No Finish Line
For master’s champion Rob Jackson, the medals recall a life on the move
By Mike Savicki
Rob Jackson is a runner. The miles motivate him and the training sustains him. Hardly a day in his life passes that he isn’t either running or thinking about the sport. And it has always been that way.
Growing up in New York City, his running was something he did to stay alive. It was his escape. His first miles were spent running from pressures and challenges of a complicated childhood instead of towards goals. Running helped him mask the pain he felt growing up in foster care.
“I never knew my father, never saw my mother until I was sixteen, and that was for two hours, then not again until I was twenty-three, then thirty,” Cornelius’ Rob Jackson shares. “I was in and out of homes like you wouldn’t believe. I was in every borough except Statin Island. Sports saved my life.”
And it was sports, originally swimming in community pools, that kept him away from the dangers of the streets.
“Sports kept me away from drugs, alcohol, and crime. I knew I couldn’t participate in sports if I used,” he says, adding, “A coach once told me when I was young that if you want to go far in life, don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t do drugs. You can’t stay alert if you do those things, so I didn’t.”
It wasn’t until Jackson attended an indoor meet, The Millrose Games in New York City in January 1980, that he got bit by the running bug and first felt the urge to channel his years of running from danger into the pursuit of moving towards goals.
He explains, “I saw the energy, I saw how the athletes warmed up, I saw how they got ready to race, I saw the crowd and how they reacted to the athletes, and I said to myself, ‘I want to do this. I know I can do this’.”
Five months later Rob Jackson entered his first race, a five-miler that athletes used as a tune-up for the New York City Marathon. He finished second in his age group, tenth overall. On the backside of a race photo Jackson still carries in a memory album is his finishing time etched in pen, 26:21. He uses it both as a tool of gratitude and motivation.
At the same time, Jackson had a tryout with the New York Mets at the request of then manager, Joe Torre, who had caught wind of Jackson while playing sandlot ball close to the stadium. Jackson could play centerfield and get on base. He had the speed and quickness Torre wanted in a leadoff hitter. And he had the daring and desire to play the game at its highest level that pro scouts, to this day, find hard to identify. The only strike, Jackson recalls, was his age. He was 30 years old, far too old for a rookie to enter the big leagues, he was told, and the opportunity passed him.
So Rob Jackson dedicated himself to running.
In the Northeast, where running has four distinct seasons both indoors and outside, he dove in to the sport with a competitive fire burning. First it was two New York City Marathons in 1981 and 1982, finishing his second race just 22 seconds over the three hours barrier that marathoners cherish. To this day, he can recount his all-out sprint to the finish like it were a race he’d run just last weekend.
And then came the track meets. Jackson fell in love with track racing for its equal measures of pureness and measured excellence. On the track, insomuch as an athlete races against others in adjacent lanes, he also races the clock. While finishing places were important, so, too, were his times. Down to the hundredths of a second, Jackson has measured his performances in distances ranging from 100 meters to the 800 for nearly four decades. Success, he says, is measured in the small gains on the clock.
In July 2016 Jackson achieved a goal he had been pursuing for 36 years. At the USA Track and Field Master’s National Championships in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he crossed the line in 2:32.53 to win the 800-meter run in the 65 and older age group. It was his first win on the national level.
Now, at age 66, his body conditioned to run and his mind remaining focused, what he has worked hard to develop through the years is not easily broken down. Jackson trains as he always has, as a self-coached athlete driven by a love and appreciation for a sport that saved his life. He also documents every track, hill, gym, sled, band and kettlebell session, as he always has.
And while he finally earned the elusive national title he had been chasing for decades, he is far from finished. In 2017, Jackson hopes to break 60 seconds in the 400, a feat few his age can claim to have accomplished. And as a Level 1 USATF certified coach, he is giving back to the sport by coaching up-and-coming athletes based in the Charlotte area.
“All the training I’ve done through the years, all the meets, all the miles, you’d think I’d be done by now, but that’s not the case,” he shares. “Running is my blood and I’m never going to stop. As long as you love something, and you love what you are doing, it’s not work and it never will be.”
Rob Jackson is a runner. And for Rob Jackson, as it is for all those who continue to push themselves in sport, there is no finish line.
This article was originally published in Currents Magazine in 2016.