With the good and proper news that Welshman Steve Jones has been awarded the prestigious Members of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II, I thought it would be fitting that we go back to the time when Steve first lifted his name into the marathoning spotlight along Lake Michigan with his 2:08:05 world record.
In those days, the sport was still heavily centered around the Boston – New York City axis. The London Marathon had only been around for four years, and the Los Angeles Marathon was still two years from its beginning. Bringing world-class competition beyond its East Coast roots was a major accomplishment for Chicago and an important factor in helping grow interest in the sport.
Jonesy’s stellar run in Chicago `84 also represented another turning point in the game. It marked the last time the men’s marathon world record would be set without the aid of pacesetters. Here, then is my contemporaneous race report from Chicago 1984, a day to remember in the annals of marathoning history and jumping off point for one of the great marathon careers of the all-time. Congratulations, Sir Steve!
Chicago, IL. — And then there was the weather, forty-four degrees with a wind-driven rain like an icy finger tracing the nape of your neck. Over 10,000 huddled runners jittered anxiously at the dual starting lines on Clark and Dearborn Streets for the 8:45 a.m. signal to begin the 8th America’s Marathon/Chicago (as it was known in those days).
On the front row stood some of the best marathoners in the world. “It’s the Olympics all over again”, said one punter as champions from every continent pawed the ground, anxious to be off on their heat-generating journey to Lincoln Park. This was no place for the skittish, rather an end-of-the-season, post-Olympic blowout engineered by Beatrice Foods sponsorship money and race director Bob Bright’s orchestration.
“The Games are over. We’ve nothing to lose. So let’s have a go,” was how Welshman Steve Jones prophetically put it the day before.
Into the wind for the first two miles, yet the clock still read sub-fives at 9:58. Then the key stretch as the course looped onto Michigan Avenue and then north along Lake Shore Drive, six miles with the wind tailing. Timidity and caution took up together well off the pace. 29:54 was all it took from miles three to nine, 4:48 pace.
Kenyans aplenty were scattered in among the lead pack: Richard Keitany, Gabriel Kamau, Simeon Kigen, and defending champion Joe Nzau. They joined Steve Jones, eighth at the Olympic 10,000m final in L.A., 1984 Boston champion Geoff Smith of Great Britain, along with South Africa’s Ewalt Bonzet, and Mexico’s young Martin Pitayo for some urban intensity against the two big name brands, 1983 World Marathon Champion Rob deCastella of Australia and new Olympic champion Carlos Lopes of Portugal. Ten in all, rolling, as $250,000 in “Athletic Funds” waited at the finish line.
Quickly it became obvious that hard-paced attrition would define the issue. The come-from-behind types would have to find another race on another day. Behind the lead pack, a widening black hole yawned, ready to swallow any who faltered.
Mostly it was Deek at the point along with Nzau, who came in off-form from a 2:14 marathon effort just three weeks before. Keitany, track coach at Iowa State, and Geoff Smith also showed in front as the rain abetted but the wind pushed them along four, five, even six abreast, slender figures set against an urban tapestry. Only Lopes, Bonzet and Pitayo remained off the front row throughout.
As they blew past White Sox Park at 35th and La Salle Streets, the course looped back into the wind for miles ten, eleven and twelve. Those miles took 5:06, 5:06, and 5:01 but the wild card that the weather always is flipped over strong on the side of the runners from that point forward. As the wind subsided, the rain stopped and Chicagoans cheered, the marathoners upped the tempo.
At fourteen miles, Nzau gave up the charade and fell into the abyss. Later he hopped a ride on the women’s lead vehicle. At sixteen, Richard Keitany could no longer hang on, Kigen, too, once a favorite, but peaked two weeks too early and now saddled with a virus and gone. Then Bonzet faded, as one by one they were tapped of vitality, becoming pressure-popped machinery running half-spirited, marathon adventurers out for fame and fortune living too long the draining fringes of 2:08 pace.
The pack had been whittled to down to six. Rob de Castella, the 1983 World Champion had come to Chicago to “reestablish” himself after a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles. Smith, the high-kneed frontrunner out of Providence College remained right there with his distinctive cheeks-puffing style. In row two Jones floated on a cloud of comfort, hardly out for more than a Sunday morning long run. Kamau alongside ran resolute, head down, well-raced coming in, and ready for a good one. Young Pitayo of Mexico had only one marathon behind him, a 2:16, but was he in the process of shaping a breakthrough? And Lopes, the Olympic champion, in Chicago playing with house money but answering questions about his motivation with each effortless stride as he lurked dangerously in striking position.
Just past 30Km at an ill-place aid station on the corner of Larrabee and Webster Streets, Smith clipped Kamau’s heel. Bang! Kamau was down! Hard! Jones kept Smith from falling as the pack’s cohesion disappeared in an instant. Fatigue had become a seventh presence in the group. Pack running had now become too dangerous. All concentration was recalled to pull internal monitoring duty. As sure as a sign from heaven, the time for winning was at hand.
“Nobody was being very decisive,” said Steve Jones afterward. “I thought come nineteen or twenty miles de Castella, Lopes, or Geoff (Smith) would have made a decisive move and tried to get away. A few times before that I felt I could go, but I held back on purpose. But because they didn’t, I felt like I had held back enough, and it was time to go.”
Five weeks of altitude training in Park City, Utah along with three highly successful pre-marathon races in San Francisco, Dayton, and El Paso, Texas had Jonesey’s confidence soaring. Even his inexperience at the marathon distance – he’d only started one before, `83 Chicago where he stepped in a pothole at sixteen miles and dropped out – became a paradoxical advantage; he had no fear.
After the Kamau fall, Jonesy eased to the front, itching to raise the stakes. Three furtive, chin-to-chest glances to gauge “who wants to play?” and his hesitancy could no longer be contained. With a resolve born of his Welsh coal-mining heritage, he turned his hole card and pushed every chip into the pot.
The miles blew by: 4:47, 4:42, 4:47, 4:41. Only Kamau, still awash in the adrenal residue of his fall, attempted to match strides with the RAF jet mechanic. But his would only be a short burn, and by 22 miles both Deek and Lopes had reeled Kamau in for a stand-up battle for second place. Kamau, Pitayo, and Smith accordioned behind, retreating into the caverns of their own yet-to-be-determined fates.
The race had not been engineered as a specific world record attempt, but none of the pre-race favorites were willing to preclude the possibility either. And when the pack arrived at 20 miles at 4:55 per mile average and the race still to be determined…
Jones never looked back once. His final mile evaporated in 4:45. His final 10k lasted a paltry 29:38 (4:46 pace). 2:08:05 registered the finish line clock, a new world record, bettering Deek’s mark from Fukuoka 1981 by thirteen seconds!
Lopes kicked by a grim-faced de Castella in the final 200 meters to take second by three seconds in 2:09:06. Little consolation for Deek that he was the fastest third-place finisher in marathon history at 2:09:09. Kamau finished in fourth, with Smith and Pitayo rounding out the top six.
Rosa Mota of Portugal followed her Olympic bronze in LA with a relatively easy victory in the women’s race, posting a PR 2:26:01. Australia’s Lisa Martin picked off Norway’s Ingrid Kristiansen for second in a PR 2:27:40. Thousands more wrote their own stories on October 21, 1984. And, as if to signify its approval of America’s Marathon/Chicago 1984, shortly after noon the sun blinked its way through the clouds as if to crown the proud city The Best of the Best.