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Don Jans clipped the curb with his car as he pulled into a rest stop in Texas. It was a minor incident that likely stemmed from the exhaustion of a solo, 2,000-mile drive home to Florida, after completing 127 miles at January’s Across the Years in Phoenix.
Inspecting the damage, the 90-year-old Florida man was relieved to see none. So, he hopped in his sleeping bag for a few hours before waking up around 3 A.M. to get back on the road. A few miles later, the car rebelled.
“The temperature gauge was at the max, so I pulled off the interstate and shut it down,” Jans said. “Around three or four in the morning, I get towed to a mechanic in Ozana, Texas, which is in the middle of nowhere. When I got there, I climbed back in my sleeping bag and the mechanics arrived around 7 A.M. and found me there. Unfortunately, they didn’t do radiators.”
Jans received another tow to another mechanic in town and was back on the road the next day after sleeping in that mechanic’s lot that night. He would make it home a day or so later.
In a way, it’s a fitting description of Jans as runner and person. At 90 years old, Jans finds ways and reasons to keep moving in his 10th decade on Earth, and his fifth running.
If he can do it, he’ll do it. It might take a little longer than it used to, or, using one of Jans’s many sayings and mottos, “Don’t be getting in a hurry.”
“I have no explanation for why I should keep running, but I highly recommend it to everybody,” he said. “It’s just great to be out there on the course, in the fresh air, and the training isn’t a burden. I mean, if it’s something you like to do, it’s not punishment. If it’s punishment, you need to find something you like. That’s what we’re here for right? To have fun.”
A Wife, a Man, and a Van
Endurance goals have been top of mind for Jans since 1980. Then 48, he started running to lose weight. Realizing he enjoyed the challenge, he became a triathlete. One race turned into another, and he eventually qualified for and ran Kona in 1987.
The same happened when he transitioned to trails in the 1990s. He found new challenges and a community in running.
“The people in the ultra and running community are such a wonderful bunch to be around,” Jans said. “Everybody helps everybody. They’re just the salt of the earth. I said to myself that this was the place to be.”
With the help of his wife Dorothy, they packed into the family van and found races to run and volunteer at all over the country. Though never a runner herself, Dorothy became the “ultimate crew chief” for Jans. She took extensive notes, took pictures of what Jans wore so he had a reference for future races, and stocked the van like a mini aid station on wheels for other runners in need.
“She was a super mom,” said Sharon Jans, 67, Jans’s daughter. “I have three brothers and three sisters, and caretaking people out was kind of her life. She just extended that to runners. She helped a lot of people here and there at so many races. Whatever they needed, she had it somewhere in that van. She loved it. It kept her busy.”
While they mostly stuck to the Southeast near their Clearwater, Florida home, Jans racked up multiple ultra finishes a year after 1990, including the Umstead 100 (eight times), JFK 50 (also eight times), and Ancient Oaks 100, to name a few. He was in his 60s and 70s for the majority of these.
Then, it all came to a halt in 2009.
They first noticed it at a race. Jans came into an aid station and found Dorothy asleep in the van. She had never missed him or been asleep at any aid station before.
Soon after, Dorothy was diagnosed with lymphoma. When that seemed to be cured, another diagnosis followed.
“We went through a battle for five to six years,” Jans said. “You lose track of time, and I’m not blaming the medical people. Once you think you’re over one hurdle, there’s another one. There’s a continual series of disappointments, if you want to call it that. You just do it. We had been married for 60-some years, and for these next years, I was a full-time caregiver. Nothing else. You just do it.”
When Dorothy passed away in October 2015, Jans didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t run in years while tending to his wife and best friend. He had a hip replacement and had done some swimming and walking, but nothing near what he used to. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever run like he did.
A Comeback Story
Looking for something to occupy his mind and time, one conversation led to rediscovering his goals through discovering a new race.
Depending on who you ask in the family, you’ll get a different story. Jans goes with his version in which one of his daughters, Marilyn Jans Schupbach, 69, alerted him to the existence of A Race for the Ages (ARFTA). The Tennessee-based race is essentially a timed, multi-day race but with a couple twists. Everyone 40 and younger gets to run the final 40 hours of the race. Anyone 41 and older is allotted a number of hours equal to their age. In 2018, that meant Jans, who was 85, got 85 hours to run.
“I was just trying to recoup mentally from losing my wife, so it was a distraction, get your mind onto something worthwhile,” Jans said. “Marilyn told me, ‘Why don’t you try this and see how it goes?’”
Intrigued by the concept, Jans signed up, training around the roads in his new home in The Villages, Florida. He was also motivated by having someone to race with: Marilyn.
Jans had inspired her and Sharon to get into ultras in the 1990s, and Marilyn wanted to see if she could catch her dad. I signed up with him,” Marilyn said. “That was my first and last time. I’m so much younger and he started 21 or 22 hours ahead of me. I never caught up with him. He ran 120 miles and I had 104. He was like 85 at the time, by the way.”
While Marilyn hasn’t returned, Jans has become a fixture at the event. He’s run every single one since 2018, including 119 miles in 2022. He’s also been able to convince his other daughter, Sharon, to join him for the last two.It may help that he pays her race entry and signs her up.
“I didn’t think I could ever do that race,” Sharon said. “Then, he just paid for my race entry and told me, ‘You can do it. Give it a try.’ I had done some 50Ks, but I had never tried anything like it. Since then, I’ve done a couple 100 milers. I even did Long Haul 100 in January with Marilyn. Dad missed it because he was tired from the drive home [from Across the Years].”
“I beat him by one mile,” Sharon said. “He’s 25 years older than me, and it took me until the final hour to catch up. He rests, but he never stops.”
Most recently, he added Across the Years to his annual race calendar. At his inaugural run at age 90, he ran 127 miles during the six-day race. Rainy weather and cooler temperatures caused some hiccups, like a “frog strangling downpour,” he said, leading to him “being old in a 10×10 dome tent with wet clothes and cold weather.”
Despite the conditions, he said it was one of his favorite race experiences. He said he’ll just have to “come back next year with a different plan,” which includes not driving home right after the race ends.
Not everyone is blessed with mobility later in life. Genetics, previous injuries, and the wear and tear of life can build up.. For Jans, his abilities at 90 are a blessing, and he recognizes that.
Though not as fast as the people who, quite literally, run circles around him, he gets out there everyday anyway. Most importantly, he shows up on race day.
“Truth be told, you don’t feel like you’re 90,” Jans said. “It’s just a number. Even though you can’t perform like you did 10, 15 years ago, I still feel the same way. When I wake up in the morning, I do. I don’t say, ‘Oh golly, I have to train.’ I say, ‘I want to go train.’ It’s a delight, not a punishment. I’m sure it’s the same way for the guy who won the last-person-standing race at ATY. We wake up and say, ‘Oh boy! We get another to go for a run.’”
His biggest opponent right now is cutoffs. The standard 30 to 36 hours aren’t conducive for runners who need more time to hit their goals. While events can’t go on forever, we are seeing more events that tailor to these needs.
In fact, Jans is seeking out his first 10-day race, and not because he wants more time to hit 100. His next goal after that?
“I’d like to do a 200-miler,” he said. “I think I’d need a 10-day race to do it, which I don’t think that’s in the cards. A lot of races keep talking about doing a 10-day event, but I don’t know if that’s just scuttlebutt. I’ll just keep trying to do my best if I can’t find 10-day events. Just keep going.”