Geoff Smith, a man who generally knows the course and how to cover it quickly, isn’t certain where his new road leads or how fast he can go. He only knows for sure that he wants to try.
Smith, who turned age 60 last month, has the itch to race again, that aching, oft-addictive runner’s urge to cover the 26 miles from Hopkinton to Boston next April, as he did some 30 years ago, and he’d like it to be the centerpiece of a personal and professional renaissance.
“I like to think of myself as not your average Joe, you know, not your average runner,’’ Smith said last week by telephone from his longtime home in Mattapoisett. “I’ve laid out a plan for Boston, a training schedule, and I’m working hard at it. I’m out there running again, and hey, it’s like anything else, you’ll never get anywhere unless you try.’’
’Tis the season, isn’t it? With another Jan. 1 creeping our way, this is the time of year when so many of us decide, for the umpteenth-time-plus-one-more-ump, that we’re going to spring off the couch, drag our avoirdupois to the gym, and get in shape. That’s pretty much what Smith is doing, albeit with a runner’s résumé that would humble the hacker in all of us, and with both his hips surgically replaced and his racing career roughly a quarter-century in mothballs.
“I wrecked my hip in a bad fall, just out running one day near my house,’’ recalled Smith, thinking back to the start of the 1990s. “The doc looked at the X-ray, saw I had no cartilage left in the hip joint, just bone-on-bone, and said, ‘That’s it, you’ve got arthritis, and you won’t run again.’ It was the same injury that Bo Jackson suffered — the hip joint smashed. It probably took me a year to get over the fact that my running days were over, but to be honest, I got over it. I was fine. I moved on.’’
Among the world’s fastest marathoners in his day, with back-to-back wins in Boston (1984, ’85), Smith now is definitely a re-work in progress. He is a also a remarkable study in change, career moves that came in curious 10-year splits.
Born in Liverpool, near the football pitch owned by the Globe’s John Henry, Smith quit school when he was 16 and became a Liverpudlian firefighter. Ten years later, his feet ablaze after discovering his running talents almost by accident, he left his home in West Darby for a scholarship to run at Providence College.
“Funny, that,’’ recalled Smith, his British north country accent still distinct, “I was never much of a student. Fact is, I hated school as a kid.’’
But similar to his running, he was actually adept in the classroom and became a solid college student. He ran constantly while at PC, eventually earned his MBA there, and was in his early 30s when he posted those back-to-back Boston triumphs with times of 2:10:34 and 2:14:05.
“Yes, that’s right, that’s 14:05 on the last one,’’ Smith said after reaching for his reading glasses to examine the Boston record book. “I always have to check. That was my slow one.’’
The accident that ultimately sent Smith to the sidelines soon directed him to his next career, another 10-year stint, as a stockbroker. Burned out on markets and finances as his 50th birthday approached, he then switched to education, spending nearly another 10 years teaching behavioral special ed in the New Bedford middle schools.
“Like I say, not your average Joe,’’ mused Smith. “I like change. Keeps you young, change does, makes you stay active and enthusiastic.’’
Over the last two years, Smith’s focus shifted yet once more. He retired from teaching and started to run a little. His new hips responded well. He began running more, then a little more. He also began to sponsor and promote a few minor races. The biggest of the bunch is his Santa Sighting 5K Fun Run in New Bedford, the third running of which will be held Dec. 7. Go to thesightings.com or geoffsmithrun.com if you’d like to register.
Better yet, if you’d like to tune up for New Bedford, you can meet up there with Smith on Thursday nights between now and then and train with a guy who, you know, twice won Boston. Warning: The ol’ Brit’s slimmed down from 180 to 147 in recent months and he’s not out there for a light jog. When he originally started running, to compete in firemen races in the UK and throughout Europe, he trained for speed. His wiring hasn’t changed.
“LSD — Long, Slow, Distance — is a popular form of training, and it works for some people,’’ mused Smith. “Personally, I think it leads to long, slow losses. I got into the sport in its Babe Ruth era, when we didn’t run for money. There was no money. We ran to beat the best. And that means running fast. Even now, with Boston out there again for me, I’m not thinking to run it to win my age group. I want to win.’’
Is that practical? Of course not. But the man is 60, for harrier’s sake, and he’s got the engine going again, a triumph in itself. He wants to run. He wants to coach others to do the same. He wants to put on more races. He wants to hit the streets as a rehipped, reborn, reinspired, repackaged motivational speaker and hammer through the final stages of his life doing what he always loved best: running smart, running to break the tape at the finish line.
“The running world’s a crowded field, for sure,’’ he said. “There’s all sorts of races out there, but I think a lot of it’s just crazy. They’re selling things because they’ve done, what, run across a desert, or across the country? The idea, I think, is to compete and run fast, but also to run comfortably, to run so you can enjoy it. Come across that finish feeling good, strong.’’
So says the man who once rebuilt his running career, during his days with the Liverpool FD, after a surgeon needed to open up 12 inches of his lower leg to ease a nasty case of Compartment syndrome. The operation left him for weeks in a cast from foot to hip.
“But even then I was setting records,’’ boasted the speedy Smith. “Fastest mile, from my house to the local pub . . . on crutches.’’
Cheers to that. It’s late in the race for Geoff Smith. But not so late to stop him from setting the pace.