Triathlons a way of life for Jones

Trophies from two of the earliest triathlons are testament to Russ Jones' staying power. Courtesy Russ Jones

Russ Jones is a fast-talking, fast-moving, perpetually enthusiastic and decorated link to triathlon's past.

Jones can recite dates, times and names from races 30 years ago and has a house full of trophies, medals and plaques from more than 1,000 triathlons, duathlons and road races. And at 59, Jones is no athletic dinosaur, content to simply rest and reminisce.

Just a year short of the 40th anniversary of his first triathlon, Jones is still winning age-group triathlons across California and the U.S. and still competing the same way he did in his floppy-haired days of the late 1970s and '80s.

"He races like he lives his life," says Tim Yount, chief operating officer at USA Triathlon. "That metaphor is really important. When you think about how he finishes, there's nothing left. You can see the expression on his face. He's got slobber running down his chin and he's just about ready to fall over he's going so fast and so hard.

"As soon as he crosses the line, sometimes he goes down hard on the ground. That's the way he lives his life, with that vigor and excitement and energy. Just putting it all out there. When he finishes, he's given 100 percent, and that's pretty awesome to see."

Just a few years ago, Jones -- a New Jersey guy who lives in San Juan Capistrano, California -- was ranked No. 1 in the nation for sprint-distance races in his 50-54 age group. He's no longer nationally ranked, but is still collecting age-group wins in the sprint and Olympic-distance races he favors.

This year, for instance, he won his age group and was 12th overall in the Race on the Base in Los Alamitos -- the largest sprint reverse triathlon in the nation -- clocking 1:00:29 in the 5K run, 13.1-mile bike and 200-meter swim. At Ventura's Breath of Life Triathlon in June, he was first in his age group and 21st overall, doing the 750-meter swim, 12.7-mile bike and 5K run in 1:12:03.

Although he'll enter the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in Wisconsin Aug. 9-10 -- and finished second in his age group on July 19 in the run-bike-run duathlon national championships in Minnesota -- it's the local races that are the main course of his triathlon diet now.

"My No. 1 goal is to win my age group," Jones says of the local races. "No. 2 is get into the top 10 [overall]. Even in my early 50s, I was still winning local races overall."

Jones has competed on big and small stages since the 1970s. As a high schooler, he won a New Jersey state championship in the two-mile run, then earned a college running scholarship. He won one of the very first triathlons ever in 1975, then ran a 2:18 marathon in 1979 while qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials. He's won more than 100 triathlons and duathlons and at one time dominated the annual New York Biathlon Series (annual run-bike races in the five boroughs of New York City).

Just last year, Jones was second in his age group in the International Triathlon Union Duathlon World Championship in Canada, doing the 5K run, 20K bike and 2.5K run in 1:04:16. In USA Triathlon's Century Club -- which honors athletes who've completed 100 or more races - Jones is one of only four with 500.

"If you don't know him, you might be able to self-admit that you haven't been in the sport very long, because most people who've been around a while know who he is," says Yount. "He's that well known. And he's very colorful."

Triathlon debut

These days, Jones coaches the boys' cross country team at Capistrano Valley High School, is a professional triathlon coach (what he calls his "9-to-5 job") and trains and competes.

His love for coaching high school athletes is obvious. Jones brags on their achievements in the classroom and on the course. He says they seem to get a kick out of their old coach still competing, and he has fun challenging them.

"I run with them occasionally," he says. "I can still beat about half of them. So I run by them [and say], 'Hey guys! I'm four times your age here. Pick it up!'"

Also much older than his students are most of the mementos of his athletic career. They're displayed in three separate areas of his home: in the garage, on a mantel over a fireplace and on some shelves. (Not displayed are the 17 bikes he's won through the years, most of which he sold.)

Perhaps the most notable trophies are a pair of weathered relics, a tall one on a marble base that reads: "Fiesta Island Triathlon 1975, 1st Place, Open," and what looks like a silver beer stein engraved with, "TRIATHLON, 1976."

The '75 trophy has been called by some the oldest in triathlon. The San Diego Track Club held the first triathlon on Mission Bay in 1974, but no trophy was awarded (or at least survived). The next year, Jones -- who was going to school on a track scholarship at U.S. International University in San Diego at the time -- entered and won Race No. 2. He'd been a lifeguard, so he knew he could swim, and borrowed "a $39 or $49 K-Mart bike" from his coach.

"It was a 5-mile run, then a 5-mile bike and then you swam about 250 yards, then you ran about 100 and swam 250 yards in," he recalls.

