Thirty years ago, when the first wave of East African marathoners was giving suspicious hints of the tsunami of excellence to follow, the coach of the two outstanding Djibouti marathoners, Ahmed Salah and Jamah Robleh gave his trainees some advice which seemed counter-intuitive. Jacky Fournier suggested to Salah and Robleh that they should model themselves on a UK marathoner. This however was no ordinary UK marathoner, but Welshman Steve Jones. Fournier cited photos he had seen of Jones training in wild weather on the dunes and cliffs of the Welsh coast, and told Salah and Robleh that that was what ‘hard men’ did.
Jones may only have been running along the coast for a photo-op as a break from his day job as an RAF technician, but Fournier was not wrong in his assessment and advice; because Jones is still a legend across the world for his uncompromising approach to training and racing. Three decades later, the Djibioutians have disappeared, but East Africans – principally Kenyans and Ethiopians – totally dominate the world of marathoning. But maybe, just maybe there’s another Welsh ‘wild man’ arriving on the scene to challenge that African hegemony.
For much of his marathon debut two weeks ago in Frankfurt, Dewi Griffiths was running at 2.08 pace, which just happens to be adjacent to the 2.08.05 world record that Jones ran in his first completed marathon 33 years ago in Chicago (he ran 2.07.13 in Chicago the following year). But cramping in the later stages of Frankfurt slowed Griffiths to 2.09.49, yet combined with his fifth place (behind the inevitable East Africans), that is a more than satisfactory marathon debut; and recompense for his own uncompromising attitude.
Because in addition to that marathon revelation, not only has he brought his other distance times down substantially this year, he has done so with some very aggressive racing. Taking close to two minutes off his previous year’s time with 61.33 in the Cardiff half-marathon a month prior to Frankfurt was a case in point. Again he didn’t win (fourth), but he made a substantial impact on his African rivals. Speaking to BBCTV after the race, he said, “I always knew it was going to be a fast pace, and it was just a case of how long I could stick with it, and go as hard as I could as long as I could. I knew I was in great shape, I’d pb’d (set personal bests) in every race over the last few weeks, and it was another pb today. What probably summed it up was, around mile five, mile six, one of the guys looked at me as if to say, ‘Who the hell are you?’ I looked at him, thinking, ‘I’m Dewi Griffiths’.*
That sort of attitude has been honed on the Welsh hillsides. Because in his day job, Griffiths is a sheep farmer; which is to say, he works on the family farm in the Camarthen hills; but with understanding parents who realise where his priorities are, and give him time to train and race. Nevertheless, it’s a hard life, fitting in sessions between a lot of manual work both outdoors and in. That was underlined when we spoke by phone earlier this week; the wind was whistling through the earpiece, because he’d had to step outside to get a signal.
‘Working for my parents is pretty flexible. They know I’ve got to train at some point in the day… I might go round the stocks in the morning, then go for my easy run late morning, before lunch; then have lunch with the family, then depending on what needs to be done in the afternoon, another run later… You’ve got your day to day jobs, which need to be done every day. It can be strenuous at times, and at other times it’s not too bad. At this time of year it’s not too bad, but during lambing time, I’d be up early, and get as much done as possible. You could easily start at 6am and not be done by midnight’.
Even so, Griffiths manages to fit in what many people might feel is an overloaded racing programme. For example, he raced 25 times in 2016; and the Frankfurt Marathon was his 25th race this year; and that was just to the end of October. That would surely have to change if and when he moves up definitively to the marathon; for example, the majority of the world’s elite might run two or three marathons a year, with an occasional 10k or ‘half’ thrown in. At his peak, Haile Gebrselassie ran maybe ten races a year. But the 26 year old Griffith’s next marathon may be as long as a year away. He wants to run the 10,000 metres at the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast next April, with the likelihood of the European Championship marathon in Berlin in August.
‘It’s easy to say I’m going to change a lot of things but at the end of the day, what I’ve done the last three months has obviously worked quite well for me. So in a way, it would be foolish to cancel all that. Of the races I did, five of the six were in Wales. I’m unlikely to get that standard of races back to back without the logistics of travelling and all that; it’s not easy to get that bang, bang, bang of races. But if the races fall into place, I’m always going to race. I do enjoy racing, I enjoy racing more than training’.
His rise up the rankings has meant that Griffiths has been able in recent years to go altitude training in Boulder, Colorado, which just happens to be the base for Jones. Coupled with Jones’ own visits home to South Wales, Griffiths has forged a relationship with his illustrious predecessor, and has been able to tap into Jones’ ample experience. ‘I’ve come to know him quite well. Having someone of his calibre and experience in your corner is always going to help, and even if it’s just a simple question, I’ve got someone like Steve to turn to. Back in the summer when he was over, we met him, me and my coach, and we wanted his opinion of what he thought about me doing a marathon. It’s nice to be able to turn to someone like that’.
Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go. For example, it has been a recurring source of dismay to UK distance running fans that, whereas the likes of Jones, with his 27.39.14 for 10,000 metres from 1983 was just one of over a dozen Brits who ran sub-28mins in the 1980s, numbers have declined precipitously since then. Apart from the obvious (outstanding) exception of Mo Farah, there have not been a dozen Brits under 28mins collectively in the intervening decades. So while Griffiths’ Frankfurt time has rocketed him into 15th place on the UK all-time marathon lists, his 10,000 metres’ best, 28.16.07 from earlier this year languishes outside the top 50.
Griffiths is undeterred. He has been quoted as seeing himself as a throwback to the 70s and 80s in holding down a (strenuous) job while running 100+ miles a week. And he is also aware of the historical precedents which show that returning to the track after a marathon often results in a big improvement.
‘I’ve been looking the last couple of months, trying to gauge where my 10k time lies with some of the best of the marathon runners; and looking what they did afterwards, did they get better over the shorter distances? Paula (Radcliffe) did better afterwards for example. I think there’s more than one example of where they did do better, and hopefully I’ll be another case. I’m looking forward to getting back to the track next year already, and hopefully finally break that 28 minutes.
‘Things go in cycles, and talent breeds talent in many ways. You see the likes of Callum (Hawkins – fourth in World Champs marathon this year), and Andy Butchart have been making great steps in the last few years. They’re motivated people, like myself, and hopefully a few others. We’re all still relatively young as well; and hopefully in a couple of years times there’ll be a few guys running sub-28… I remember, I think it was eleven years ago now, I won the UK Under-15 cross-country title (Nottingham 2006). I was always trying to win a medal and be the best in Wales. Then it was to be the best in the UK. Then two years later, I got my first GB vest, and it all took off. And now I’m now trying to be the best in the world’.
* The first syllable of Dewi is pronounced as in ‘how’.