As I settled down to watch my first ever London Marathon in 1985 - or Mars London Marathon to give the sponsors a mention - little did I know that I was sat slap bang in the middle of an exciting period for British athletics in this gruelling event. After the friendly tie between Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen in the inaugural running in 1981, the London Marathon had been the exclusive property of Britain's male athletes, not forgetting Joyce Smith's twin victories in 1981 and 1982. Hugh Jones had triumphed in 1982, Mike Gratton in 1983, and in 1984 Charlie Spedding completed a fine hat-trick of British wins. By 1985 however, there was a new British cab on the rank, a Welshman so driven that it hurts just reading about some of his exploits. Stephen Henry Jones didn't let much get in his way, not even stomach cramps as it would transpire on April 21, 1985, and his win in London was part of a golden year in which the man from Ebbw Vale could do no wrong.
Jones' back story, as they would no doubt call it on The X Factor, gave a fascinating insight into what made him tick. An aircraft technician for the RAF, Jones had run a few cross-country races as a teenager, even though he was a smoker between the ages of 11 and 19, but it was during his time at RAF Halton and Lyneham that the serious competing began. His seventh-placed finish in the Welsh cross-country championships in 1976 should have got him selected for the nine-man team for World Championships, but he used his subsequent rejection as a motivational tool, winning the 1977 national championship and a further eight titles after this, just to prove the doubters wrong.
His first involvement in track events was in the steeplechase but it was Jones' conversion to the 5000m that brought an early taste of relative success. A second place finish in the Welsh championships earned Jones a spot in the 1978 Commonwealth Games, a valuable learning curve for the 23-year-old. Another move, this time to the 10,000m, also proved fruitful, although along the way there was the odd moment of controversy; after a row with the AAA when Jones declined to race at Gateshead against the Russians in 1981, Jones was refused his permit to go to Oslo for the Bislett Games, forcing a fuming Jones to compete against the Russians after all. His anger was channelled into a fine performance, winning the race in a stadium record time, whilst also getting the opportunity to quite literally stick two fingers up to the selectors when crossing the finishing line. Jones continued his progression in the event, finishing 7th in the 1982 European Championships, 12th at the 1983 World Championships, and 8th at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. By this time though, the Welshman was already turning his attention to the next step up: the Marathon.
Jones' first main marathon experience did not have a happy ending. Having twisted his ankle the night before the 1983 Chicago Marathon, Jones could have been forgiven for sitting the race out, but bravely battled on for 17 miles, until the ligament damage he had suffered forced him to pull out. Undeterred, Jones returned to Chicago a year later and, just a few weeks after the Los Angeles Olympics, won the event, setting a new world record time of 2:08:05. A look at Jones' training schedule reveals just how determined he was to be prepared; in the five weeks prior to the event, Jones put in the hard yards, or miles in his case, running 100, 84, 71, 71 and 100 miles leading up to the race.
Just 24 hours prior to the 1985 London Marathon, Jones lost his world record to Portugal's Carlos Lopes, who won the Rotterdam Marathon in 2:07:12, though Jones would be preoccupied with the threat of Charlie Spedding to be overly concerned at losing his record. Spedding was very much seen as the good guy of the pair. "Charlie was the guy, the purist, the Olympian, wanted to go to the Olympics and not run for money, that kind of thing," stated Jones in 2008, a view backed up by Spedding's comments leading up to the big day: "I'd run here for nothing. It's Britain and this is the biggest race in the country. I could have stayed in the States and raced for more money, but I'm not interested in the cash." Jones on the other hand had won large amounts of money due to his Chicago win and world record, although his earnings were in a trust fund and he had yet to see a penny of it. Spedding's win at the 1984 London and Houston marathons and his bronze medal in the Olympics were impressive entries on his CV, but the man himself still saw Jones as the favourite for London: "Steve is the favourite and that takes the pressure off me," whereas Jones saw it as a battle between his fitness and Spedding's experience. It wasn't quite on the same scale as Ovett-Coe, but the rivalry ensured an eagerly awaited race on that sunny day in 1985.
There were other competitors of course, but in all reality this would be a very personal affair between Jones and Spedding. For twenty miles the pair were inseparable, as one by one the pack started to drop off; at fifteen miles there had been six race leaders, but gradually Jones and Spedding upped the pace and surged away from the field. And then at 22 miles came the incident that would be covered with great gusto in the press on the following day, as Jones' race hung in the balance.
Suffering from stomach pains and unsure about what to do, Jones asked Spedding for some advice: "Stop" came the short reply from the Englishman, probably more in hope than expectation. "That was typical of Charlie’s humour," Jones would later comment, although at the time there was little time for laughter. As the pair approached Traitors' Gate at the Tower of London, and the cameras luckily moved away from the Welshman, Jones took the opportunity to clear the blockage, as it were: "I didn't know how to relieve the problem. I didn't stop. Just let's say I sorted it out on the run." Jones lost 10-metres to Spedding due to his much needed break, leaving a confused race-leader wondering what had occurred: "I couldn't understand it. I just hoped he'd taken my advice. But 160 yards further on I looked behind and there he was again." Spedding probably knew this already, but Jones was not the kind of athlete that could be shaken off easily.
