Jake Smith recently went for a run with his mates and finished with a time that suggested he might just be good enough to make next year’s Olympics. But the clock hasn’t always been so kind to the Cardiff student as he tells Jenny Nesbitt.
It seems Jake Smith has been cursed with being unable to break certain time barriers for particular distances.
The 62:00.00 half marathon runner and current British U23 record holder is no slouch, yet his personal best of 14:00.45 for 5,000m and his 29:01.08 for 10,000m would leave you questioning whether a spell had been cast over him.
Both those marks left him tantalisingly the wrong side of significant minute barriers, but there is surely more to come from one of the most promising distance runners currently based in Wales.
The 22-year-old was born in Bermuda, before moving to Hong Kong around the age of one and grew up running in the hills overlooking the island.
“I first got into running when my parents took me out over all the hills,” he says.
“I chose to do mountain running to challenge myself further and I was training on all the hills back in Hong-Kong.”
It is no surprise, therefore, that Smith’s racing career started with mountains, both back in Hong Kong, and then in the UK after he moved Devon in 2014.
“I’ve always felt strong running up mountains and when a friend from Devon told me about the GB mountain running team, my goal was to try and get into it.”
It didn’t take long, either. By 2016, Smith had the GB kit in hand, and was off to Arco, Italy for the European Mountain Running Championships.
Finishing a very respectable 21st place, it was, in fact, another member of the team, and now best friend – Ciaran Lewis – who then perhaps had the most impactful role in Smith’s rise to success.
“I met Ciaran (Lewis) when we represented GB at the European Mountain Running Champs. He told me about Cardiff Met University and coach James Thie and the training group. I decided to go there and I could not have asked for a better group to train with.”
The British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) silver medalist didn’t need any more persuading on university choices and happily accepted a place on the sports development course.
Having just completed his three-year undergraduate degree, Smith is now continuing his stay in Cardiff, and embarking on a masters in strength and conditioning.
“I’ve actually just moved into a new house with Ciaran,” he says.
“Our old house was called the Llanishen Distance Project. I lived with my training partners, Ciaran, Piers Copeland, James Heneghan, John Howorth and Jordan Wood.
“I loved how every run I did was with someone and we all helped and still continue to help push each other forward.
“As we all do similar training, the group of boys are really able to push me to my limits. It makes it fun and we have a lot of banter.”
A good work-life balance is also something the current Cardiff 10km champion is happy to make time for.
Known for his slightly adventurous nights out – the evidence from which are a couple of missing teeth – and his love of socialising, Smith has had to learn to rein himself in.
“Now that Ciaran and I have moved house, it means we can go over to the boys’ house very now and then and catch up.”
The belief that a good routine can be very beneficial is something a lot of athlete hold to and Smith is no different.
“I believe the routine we follow has been very beneficial and the fact is I haven’t picked up an injury at university. Training has been amazing and the group has really helped push me to my limits.”
With a mature head on him, Smith realises that the support he receives from others is fundamental in his rise to prominence.
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“It can be tough at times but the boys and my coach have really helped me through it all, especially when I have been struggling with work. Also – having James Thie as my tutor for strength and conditioning was a bonus too”.
Smith praises Thie, an athlete with many accolades himself – including a fourthh place finish in the 1,500m at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in 2004 – for his incredible improvement since coming to Cardiff Met.
“James Thie is amazing and I couldn’t ask for a better coach. He has improved my running tremendously and made me into a better athlete.”
Not one to shy away from hard work, the Cardiff Met student now follows a challenging weekly training schedule.
“Training each week involves a lot of miles, and I run every day of the week.
“I cover around 10-12 miles during a session, which I do twice a week. On a Sunday, I do a long run of anywhere between 17 to 20 miles.
“Most of the other days are either easy or steady running. On average, I run around 100 miles a week, so it can be tough to make sure I have time for my university work.”
Lockdown has come as a sort of respite for Smith, allowing him to wholly focus on training.
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“Lockdown has actually really helped me improve. I have introduced more speed work into my training, and followed a good plan. The strength and conditioning I have been doing has been very good.”
“I suppose the postponement of the Olympics is a blessing as I would love to get as close as I can to the time for the 10,000m.”
That target doesn’t seem unrealistic for the Cardiff AAC athlete, as he proved recently with a training run that hinted at his huge potential.
At the new track at Tonypandy – on a quiet week day evening – Smith took on the 10,000m distance with the help of his housemates at Llanishen Distance Projec, who acted as pacemakers.
He completed the 25 laps in a hugely impressive 28:00.05 – a whole minute faster than his official PB, but close enough to the 28-minute mark to prove that his timing curse – for now -goes on.
But with the Olympic standard set at 27:28.00, the possibility of achieving it within the setting of a competitive race is not out of reach.
Although small in stature, Smith is big in talent. Even with knock knees, he has not let adversity get in the way.
“Yeah, I do have knock knees but it hasn’t affected me one bit. I was told I would potentially have to have an operation in which both knees would be broken. But, thankfully, I have never had any pain in them so I’m able to keep running.”
The future looks bright for the young athlete, and with the World Half Marathon Championships penciled lightly into the calendar for October, he could be set for a breakthrough period.
“The World Half Marathon Champs is the race of the year for me. I would love to run a low 61 minutes for it and finish high up in the world ranking.”