Rob Jones’ life has been defined by routes: Around parks and trails for his daily marathons that spread his message. From city to city on a 31-destination tour in 31 days to raise awareness for wounded veterans. And the fateful route he walked in Afghanistan into the path of an improvised explosive device.
Jones, a double-amputee and Marine veteran, stopped in Salt Lake City on Wednesday on the 14th day of his 31-day tour of 31 cities — running 26.2 miles in each.
It’s his latest athletic venture to show that life goes on after life-altering physical or mental wounds incurred in the military.
“Just because a veteran comes back wounded in some way — it might be psychological injury or physical injury, it doesn’t matter — that doesn’t mean that they’re now incapable of contributing to society,” Jones said. “It doesn’t mean they’re broken. It doesn’t mean that they can’t continue to fight for America.”
Jones joined the Marines in 2006, venturing to a recruiting office only to find the recruiter wasn’t there.
An Air Force recruiter attempted to get him to consider a different branch, but he was steadfast.
“I just told him to tell me when the Marine recruiter was back,” he said.
He was deployed to Iraq in 2008 for seven months and again to Afghanistan in 2010 for another seven-month tour. He was a combat engineer, working with infantry squads to sweep for buried IEDs using a metal detector.
Four months into his deployment on July 22, 2010, he stepped onto an IED. His legs had to be amputated above the knee.
After five days, he returned to the United States. He said he “bounced back pretty quickly” after accepting his new reality, and began healing and learning how to walk again with prosthetics.
“I still wanted to have an enjoyable life that I was proud of,” he said. “That objective hadn’t changed for me, so it’s just a matter of accepting the fact that you have to go by a different route.”
After recovering, he took on new challenges, training for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, where he earned a bronze medal in rowing. In October 2013, he started a solo bike ride across America from Maine to Southern California, finishing in 181 days and raising $126,000 for wounded veteran charities.
Jones lived in Salt Lake City from 2014 to 2016 to train for the Paralympics triathlon in Rio de Janiero. He didn’t qualify, but during training he was running 5Ks in under 18 minutes — in Utah’s elevation, no less — so he decided to run a marathon in 2015.
Prior to that, he said, “I would only ever run enough to get a good score on the physical fitness test and stay in shape for deployments. I never really did any kind of long-distance stuff.”
In 2016, he came up with the idea for the 31-city tour. It started as a 50-city plan, but his wife — two-time rowing gold medalist Paralympian Pamela Relph — pointed out the logistical difficulties of renting an RV and getting it around the country so quickly.
“He’s always had ideas of crazy challenges he was going to set himself. That’s the only way I’ve ever known him,” Relph said. “It was never really a shock to me when he decided he wanted to do something of this scale.”
Relph, along with Jones’ mom and a friend, are handling the driving and support duties for Jones — making sure from the moment he finishes a section of running that he’s recovering and ready for the next chunk.
He begins every day at 7 a.m. and runs in 9- to 12-kilometer phases, broken up by 20-minute breaks, fighting through the mental monotony and physical soreness.
But all the negatives are ”overwhelmingly outdone by the most rewarding part, which is having all the supporters come out and seeing that my message is getting spread and hopefully having an effect on the veteran population,” Jones said.
Kim Weddington, who lives in Murray, came across Jones’ story online and signed up to run alongside him. She completed 8 miles with Jones around Liberty Park in honor of her grandfather, who was a proud Marine, and her daughter, who’s an occupational therapist.
“It’s just so inspirational,” she said. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I can’t run because I’ve got a bad knee or I’ve got a bad something,’ but this man has really has an obstacle to overcome.”
Jones, who lives in Virginia, started his journey in London on Oct. 12. From Utah, he’ll go to Seattle on Thursday, and is scheduled to finish on Veterans Day in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 11. His goal is to raise $1 million before the end of the journey for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, the Tunnel to Towers Foundation and the Injured Marine Semper Fi fund.
A map on the side of the RV has each city he’s run in checked off, with 17 more looming for the indomitable Jones.
“I’m just going to keep going because I’m doing this for my brothers and that’s all that matters,” he said. “Their well-being is a lot more important than whether or not I’m uncomfortable or bored or whatever. That’s what’s going to keep me going.”