Certainly Jones' pit stop had commentators, viewers and Spedding flummoxed, as the Welshman first dropped off the pace, appearing to be holding his hamstring - in reality Jones was tugging at his shorts to clean himself up a little - and then allowing Spedding to open up a lead. However, a relieved Jones (we all know that feeling) was now ready to make a move on the race leader, his lighter load and pain free stomach allowing him to pull level as the pair approached a tunnel near the Embankment. Jones revealed in an interview with the Sunday Times' Greg Struthers in 2008, that this was the point where he heard a spectator cry "C'mon Ebbw Vale", giving him the boost he needed to drive on and pull ten seconds clear of Spedding. Jones may well have won the race anyhow, but those few words from a kindly supporter gave Jones the lead, momentum and impetus. He would never look back.
Jones powered home, his eventual time of 2:08:16 setting a course record that would stand until 1997. Such was the quality of the running on the day, that Spedding's time of 2:08:33 was 84 seconds faster than the Englishman had ever run before, with third-placed Allister Hutton improving on his personal best time by some seven minutes. It also says a lot about the British athletes of yesteryear, and today unfortunately, that the marks set by Spedding and Hutton still stand as English and Scottish records to this day, a reflection on both their abilities and the shortage in top quality marathon runners from Britain in the last thirty years or so.
For his troubles, Jones picked up £20,000 in prize money, although he wasn't too concerned on missing out on the bonus £40,000 offered by London race director Chris Brasher for anyone who could beat Lopes' new world best: "Only one thing mattered today and that was beating Charlie and winning the title. This was all about racing, not money." Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen did scoop the £60,000 jackpot in the women's race, taking a full 97 seconds off Joan Benoit's previous record, but for Jones the recognition of his achievements in this country were enough. "Now perhaps, I've made my name in Britain," announced Jones, with the press reaction to his win, and his toilet stop shenanigans, making him a household name. As for Spedding, there was no shame in finishing second to Jones, although understandably he wasn't too keen to embrace the victor come the end of the race: "I didn't shake hands with him at the finish, but that wasn't because he had beaten me," which was fair enough considering Jones' caught-short moment.
Obviously a man such as Jones did not rest on his laurels. In August, his run of 61:14 at the AAAs set a new world record in the half marathon, and he successfully defended his Chicago title in October, beating world champion Rob de Castella and missing out on equalling Lopes' best by an agonising one second. "If I had known that I was so close to the world record, I would have bettered it. If there had have been a clock at the top of the straight, I might have started my kick earlier," noted Jones, who missed out on an extra $50,000 because of this. Again Jones was satisfied enough that he had beaten such a strong field and defended his title: "The one second has never bothered me; everybody else made more of a fuss than I did," he revealed in Struthers' article, but from that day on he was wise enough to make sure he always wore a stopwatch.
It wasn't all plain sailing however. After a 10,000m bronze medal in the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Jones travelled to Stuttgart for the European Championships as favourite for the marathon. Jones attacked the field, building up a lead of over two minutes with six miles to go, but his blistering pace, combined with severe dehydration, led to a painful conclusion to the race. As Jones hit the wall, he was picked off by the chasing pack, yet even as his dreams lay in tatters and his body screamed for him to stop, his pride ensured that he finished the race. His 20th-placed finish and time of 2:22 may have been a major disappointment, but even in adversity Jones showed the determination and courage needed that had taken him to the top.
The rest of Jones' career contained more ups and downs; in 1987 he came second in the Boston Marathon, yet was annoyed with himself for letting Japan's Toshihiko Seko get away from him; in 1988 Jones won the New York Marathon and in 1992 the Toronto Marathon, the latter as a 37-year-old; major championship success would continue to allude him though, his fourth-placed finish in the 1990 Commonwealth Games marathon proving his last chance, although Jones was still good enough to finish in 13th place in the 1993 World Championships, even though his best years were behind him.
Little did I know that my first experience of the London Marathon would be timed so perfectly, at least from the perspective of a young British sports fan. In the intervening years there has been very little to cheer in the men's race, Britain's last win coming in 1993 through Eamonn Martin, but maybe Mo Farah is the hope on the horizon that marathon running in this country needs. Steve Jones was a special athlete, yet it is worrying that he still holds the best four times by a British runner in the marathon, admitting this himself: "There is a certain amount of pride in still holding the British record but there is also sadness that nobody has broken it before now." The man who does eventually break Jones' record will have to be as committed, dedicated, talented and tough as Ebbw Vale's finest, not an easy feat.
The beauty of researching these blogs is that I begin to uncover more and more about the subject involved. I knew Jones had won the 1985 London Marathon, that he had unloaded along the way, but I didn't realise just how remarkable a man he was, or anything about the records he had set. Legend is a word thrown around in sport too often in my opinion, though for Jones it seems an appropriate way as any to describe him.