Jake Smith Athlete Interview – 60 minute Half Marathon

Jake Smith Athlete Interview

The 22 year-old , Cardiff based athlete, Jake Smith, spoke exclusively to Trackstaa about his historic performance at the World Half Marathon Championships on 17th October, a typical training week, what it was like growing up in Hong Kong and much more.

World Half Marathon Championships

In the words of the peerless David Letterman, our next guest needs no introduction. Ever since his memorable and historic performance at the World Half Marathon Championships on 17th October, Jake Smith, at just 22, has cemented himself as one of the most exciting talents in British athletics. What a 3 weeks it has been.

“It’s been mental, that whole week, like I would wake up and still not believe what had happened. I had 10 days completely off exercise, I would wake up and I was still just in shock. People were messaging me and congratulating me and I just loved every minute of it”.

The outpouring of support Jake received was abundantly clear from his Instagram story after the race, “I could have put a few more up [story mentions],” he tells me through a self-conscious laugh. “To be honest I was worried that people might start unfollowing me if they had to click through them all so I stopped re-posting them”.

The way he talks about this support reveals a naturally self-effacing and humble manner, a characteristic which is evident throughout the 40 minutes or so we were talking. It is not always a trait found in elite athletes but it is immediately disarming. I defy anyone who could find themselves unable to root for Jake Smith after spending just a bit of time in his company. The phrase, ‘he’s just a really nice bloke’ is often over-used, indeed it has become a bit of cliché. In describing Jake, it is genuinely true.

As if to make my point for me, he goes on talking more about others and less about his achievement, “it was just so nice all the messages I had. The guys who go to university in the UK, everyone is so nice and it’s a community you want to be part of. They were all messaging me and I would do the same for them when they have a good run. It just felt like everyone was united. I loved it”.

Despite his best efforts to talk about everyone else, I wanted to bring the conversation back to that incredible performance. Jake had told Athletics Weekly immediately after the race that it hadn’t sunk in yet, but I was keen to understand whether or not he yet reflected on the race; running the third fastest time ever by a British athlete (60:32) in the Half Marathon, a Welsh Record and a PB of 90 seconds.

“The first week I was still in shock, but now I look back at it and I wish I could have done something else. I wanted to get to the 10-mile mark in a group, but in reality, as we went into the final lap, I was just off the front group and so I didn’t have anyone to work with. It just makes me think, I could have gone a little bit quicker if I had put in a little spurt for a kilometre or something to get with the main group. I may have paid for it later, but the last mile is all down-hill so I could have used that to help me.”

As he is reminiscing about the event, it is strikingly obvious that he just loves racing, “I just think about it a lot and I want to go back in time and do it all over again. Just to be in that top group with all the Africans was just so special.”

Jake Smith with Joshua Cheptegei 

Cheptegei and jake smith

Credit: Athletics latest

Having clocked 62:00 at the Vitality Big Half earlier in the year and given the self-confessed shock he found himself in at the end of the race, it was no surprise to learn that he had not quite expected to run that quick, even if his training had gone near-perfect. “Well I had been doing the same training as when I run 62 flat earlier on in the year and, so the only thing I could go off, going into the race, was that I was just absolutely smashing my sessions this time and I remember thinking, how have I done this, almost? So, I knew I was in very close to 61 minute shape and then when we went through the first 10k in 28:23, which was a PB for me too, I was thinking this is so good, I’m just going to keep going, hang on and see what happens!”.

In a way typical of Jake’s modest charm, he admitted to wondering what must have been going through the minds of some of the African athletes as he clung on to the lead group for such a long time. “They probably just looked at me and thought who the hell is this kid running with us. They probably all know each other and they all train together and there I was. I was just trying to get in the mix”, he explains through a laugh which betrays the obvious fact that he’s clearly quite pleased with himself.

The performance is even more impressive when you consider the course was not particularly flat either. “I prefer slightly undulating courses like that, on a flat race, it’s almost boring because you’re just doing the same thing over and over again, but here you had to really push up the hill at the start of the loop. But honestly, though, that last mile is downhill, it was like the last mile at the Great North Run, and I’m telling you coming down that hill for the fourth and final time was like the best moment of my life!”.

Of course, a discussion about this race would not be complete without talking about Jake Smith bursting into tears at the end of the race. “There was like 150m to go, I saw the clock and just thought oh my god and I don’t know, I just burst into tears; I cried so much. The Ugandan athletes came over and asked if I was injured. I just said, nah mate, I’m just so happy”, Jakes tells me through that unmistakeable grin.

