There was a time where everything Jake Smith touched turned to gold. 18th in the World Half Marathon Champs in 2020. A 2:11:00 marathon as part of a pacing effort. The 2021 Big Half title.
“When I first went to university and followed a really good program, I felt like I was untouchable, unstoppable. Nothing could touch me or hurt me. I think a lot of people get like that when you’re just improving.”
It’s unsurprising he started to feel that way. Smith’s 60:31 half marathon best is a British U23 record by over two and a half minutes. The third fastest ever by a Brit of any age.
Reflecting in September 2023, however, Smith feels even then some of the writing was on the wall:
“It’s annoying because I can look back at so many days where I skipped meals, that I had food issues.
They would have all built up to, not ruin my life, but to these injuries I’ve sustained this year. So it’s annoying because I’m basically fighting what I did in the past, just trying to fight my own back really.”
The last 18 months have seen Smith battle the Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) condition. An imbalance between energy income and expenditure, he has suffered two separate stress fractures.
Smith’s 2021 exploits drew the attention of the world’s best road group. Late that year conversations started about joining the NN Running Team and in January 2022 Smith headed out to Uganda. . His new training partners included 5000m and 10,000m world record holder, Joshua Cheptegei as well as now World Marathon champion Victor Kiplangat.
A time to learn and soak up all the best on the planet have to offer.
Whilst Smith admits there were so many positives to that trip, his eyes were quickly drawn to something more sinister:
“I just saw the guys in Uganda and I just thought am I as skinny as them? If you look at yourself in the mirror and you think you’re slightly too big, even though you’re not, you think you’re too big”
Smith had brought his scales to the mountains of Kapchorwa. Already lean, he lost five kilos in three weeks.
“Quite a few of the Ugandans said to me, Jake, you look too skinny. You look skinnier than us now.”
At the start of the training camp, Smith had kept up with the group, done the best sessions he ever had but within weeks that was over:
“My body basically deteriorated in that last week. That final session I could do 10% of the workout. I just had no power at all.”
Return from Uganda
Smith returned from Uganda and did get better. Yet from the outside looking in, not knowing the extent to which food had become an obsession, it could be seen as a simple case of too much at altitude too soon. No fundamental problem to redress.
After a small period of rest, where his energy deficit naturally reduced, Smith came back strongly. 28:01 for seventh and fourth Brit at the World Championship 10,000m trials. Third in the Big Half later in the year without a taper, only four seconds slower than his 2021 time. Valencia Marathon was calling.
Until it wasn’t. Drug testing prevented Smith’s ability to do a cool down after the Big Half. He felt his foot starting to seize up but kept it under control for two or so weeks after the race. A few days after one of his best sessions, Smith’s 18-month ordeal started:
“On the Sunday I was doing this long run, I was supposed to do 20 miles and at 7k so only 4 miles in, my foot it felt like I went over on a rock. I just could not put any pressure on it. I still went to the gym for two hours straight after because I had a race coming up and I thought it was just a little niggle.”
Smith had developed the first of his two stress fractures, the later to his sacrum in February 2023.
Bigger can be better
In September 2023, Smith looks back through a very different lens, almost angry at his past self. He remembers some of the times he was strongest.
Many of those happen to coincide with end of season breaks where a focus had come on regaining weight.
Where once he saw how lean the majority might have seemed, he now notices the subtle differences with the very best:
“It’s only the very top Africans like Bekele, Kipchoge who make it from when they’re 21 to 40, but a lot of these Africans don’t have a very long lasting career and I think that can be down to the fact they are very light. They sustain injuries and they just can’t come back.
But I think nowadays we’re seeing more and more Africans lasting a longer time and they are slightly bigger than they used to be. Cheptegei isn’t skin and bones. Victor, the guy who won the marathon world champs, again I saw him eat and everything. He’s not skin and bones.”
Smith goes on to list a string of stronger runners: Vincent Kipchumba, Josh Kerr, Jake Wightman, Jacob Ingebrigtsen.
“You see the bigger guys don’t get injured whereas the guys who are very skinny might have a great race once a year but then they’re done because they just can’t sustain it.”
Gavin & Jo Pavey
In 2022 Smith, who spent his university years at Cardiff Met coached by James Thie, linked up with Gavin and Jo Pavey.
Unaware initially about Smith’s struggles with food, when the pair found out in January 2023 they ordered their athlete to take five weeks off completely.
“I reckon for a few months, we just didn’t talk about running. We were just talking about my mental state, how I’m feeling, how I’m doing during the day. We were just talking about everything else apart from running, which is exactly what I needed.
I think the best coaches in the world are the ones who don’t really care about if you’re improving, if you’re getting worse, but just care about your mental health to the sport, how you’re doing around it.”
Smith’s focus was once neurotic. He admits to family holidays ruined by his obsession with mileage and inability to eat at restaurants that didn’t fulfil his exacting requirements. Now it’s holistic.
The doctor sets the maximum mileage. The Pavey’s set the sessions and the strength and conditioning coach links up with all of them.
Smith had the habit previously of hammering the cross-training when the running was limited. A self confessed exercise addict he struggled to hold himself back:
“When I had my foot stress, I was doing stupid amounts. I was doing like 20 hours of basically cross-training, gym a week and not eating properly. I think that caused everything else.”
Now it’s much simpler:
“I use heart rate. So if I do a run at 130 heart rate, I will do a bike at 130 heart rate. So the same intensity for the same time. I don’t go any longer.
I think I’m doing like maybe 11 to 12 hours of like cross-training running a week, which is when you think about it, that could be the same as a hundred mile week or something, 110-mile week.”
A large amount by most standards but a healthy climb down from the unsustainable highs.
“It’s very easy to tell people like, I’m improving, but I have proof from my blood tests and my bone health especially.”
Smith returned to racing on 15th October, finishing eighth in the Great South Run in 48:30. There are plenty of signs the time away has served him well.
He sees no reason why in the long-term he can’t return a stronger, better athlete:
“the main focus is getting my speed up. I did that all last summer (2023) and it was quite interesting. I did a test at the end of the summer and my VO2 actually improved by four. I went from 74 to 78 or 79 and that was purely because I was just smashing speed, getting all that anaerobic speed going.”
Reiterating his desire not simply to be another contender, whilst he knows it will take time, Smith has no desire to temper his long-term ambitions.
“I really need to focus on that speed because when I do step up to the marathon, I’m not going to be winning Berlin, for example, but at World Champs, Olympics when it’s a bit more tactical, it’s the guys who can go with the surges and everything, those are the guys who win.”
All in on his Hollywood ending
All in on Los Angeles 2028, health permitting Smith flirts with the idea of Paris too.
“I would almost feel worse in myself if I didn’t give it a go. Of course, I have to see where my body’s at. If I can get on a start line, I will do it. Because I just want to give myself that opportunity and if I don’t make it, say, okay, go to 2028.
Because of this whole year of missing race after race after race, I just don’t want to give that opportunity away anymore.”
As we wrap up our conversation Smith mentions the run of 42-year-old Tadesse Abraham at Berlin. Running a lifetime best and Swiss national record of 2:05:10, it comes 14 years after his debut over the distance.
“I could have another 16 years doing the marathon.” The 25-year-old Smith reminds me.
Having confronted that dangerous demon on his shoulder, with a strong team in his corner, that prospect looks more likely than ever.
And if it does you can be sure as anything, this RED-S sufferer will have run plenty fast along the way.
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Featured image courtesy of the NN Running Team