Exclusive interview: Joyce Smith won first two editions of London Marathon women’s race in ’81 and ’82 when she was a mum of two in her 40s.
Joyce Smith’s motivation has never stemmed from any particular desire to alter perception; it has always been far more matter of fact. Smith likes running. And if she wants to run, she will run.
When she won the first two editions of the London Marathon in 1981 and 1982, it was purely circumstantial that she was a mother of two aged 43 and 44 respectively. The opportunity had simply never been there before. Age was something she never thought about and being a mother was “normal”.
Likewise when she became what was then the oldest woman to run at an Olympics when she contested the first marathon held at the Games aged 46 in 1984.
When she decided to start running again after her 80th birthday – two decades on from initially giving it up – it was not to prove that she could still do it. It was just that, well, she wanted to.
“I just thought, ‘I think I’ll start running again,’” she says with amusing simplicity.
So for the last couple of years, Joyce has been joining her husband Bryan – who still coaches at Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers – twice a week for training. Sometimes she does sets of 100-metre strides and other times the sessions consist of repeated uphill runs. “It makes you pick your knees up,” she explains.
The coronavirus pandemic has done little to halt her activity quota either. Now aged 82, her outdoor pursuits have been reduced accordingly to a daily morning walk to buy a newspaper, but her training regime remains as frequent as ever, courtesy of an exercise bike in her Watford home.
“There are two sessions I do: a 30-minute steady cycle and a 10-second fast, 50-second easy session for five minutes,” she says. Of the latter, she concedes: “That’s quite hard.”
On Sunday, the Smiths should have been making their annual pilgrimage into the city centre for the London Marathon – a race that has been postponed until October due to the pandemic.
Sometimes they sit in the stands and watch the runners flood by, while on many occasions in the past they have been involved in a more formal capacity. Indeed, as of last year, the first British female finisher is presented with the Joyce Smith Trophy.
In so many ways, it is remarkable to think how far the women’s race – and female running as a whole – has developed in the decades since Smith triumphed at the inaugural event.
As recently as 1967, when Smith turned 30, there was no such thing as female distance running for females, with women not considered capable enough of competing beyond 800m in international competition.
Such logic is laughable now but, frustrated by the half-mile limit, it almost meant the athletics world was denied Smith’s talent, when she announced her intention to retire from competitive racing before the end of the decade.
By the time she was tempted to return a year later, she had given birth to her daughter Lisa and the landscape was beginning to change, albeit slowly.
At the 1972 Olympics, she made the 1500m semi-finals at the Olympics and two years later won European bronze over 3000m. But it was not until 1979, three years after the birth of her second daughter Lia, that the opportunity arose to finally contest a marathon in Germany.
She smashed the British record and, having travelled by train from her Charing Cross hotel to the startline in Greenwich two years on in 1981, she was one of fewer than 300 women who made history by running the first London Marathon. Last year there were almost 18,000.
Aged 43, she triumphed in two hours, 29 minutes and 57 seconds – the third fastest time in the world and quick enough to place her inside the top five in the annual British rankings every year since. A year on, she returned and repeated the feat, going 14 seconds quicker.
“I never even thought of age,” she insists. “All my athletics career I just moved up in distance.
“I started off in the 800m, then 1500m and then 3000m. Then I moved up to the marathon. That’s why I ran for such a long time because there was a new challenge. And I was still managing to keep fit even though I was getting older.”
Nowadays, leading runners command six-figure appearance fees just to contest the biggest marathon races, while Smith’s victory and time bonus would have earned her $64,000 (£52,000) from the race organisers in last year’s race, not to mention sponsorship money.
Yet when Smith won, she did not receive a penny and relied solely on her income as a wages clerk for cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden.
“When I won my first London Marathon they wanted to put a photograph of me up in their hair salon in Bond Street to say congratulations to one of their staff,” she recalls.
“But they got told off. They were told they couldn’t do it because advertising wasn’t allowed in athletics.”
As for balancing motherhood with an international running career that spanned 25 years, she says it was “just normal”.
“There was a big gap so the eldest daughter looked after the younger one,” she says. “The girls used to go to school and I’d go off for my first run. Then when Bryan got home I did my second session.
“When I did my long runs on a Saturday morning they used to sit and watch Sesame Street or something.”
Even now there are thoughts of what might have been. Smith remains adamant she could have run faster if given the chance to contest a marathon in her 30s and it is telling that only two British women – Paula Radcliffe and Mara Yamauchi – have knocked more than five minutes off her best time.
Unfortunately, she operated in an era when sportswomen were restricted in what they were allowed to do. But as Smith showed, the talent was there. And if you head to the right hill in Watford, you will see an 82-year-old proving it still is.
Article written by Ben Bloom and first published by The Telegraph on 25 April 2020.
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