Within a span of 10 years, Marine Corps veteran Rob Jones had both legs amputated after being wounded by a land mine in Afghanistan, won a bronze medal for rowing in the Paralympics and biked 5,180 miles across the country for charity.
And he was only getting started.
Last week, the 32-year-old Jones embarked on another journey that he hopes will inspire and raise money for the veteran community: running 31 marathons in 31 days in 31 different cities. Jones plans to finish Nov. 11 on the National Mall to mark Veterans Day.
“When I trained with the Marine Corps, I joined a brotherhood to make a difference in the world,” he said shortly before he began his month of marathons on Oct. 12 in London. “That plan was altered when I got hurt, but I’m still going to that same spot of having a positive impact on the world. Now I’m just going on a different route.”
As a scrawny student at Loudoun Valley High in Purcellville, Va., Jones was more interested in computers than sports. He played football his freshman year (“I was not very good,” Jones said), wrestled on the junior varsity team as a sophomore but did not participate in organized physical activity until he joined the Marine Corps Reserve his junior year at Virginia Tech.
It was then that Jones realized that he was a decent runner. Without much training, Jones would finish the three-mile fitness test in about 18 minutes. He would only get better with proper training. The sport has been a natural fit for him.
While attempting to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics, Jones began to compete in triathlons and signed up for the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon “on a whim.” For training, he only ran 5Ks, yet he still managed to cover 26.2 miles in 4:02:21 — a 9:15 per mile average.
But just a few years before that, Jones needed to relearn how to walk. During his second deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, Jones was tasked with clearing an area that had a high likelihood of containing an IED. A land mine detonated. The blast resulted in a left knee disarticulation (the separation of two bones at their joint) and eventually led to amputations of both his legs right above the knee.
“I think when you’re faced with a hardship or tragedy or something you deem to be a hindrance to your success, instead of seeing it as a hindrance or tragedy you need to find out how to flip it on its head,” said Jones, who was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 2011. “See it as an opportunity or tool in your tool belt to make yourself better.”
A couple of months before the 2012 Paralympics in London, well-known rowing coach and Olympic gold medalist Brad Lewis opened his email and saw a note from Jones, who had read Lewis’s book, “Assault on Lake Casitas.”
By this point, Jones had started biking and running again but also picked up rowing, a sport he saw as the best chance for him to qualify for the Paralympics. He wanted Lewis to be his coach. Lewis, intrigued by the prospect of working with a potential Paralympian, agreed.
“One thing about Rob is he has an unassailable tenacity,” Lewis said. “I’ve met a lot of Olympians over the years — all shapes and sizes, but he’s right at the top in terms of tenacity. He can apply himself in every facet of training.”
One common workout Lewis prescribes is 500-meter repeats. When he increases the repetitions, his rowers would groan. But not Jones and his partner, Oksana Masters, Lewis said.
They were two of the toughest athletes he’s ever worked with, he said. When the pair won bronze in London, Lewis cried tears of joy.
“It was one of the happiest days of my life,” he said. “From my insight into Rob and Oksana, their really difficult backgrounds undoubtedly shaped them.”
It’s that same relentless attitude that gives Lewis confidence that Jones will complete his latest challenge, in which Jones will run the distance of a marathon in 31 cities over 31 days.
Lewis learned that Jones refuses to take any shortcuts or make excuses in reaching his goals. When the two drove to a gym in Charlottesville years ago, Jones parked about 100 yards away from the entrance. A confused Lewis asked, “Why are we parking out here? You must have a handicapped placard.”
Jones looked at his coach and replied, “I’m not handicapped.”
In May 2016, Jones started training for the marathon challenge, slowly building up his mileage to the point where was capable of running 26.2 miles on five consecutive days. The Vienna resident mostly trained by himself, running the Washington and Old Dominion trail. He even broke a few prosthetic legs along the way.
Accompanying Jones on his month of marathons are his wife, Pam, a two-time Paralympic gold medalist British rower whom he met at the 2012 Paralympics, and his mother, Carol Miller, who is a massage therapist. They will arrive in each city in their 35-foot-long motor home and they’ve encouraged local residents to join in any portion of the run.
Jones’s ultimate mission? To raise $1 million for wounded veteran charities and to show other veterans that they’re an important part of society, regardless of what they’ve been through.
“Hopefully they can see themselves do it,” Jones said. “Because they’ve seen someone else do it.”
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