing. Today, we watch the Kenyans and Ethiopians go drop a 2:03 and make it look effortless. Most of us just tell ourselves that those guys are just genetically miles ahead and that we never stood a chance to begin with. It helps us sleep at night.

That was the kind of performance Jones was having in 1985. It appeared that he was superhuman and no one really stood a chance because he was so talented and genetically superior. After all, this was a guy who in 1984 set a world record by running 2:08:05 in his first full marathon.

At 32K, Steve started to show that he was human after all. He began red-lining hard. He was approaching that barrier when things get dark and even the best of us begin to crumble. Sure, Jones did show signs, he was beginning to crack. His splits slowed, he was now running over five minutes per mile.

Watching the video, it is clear that he is suffering. His stride becomes increasingly haggard. His upper body stiffens. He is clearly in pain, but, somehow, the look on his face never changes. That look of absolute determination and focus remains throughout. He felt the fire, but he’d be damned if he would let it win. It’s that mental toughness that gets me every time.

That look is also the reason why I find this performance unsettling. It’s far too easy when watching the very best runners to simply write off their dominance as a result of super human genes and talent. It helps us feel better about ourselves, it helps us sleep at night. I know I do it. But that 1985 Chicago Marathon forces me to admit something and face the truth. It is something that many of us are too proud to admit – maybe we are just not as tough as we think we are.

Steve Jones ran that race in the most difficult fashion I can imagine. He went for absolute broke and he was only able to hold it together because he was just way tougher than anyone else.

This realization perplexes me. It fills me with doubt and hope at the same time. Sometimes, I think that there is no way that I could dig that deep, I could not ride the line that hard. I have tried, and I have crumbled. Could I possibly ever dig deep enough? I don’t know, but it is tremendously inspiring. Some say Jones was dumb to race the way he did. I can see their point. But I absolutely love it.

Jones’ 1985 Chicago Marathon run reveals that there is no secret, no luck involved. You just have to work your ass off and, come race day, you have to be brave and you have to be fearless. Jones ran the first half minutes faster than anyone had before. He was so far into unknown territory that the announcers were unable to draw comparisons. He put it all on the line, and he paid the price, Running a big positive split, even missing the world record when he crossed the finish line in 2:07:13. But Jones attacked, he fought and he never gave in.