Don Kardong's account of the 1985 Chicago Marathon from The Runner, January, 1985
Before the start, few would have argued with Rob de Castella's prediction about how the men's race would develop. "You'll see a big group,' said Deek, "eight to ten runners, in front for 15-20 miles. In the last three or four miles, the pack will fragment. Then we will see who's on form"
Steve Jones, though, wasted no time in destroying that scenario. Running 4:46 and 4:42 for the first two miles, Jones seemed impatient with the pace of Carl Thackery of Sheffield, England, who had been hired to lead the men through a 1:03:30 half-marathon. By two miles, Jones began moving to the lead, then passed three miles in 14:16, with only Simeon Kigen of Kenya as company. It's not uncommon to see someone open a marathon at breakneck speed, only to collapse shortly after. Top runners, used to that, are generally unperturbed.
But Steve Jones? Did the former world record holder know something that no one else did, or was he simply plunging into the kind of drastic and soon-to-be-regretted experiment that Geoff Smith had suffered last Spring at Boston? Faced with Jones' challenge, what should a 2:08 or 2:09 marathoner do?
While the rest of the men mulled that over, Jones accelerated to 4:39 for the fourth mile, slowed to 4:59 on the hilly fifth mile, then turned in miles of 4:34, 4:39, 4:37, 4:39 and 4:38 through ten, which he passed in 47:01, nearly two minutes faster than he had in 1984. No one had run five straight sub-4:40 miles in a marathon before. His split converted to a 2:03:16 marathon!
By that point though, nearly everyone in the next pace--de Castella, Djama, Curp--must have felt they knew what was up. Jones' splits were suicidal. Just stick to one's own pace, right?
"I was pretty surprised he was able to keep going," de CAstella said later. "In the clinic yesterday Steve was telling everybody how he hadn't been doing as much mileage this year, hadn't been doing his long runs, and I thought, 'Oh, good, he'll really struggle over those last few miles.' "
And how was the wild one himself reacting to his superhuman splits?
"I wasn't really taking too much notice of them," Jones would comment. "I felt comfortable. I knew it would hit me at some stage in the race, and it was just a matter of carrying on until it did."
Having cast the die, Jones held on, passing the first of the two marathon halves in 1:01:42 (in his world record, Lopes' split was 1:03:24) and thinking to himself as he said after the race, "Let's try and run another one."
"Nor had Steve Jones the luxury of late-race respite. By 14 miles, his eyes had begin to reflect, ever so slightly, that despair that marathon runners know when the body begins to balk at the pace. Jones finally began to "slow down," running just above 4:50 per mile from 14 through 20. At that mark, passed in 1:35:22, he was looking at a projected, and still scary, 2:05:01.
Finally though, the lender came to collect on the overdue debt. Jones ran his 21st mile in 5:02, the next in 5:07, then 5:06. It wasn't exactly a wall; maybe a few bricks.
"About 21 miles," Jones admitted, "I really started to feel quite tired and my legs tightened. I had to concentrate really hard to maintain form and pace."
The question now was whether the accumulation of fatigue and overall slowdown would end up devouring the time cushion that Jones had created for himself. AT 25 miles he was still under 2:07 pace, but his pace continued to slip.
Jones, meanwhile, had many things to think about, including his early pace and to what extent it deterred a record. Given his remarkable talent, what time did he have in him?
"A minute, maybe a minute and a half faster," Jones mused. "It's hard to say until you actually run it."
In other words, 2:05, 2:06. In '84, after he'd run a low 2:08 his first marathon, he said you could hardly call him a marathon runner. And now, after a low 2:07? "I'm just a runner, " he said.