On the 19th of February at the Seville Marathon in Spain, Steve Smythe, 58, did something that he has done dozens of times before: he ran sub-3:00 for a marathon, finishing in 2:56:16 - about 6:43 per mile pace.
What makes it a world best, however, is the length of time that elapsed between his first sub-3:00 marathon effort and his most recent: 40 years, 119 days, according to the Association of Road Racing Statisticians.
“I think someone will eventually break it,” Smythe said by phone to Runner’s World on Tuesday. “But no matter what happens, I’ve got 40 years. That gave me quite a lot of incentive when I was training. It probably hasn’t been done for a reason, I was thinking. You generally don’t keep that fit for that long.”
His first marathon was in 1976, when he was 18 and ran 2:54:42. Four decades later, as his 2:56 shows, he hasn’t slowed much from when he first started. (He set his PB, 2:29:42, in 1981.)
During his most recent, on Sunday, he felt strong from about the midway point on, and with four miles to go, he realised he could slow to about 8:00 pace if he had to and still break three hours.
The race was satisfying, Smythe said, both for the record and because he has struggled with injuries for the past five years.
Here’s how he got healthy enough to chase the record in Seville:
1/ Softer surfaces
Smythe moved several of his 85 weekly miles to grass.
2/ Less to carry
At 6 feet tall, Smythe weighed about 78kg when he was injured. By the time of the race, he was 70kg, being “more careful” with his eating. That meant watching the sweets, having chocolate only once a week, cake only once a week, “no (cookies), and cutting down on cheese,” he said. “I always thought I was eating healthy, but I managed to get the weight off by being even more careful.”
3/ Fewer races
Smythe estimates he has averaged a race nearly every weekend for 48 years, giving him a total of about 2,000 lifetime races. He backed off a little bit to save himself for the big effort.
4/ Hit the gym
He jogged the three miles each way and then did a 30-minute routine of stretching, core, leg strengthening and upper body weights with the aim of protecting the problem areas (mainly his calf muscles) that had given him so many problems in the past.
5/ Long runs
He did at least 20 miles every Sunday, up to a high of 22, for the three months leading up to the race.
Smythe draws inspiration from coaching and proving that he can still do the programme that he’s giving to his athletes. “I coach quite a few people,” he said. “If they’re going to listen to me, I have to (be able to) do it myself. They were all following my schedule. They probably have a little more respect for me as a runner now.”
With the record safely in his hands, Smythe will run the London Marathon in April, as he does every year, and then aim to put a few more months or years on his record. He turns 60 in March of next year and hopes to record another sub-3:00 in his sixth decade. He is one of just 37 runners who have achieved a sub-3:00 marathon across five decades.