Despite the tears, however, he goes on to tell me that he had to try and compose himself for Seb Coe. “He came over and sort of told me to calm down”, we’re both laughing now, “I was like, I can’t! No but given how much everyone has looked up to him, even though he’s the President, it was really nice that he came to the event and he was making sure that everyone was alright.”

Jake Smith Goals for 2021

After such an impressive 18 months which as well as the World Half, has included taking the U23 GB half marathon record and running a 28 flat in a 10,000m time trial in July, the

obvious question was what his goals were for the forthcoming year. “For next year, the goal is the 10k Olympic qualifying time. But shorter term, I mentioned to my coach, James Thie, that I’m not going to get any higher than 18th at World Half, compared to the African athletes, unless I can improve my leg turnover. If you think about Jacob Kiplimo, he has run 7:27 over 3k and 12:47 over 5k, his PB is a minute quicker than me over 5k and so they always had the ability to just go and I was operating at my max. So, I knew I just needed to work on my shorter stuff. I want to see how close I can get to a 4 minute mile for a bit and then when the other athletes go, I can go with them.”

With a GB Olympic qualifying time of 27:28 for the 10,000m, Jake will need a 32 second PB to have a chance of running in Tokyo next year. “I am confident I can get there, yeah. I think it works out at like 65 second 400s and I just need that pace to feel totally easy. When I ran 28 flat for the 10k on the track in July, I had just the boys I live with pacing me over 800m reps. Funny thing was, I had to shout at people to get off the track, they were cycling round, playing footy in the middle. After 6k though, they all stopped and just started cheering me on, so was actually like a real race!”.

Despite clear short-term goals, Jake is not shy about his intentions for the Half Marathon in 2022, “I want to break 60, so bad. That’s the next thing.”

Lockdown

There is no doubt that the last few months has since seen an unprecedented amount of disruption to all of our lives. For athletes, in particular, the uncertainty of when races would happen or indeed if they would happen has had been significantly unsettling, as has the closures of tracks and other gym facilities. That being said, for some, there’s no doubt that these forced adaptions to training regimes might have been a blessing in disguise.

“In lockdown I went back home to Devon and bought a cross trainer and bike because we were only allowed out once a day and I stuck to the rules throughout” Jake tells me. Perhaps it’s just the impression I get over a grainy Zoom screen but there’s something about Jake that leads me to think that rule breaking is not something he does particularly often.

He adds, “Whenever I had a double day, I would do cross training in the morning and then a session in the evening. Because it was a low impact sport, I just felt it could keep me in the game for longer. I felt that I was recovering a lot better too using the bike and the cross-trainer and that allowed. me to go a lot quicker in sessions and I got fitter as a consequence.”

Undoubtedly though, the real benefit will come in giving Jake an extra year to qualify for the Olympics in Tokyo next year. “To have run only 30 seconds slower than the time I need, I have 7 or 8 months to get 30 seconds quicker and I am so fortunate to have that.”

Bermuda to Hong Kong

What many people don’t know is that Jake was born in the island paradise of Bermuda, living there for around a year. “I’ve been back to Bermuda for 2 years since, it’s an absolutely unreal country. Everyone has to go there. The country is 21 miles in length and the width is like 2 or 3 miles so you can jog it as a warm up” he explains, with a sense of nostalgic pride in his voice. “There’s 7 big tourist beaches; it’s just a place I want to go to really.”

And if he doesn’t quite make the GB Olympic 10,000m time, he always has the option to represent Bermuda. “Yeah there have been some talks about representing Bermuda but I’m not quite sure about that!” he laughs.

For most of Jake’s life though, he grew up in Hong Kong. Not traditionally thought of as a runner’s paradise, the city’s district of Mong Kok is the most densely populated place on Earth. But Jake talked of his 15 years in the former British colony fondly. “It was a great place to grow up. Within 20 minutes on the tube you’re in the centre of the city and there is so many amazing things to do, it could not be more different from Devon where I live now.” It wasn’t all positive though. “Because it’s right next to china, the pollution was quite bad so my mum would regularly say that I was only allowed out to run an hour a day.”

He also revealed one possible explanation for where his turn of pace comes from, “on the routes we would go on you’d see monkeys running down after you, snakes, wild boar, it was a bit scary! So, I got quite fit just running away from these animals.” Perhaps imagining that he is being chased by wild boar will be the perfect motivation to find that 32 seconds he needs to qualify for the Olympics next year.

A keen sportsman generally, I wondered how he felt that being involved in other sports had helped him become a better runner. “I absolutely loved football, rugby, hockey and I would recommend to any youngster who wants to be a runner, don’t focus on running until you’re about 16 or 17. Just enjoy playing the other sports. I think it helped me, without even knowing it I was building up that aerobic capacity and just being sociable. We all know running can be an individual sport and sometimes it’s easy to lose your head.”