The next year, while stationed in San Diego with the Navy, he won it again with a time of 46:40, about a minute faster than the year before. But after that second race -- held two years before the debut of the Hawaii Ironman -- Jones' triathlon experience came to a halt.

"We moved back east, and there were no triathlons around," he says. "Nothing."

It wasn't until 1981, when he won what was then called the Oxford Triathlon (now the EagleMan Half-Ironman) in Maryland, that he got back into the sport. It was a 2-mile swim, followed by a 20-mile run and 50-mile bike to finish.

"Less is More"

In the early '80s, Jones was still focused on his strength -- running -- and hoped to qualify for the 1984 Olympic marathon. He was training while also working full time as a postal carrier in Camden, N.J. (One New Jersey paper referred to him as the "Flying Postman.") But while running to work one day in 1983, he was hit by a car.

Both knees were damaged and his right thigh was ripped open to the bone, and Jones says his doctor told him he probably wouldn't run again. While he was in the hospital Jones filled out an application for a triathlon in Lancaster, Pa., and six months later he finished fifth in that race.

Jones knew his days as an elite runner were over, but he could still swim and bike, and he believed if he managed his running and took care of himself, he could still do well in triathlons and biathlons (more commonly called duathlons now). From about 1985-1991, Jones was a consistent winner in the New York Biathlon Series and triathlons in the East, while also organizing races.

In 1992, he moved to Orange County in California and competed and organized triathlons at nearby Camp Pendleton in San Diego County. In 2000 -- with his days as a race director over -- he stepped up his competition schedule. The core of his philosophy about staying fit for the long haul has been his belief that less is more with running.

After his injuries in 1983 (and several knee surgeries since), Jones knew he couldn't take the pounding of extremely long training runs or Ironman/half-Ironman races. So, he's done only sprint- and Olympic-distance events. He'd have to increase his running miles significantly to do Ironmans, and he knows he can't.

"My theory is if you want to be doing this, keep it fun, keep it healthy," he says. "It's better to do sprints."

In fact, he counsels his clients that training for an Ironman can ruin the balance in their lives.

"You're sacrificing your marriage and your family," he says. "Do sprints. You can do sprints on seven hours a week [of running] and you can do Olympics on 10 hours a week [plus time for swimming and biking]."

Jones estimates he's done more than 500 triathlons, 200 duathlons and 300 road races, and intends to add to that total.

"There's no way I would have had this career if I was still doing full and half marathons," he says. "Just no way."

Into the future

Even while keeping his mileage low, Jones' body lets him know it feels those 1,000-plus races. The car accident left one knee "almost bone on bone." He takes a collagen supplement to aid his joints. His damaged thigh has perhaps 20 percent of the strength it once had, and when he ruptured a tendon in his foot, doctors replaced it with a cadaver tendon.

"So I'm actually dead man running now, not dead man walking," he says, laughing.

Longtime San Diego-area race director and triathlete Rick Kozlowski has known Jones for about 20 years, and may have competed against him in that 1976 triathlon on Mission Bay. Kozlowski says Jones always has been a fierce competitor.

"He was the type of guy that when he thought his body was at the threshold, he'd push it a little bit harder," says Kozlowski. "He just had that mentality of whatever it takes to overtake somebody ahead of him, which I think is what led to a couple of his injuries.

"But anytime you get a fierce competitor, they're going to push their body to areas that may in the long run prove to be a little downfall. I think that's how he came to develop his less-is-more program."

Jones is part of a small group of triathletes who've been around since the beginning. They've seen the sport grow to a popularity they never imagined in the mid-1970s. But he acknowledges times are different. First the running boom of the 1970s and '80s transformed people into weekend warriors. Then triathlons blossomed.

"The last 10 years, the growth," he says. "People love to go into work and say, 'Oh, I just ran a half marathon or a marathon.' And now the big thing is, 'Oh, I just did a triathlon.'"

As Jones looks forward, he sees his 60th birthday in February and his 70th in the distance. He hopes that by doing shorter races he can keep winning medals up to 2025 and beyond. But when asked if he'd ever consider doing an Ironman, he laughs.

Maybe, he says. Maybe after another 10 years he'll be willing to pay the price and do it for an almost-grand finale.

"I know I could do one," he says. "Maybe I'll do one when I'm 70 and all these guys have been doing 30, 40 years of Ironmans and have no bones or joints, I might sneak one in. I won the first one 40 years ago next year, and I'll be 60. So maybe when I turn 70, on my 50th anniversary of doing triathlons, I'll do an Ironman just to finish it and have fun."

If he does, he'll likely still have that kick at the finish.