British road runner Jake Smith ran an impressive debut marathon on Sunday, taking the win at the Cheshire Elite Marathon in Wales in 2:11:00. His win was a big surprise, not because he was an underdog in the race, but because he wasn’t supposed to finish the marathon at all. Smith started the race as a pacer, but after his planned exit point, he decided to keep running on a whim, and he carried on to the finish line far ahead of second place and well under the Olympic standard of 2:11:30.
Smith is one of the fastest British half-marathoners ever, and his PB of 1:00:31 (which he ran at the 2020 World Athletics Half Marathon Championships, where he finished in 18th) is third-best in national history, behind only Callum Hawkins (1:00:00) and British legend Mo Farah (59:32). His success over 21.1K made him a perfect pacing candidate to help marathoners through the first half of their races, and he did so on several occasions before Sunday.
In October, just two weeks before he ran at the World Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland, Smith paced a group of elite men (including Canadian Cam Levins) at the London Marathon. As Smith wrote on Instagram after that race, he led that pack through 21.1K in 1:03:45, and instead of stopping, he kept going for another mile or so before his coach told him he had to get off the course. “The marathon life is not for me just yet,” Smith wrote.
Next up was the British Olympic Marathon Trials, once again in London, in March. Back on Instagram, Smith wrote before the race that he planned to run 25K, leading the front pack through halfway in around 1:05:00. Again, he went farther than originally planned, sticking in the race until 29K, writing that he was “tempted at one stage to keep going.” He fought this impulse, though, and pulled out well ahead of the finish, again noting that he wasn’t ready to run a full marathon, saying, “[I] think I’ll pass on the distance for a few more years.”
It turns out that waiting period was actually only a few weeks, and on Sunday, just a month after his run in the British Olympic Marathon Trials, Smith was back on pacing duties, but this time he let the urge to keep running win. He entered the event expecting to pace elite men in both the half and full marathons, but at around 27K into the run, he decided to finish the race. “Looked down at the watch at like mile 17 and thought ‘sod it,’ let’s try to run the Olympic time,” Smith wrote on Instagram.
He had carried the leaders close to two thirds of the way at that point, and with his role as a pacer fulfilled, he shifted focus to his own goal — one that he hadn’t known he wanted to hit until that moment mid-race. He ran away from the rest of the field and closed impressively (despite never having run that fast for that long before), crossing the line in 2:11:00, 38 seconds in front of the second-place runner. Smith’s run now places him at 30th all-time among British runners, and he didn’t even train specifically for the event.
To add to his achievement, Smith’s debut marathon win came just four days after he won a 1,500m, also in Wales, in 3:50.89. After his run on Sunday, he wrote on Instagram that he plans to focus on the shorter event this season, and based on both times, he’s certainly capable of thriving at either distance.