It’s not uncommon for some of our best runners to have foundations in other sports such as football and in Jake’s case he knew that he would end up as a runner in circumstances quite a lot different to other GB runners. “I got to about 15 or 16 and I represented Hong Kong in Mongolia at this East Asian Cross-Country race and I won that and that was like the turning point that I knew that I should give this a bit of a go. It’s just an amazing sport to be part of, I love all the things you see when you go running and the feeling when you complete a race is like nothing else.”

What does a typical training week look like? – Jake Smith training

Before we start talking about what a typical training week looks like, our conversation was briefly interrupted when Jake received a message from his housemate, clearly to remind him to put his dinner on. If there was ever any doubt about elite professional runners living totally normal lives this was it. On the menu tonight was fish and chips.

Back to the training. “I’ve been quite lucky with injury and stuff”, Jake explains. All I can see at this point is the top of his head as he’s putting items in the oven. “I’ve not got injured

since I was at university and I follow the same training pattern almost every day. On a Monday I’ll do a progression starting at 6:10 and moving to 5:10 or 5 flat and a mile of strides. Then in the evening, a 6 mile recovery run, just a chilled out one. On a Tuesday was another 6 miles in the morning and then a session, generally a hefty one like 10 to 12 miles in the evening. Wednesday was a 12 mile recovery run with an hour of strength and conditioning in the evening.” By my count, we’re at around 46 miles and it’s not even Thursday!

Jakes continues, “Thursday was 8 miles steady and I got down to about a 5:20 min/mile on that plus another mile of strides. I would then follow that up with another 6 miles recovery in the evening. Friday, 6 miles easy in the morning and then a big session in the evening of anything between 10 and 14 miles. I do two sessions a week, usually Tuesday and Friday. Saturday was the nice day, usually just 6 to 8 miles and then bugger all!” He explains amusingly.

Sunday, like for many of us, is long run day, “Sunday was anywhere between 18 to 20 miles, I think my big one was 20 miles at 5:35 and then S&C again in the evening.” For those of you who are trying to do the maths, don’t worry, Jake has done it for you. “I think how I got fit was I would try and work out my average pace for the week and how many miles I had done. As we got close to the World Half, I was doing between 100 and 110 miles a week at an overall average of sub-6 minute mile pace”. As I was trying to collect my chin from the floor, Jake came out with the understatement of the day, “I think it got me quite fit really that.” Jake, you can say that again.

Before we moved onto some quick-fire questions, I asked Jake which session will be key for him to meet his goals for the next 12 months. “As I said earlier, I just need to work on my speed. I’ll be doing a lot of 300s and 200s just to increase my leg turnover. One of the sessions I did during lockdown which I will be doing again is 12 by 1 kilometre and when I have done that previously, I averaged 2:43 km/min for it so that will definitely help me get in the shape to hit the times I need.”

Jake smith

credit: Moyo sport

Quick-fire questions – Jake Smith

Tea or coffee?

“I don’t drink any.” I know, I don’t understand how you could function as a runner without coffee either. “I have about 5 or 6 caffeine tablets before a session though and honestly, I’m just going off, I’m buzzing”.

Vaporfly or the Alphafly?

“Vaporfly, without a doubt, I am not a fan of the Alphafly, not at all.” I should mention that, incredibly, Jake is unsponsored and so this is a totally impartial opinion. But if you’re reading this Nike, sign him up!

As an adopted Welshman, football or rugby?

“Football any day. I support Reading. I actually just bought the new shirt and I’ve been buying the game on iPlayer each week. We’re top of the Championship at the moment and we actually won a game last week 4-2 and we had 4 shots on target and scored with all of them so I’m absolutely loving it at the moment.”

Road race or track race?

“Road race any day. When you do a track race, it’s like you have to hit the time every lap whereas on the road, I know that some kilometres are going to be faster than others and you can just relax a little bit so it’s just more enjoyable.”

Would you rather, win Olympic Gold or break a World Record?

“Olympic Gold without a doubt. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this. Nobody can take that Gold medal from you whereas the world records can go. I have so much respect for Cheptegei for example, he’s the best athlete there is, but because he had those wavelights it’s just different to when Bekele ran it, because he just did it on pure grit and I would just be gutted if that was me.”

Favourite session?

“I have quite a few, but I think my favourite is a kilometre on and a kilometre off, I did that on the track this year over 10 miles. I ran it in 47:06, I averaged 2:45 for the kilometres on and 3:05 for the kilometres off and it’s a session that when it’s finished you just look at the times and think holy crap, how have I done that! It’s horrible one to think about when you start it but it’s amazing when you’ve done it.

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