Q&A with Team GB and Sportsshoes.com athlete Jake Smith
Written By: SportsShoes
Interviewed by Ben Mounsey
We are extremely delighted to welcome Team GB athlete Jake Smith as the newest member of the Sportsshoes.com team.
Jake has taken the world of athletics by storm over the last 12 months, finishing 18th in the World Half Marathon Championships in Poland, 2020. In what was his first senior race for Great Britain, he recorded a phenomenal debut time of 1:00:36 to post the third fastest time ever recorded by a British athlete over the distance, only eclipsed by distance running greats Mo Farah and Callum Hawkins. It’s safe to say that at just 22 years of age, Jake Smith really is a future star of British distance running.
We caught up with our record-breaking international to discuss his incredible achievements so far, find out who and what inspires him the most and ask him what the future holds.
Hi Jake! What a phenomenal year you’ve just had! Let’s start by talking about your record-breaking performance at the World Half Marathon Championships in Poland, October 2020. It was your first senior race for Great Britain and you ran the third fastest time ever by a GB athlete for this distance and became the fastest ever GB U23. That was some debut!
Were you confident going into the race and did you expect to run such an amazing time?
I was very confident I was going to run a personal best going into this race, just based off the times I had been running in training. In comparison, to the training times I had been running before the 62:02 in Paris the previous year, I was smashing those times. I felt stronger than I had ever done before and even though we didn’t have any access to gyms, due to the pandemic, all the body weight S&C training I was doing paid off. I was very lucky and fortunate enough that this race actually took place, as most races in the UK and abroad had been cancelled. I wanted to break 61 minutes and based on my training I knew there was a good chance. I was also lucky to have run against the best in the world, as they motivated me to another level and I was able to work off different athletes.
Tell us about the race. It must’ve been some feeling as you crossed the finish line. At what point did you realise that you were about to make GB athletics history?
It was the best feeling in the world running the last 200 meters of the race. I sometimes wish I could replay those moments over and over again. The point when I realised I was going to make GB history was running down that final hill, just passing the 20km mark. Passing that marker was when I really knew I was going to run something special. Crossing the finish line I just started crying, don’t think I have ever cried that much after a race haha. Seb Coe was at the finish line and he came over to congratulate me. All I remember doing was just literally crying in his arms, so not sure how he felt about that! After the race we had a good team photo with Joshua Cheptegei which finished off the whole weekend on such a high.
Photo Credit: Moyo Sports and British Athletics
Despite your obvious success, the last 12 months have been very difficult and challenging for us all. Just how have you managed to cope with the lockdown restrictions and the impact that COVID has had on our lives? Have you had to change and adapt your training? Has anything positive come from these changes?
During the first lockdown I returned home to Devon. As the rules stated that you were only allowed to go out once a day for exercise, I decided to buy a cross trainer. When I had double days I used the cross trainer or indoor bike to replace the easy run in the morning. Then in the evening I would do my harder session or effort-based run. Being back home involves running up a lot of hills and I found that this made me a much stronger athlete. I was very consistent in my training and didn’t miss any run or cycle. I found that during these lockdowns I have more time to relax and recover as there isn’t much else to do. I have also noticed I have got very fit during these lockdowns as I have been trying new training sessions and working more on my speed. I found during the WHM that the Africans can so easily surge whenever they want. As I had been working more on my speed during the last build up, I found that I was able to go with a couple of them, but towards the end of the race I could not hang on at all.
You’ve had an incredible journey so far. Where did it all begin and when did you first start running? Am I right in thinking you grew up in Hong Hong?
Yeah it started when I was living out in Hong Kong. I lived there for 14 years before coming to the UK. I first started running properly when I was about 14 years old. I used to play all the sports at school – football, rugby, hockey, cricket, triathlon. I found playing all these different sports really improved my aerobic fitness without really noticing it. It was also the social side of being part of so many different teams and just enjoying participating in the different environments.
Now my biggest claim to fame is that we both represented Great Britain in the European Mountain Running Championships, in Arco, Italy, in 2016 (you as a junior and me as a senior). How much has your training and experience of elite mountain running helped with your development and performances as a track and road athlete?
I found mountain running so enjoyable, yet so hard at the same time. I remember that race and how it was the only day it rained heavily on that trip, which made conditions extremely difficult. That really gave me a lot of experience in regards to competing on an international stage. I loved every minute of it and am looking forward to returning to mountain running in a few years.
When and why did you decide to switch disciplines and focus solely on track and road running?
After the European Mountain Running Championships, I chose to stick to road and track as I enjoyed these disciplines slightly more and wanted to see how fast I can actually run over all distances. I started taking part in more road running races and when I came to university, everyone part of Team Thie was either racing on the roads, cross or track. The training was so different as I was having to constantly work on my speed work and try to stay with the group.
In 2019, you finished in 8th place in the men's 10,000 metres event at the 2019 European Athletics U23 Championships, held in Gävle, Sweden. Can you tell us a bit more about that particular race and the experience?
Going to the European Under 23 Championships in 2019 was incredible. The atmosphere there was amazing, as you had the best 20-23 year olds in Europe competing on that one track. I remember going down to the track on that first day and watching some athletes I had seen on the TV either at the World Championships, European Seniors or Olympics. Just being there and representing GB was amazing and it yet again inspired me to try and run even quicker in the future. That 10,000m race was so cagey and I came away just covered in blood, as I had been spiked so many times on my legs. I finished 8th in that race which I was really happy with. Again, I told myself I needed to get quicker over a shorter distance because with about a mile to go, the seven guys who beat me all put in a massive surge and I just could not hold onto them.
Is this the moment you realised your potential on the World stage as a top-class elite performer?
This experience gave me a glimpse of racing on the world stage in the future but I didn’t think I had realised my potential just yet. I think I first realised my potential when I finished 5th at Semi-Bologne De Marathon, in Paris where I ran 62:02 and broke Callum Hawkins Under 23 British record. Racing top class performers in that race was unreal. I remember breaking my 10km road pb along the way and just being pushed on by these five African athletes. Finishing that race was amazing and I remember just falling to the floor in astonishment as I didn’t think I would run anywhere near that quick.
What do you consider to be the key ingredient/s to your success?
I have said this to a lot of people but I think consistency has been so key in my training. I hadn’t had a serious long-term injury, until my current achilles problem, before the World Half Marathon race. I just simply ran 90-106 miles per week for the most of the training block and kept on top of my training on the cross trainer. I also found that running time trials has helped my training too. For example, in July 2020 I ran a 10k TT on the track with some of the boys I lived with as pacers. I had been doing a lot of speed work previous to this TT and just wanted to finish this block of training on a high. I ran 28:00, going through the first 5k in a new pb time of 13:59. This time really made me look forward to the future and a sense of what I could run at the World Half Marathon.
Who and/or what inspires you the most?
There are loads of people who inspire me, but one athlete in particularly is Kenenisa Bekele. I remember racing him at the Big Half in London and just being in his presence was unreal. Also, I think my parents have inspired me so much as they have helped me through this running career all my life and been at most of my races.
Photo Credit: Moyo Sports and British Athletics
As an elite performer, just how important is it to be part of such a competitive training group and to have a strong group of like-minded friends around you?
My training partner Ciaran (Lewis) has been a massive inspiration for me and has helped my training so much. Living with him has helped both of us as we try and run together as much as we can and really push each other in training. The group – Team Thie is amazing. We have athletes who have gone to World Champs, Olympics and Commonwealth Games. Training in this group environment is ideal as we are constantly trying to push each other to run quicker times. We work well off one another and normally have different people pacing a rep. This gives everyone so much experience and just becomes such a fun environment to be a part of.
Recently you decided you switch your allegiance from Wales to England, having just broken the Welsh national half-marathon record held by Steve Jones for 35 years. This must have been a very difficult decision to make?
Yeah, I just felt that I couldn’t represent Wales as I had no family living here or other relatives. Yes, I do live and train here, but just feel more comfortable running for a country my parents are from. Steve Jones called me a few days after the Half Marathon to congratulate me and has actually recently checked up on me, which is really nice. I think also breaking his Welsh Record after only being considered Welsh for about a week also turned my head. When you think of Steve Jones and what he had achieved for Wales in the running world, I just couldn’t go through with taking his record away. It was a difficult position to be in and I am very lucky to have close friends, family and a coach who have supported me in this decision.
It’s been absolutely incredible to watch your progression and journey as an athlete. I felt extremely proud when you achieved that incredible time in the World Half Marathon Championship - you really did announce your arrival on the world stage. So, what does the future hold for Jake Smith? How much do you want to achieve and how far do you think you can go? The Olympic dream must surely be close to becoming a reality?
The Olympic dream is definitely the next thing. Depending if it is on this year, the 10k time is what I am targeting and focusing on – 27:28. I ran 28:00 in a 10k TT on the track last summer and still feel I can run even quicker. I know training will become very tough over the next few months and I am dreading to think what sessions I will be having to do to work on my leg turnover. I am also looking to break 60 mins for the HM in the next year. I want to run some quicker times over the shorter distances, as the ultimate aim is to run a very quick time over the marathon, but that won’t be for a few years yet haha.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions Jake, it’s been a real pleasure to discuss your career so far. In our next interview I hope we can discuss a medal winning performance in the Olympics. But just before we conclude, do you have any tips and advice for other runners? (both experienced and new to the sport)
I would say just try and keep consistent. This is how I have managed to stay fit and run that time. Yes, it has taken a few years, but just seeing my progress over this time has really lifted my spirits and confidence. Also, for those young athletes I would say keep playing different sports and enjoying it.
You can follow Jake and all of his running adventures here.