Constable: Jazz, physics and ultramarathon make 85-year-old a triple threat
Many of our nation's finest athletes are competing for gold at the Olympics in Beijing. Retired 85-year-old Fermilab physicist Roy Rubinstein, our nation's fastest ultramarathon runner for his age, is in his Lombard apartment preparing for his next gig as longtime bandleader and trombonist of the Chicago Hot Six jazz band.
The 112 marathons and longer ultra races Rubinstein has run since 1982 include ones in Hong Kong and China, where he was part of a U.S. delegation of physicists meeting in 1988 with Chinese leaders in Beijing for the startup of a Chinese particle accelerator. A photograph hanging on his wall shows Rubinstein standing in the row behind Deng Xiaoping, the former leader of China. That photo hangs near the joke "Doctor of Ornithological Eugenicks" degree Rubinstein received in 1955 as a student at the University of Cambridge. It is signed by Peter Sellers, who was in the British radio comedy show "The Goon Show" before he became a famous actor.
If you think Rubinstein is a sort of chameleon Zelig, who always seems to have a connection to famous people, you need to check out a photo of one of his jazz bands in 1972. Holding his trombone, Rubinstein stands behind a clarinet player named Woody Allen.
"We would play, but he wouldn't talk much," Rubinstein says of the comedian and moviemaker. Except for that time when their jazz band was taking the ferry to a gig on Fire Island and Allen started chatting with banjo player Marshall Brickman.
"He and Woody swapped one liners and the rest of us were rolling in the boat," Rubinstein says of the exchange between his band's famous clarinetist and Brickman, who won an Oscar in 1977 along with Allen for writing the screenplay for "Annie Hall."
It's tiring trying to keep up with Rubinstein's fascinating life, but it's easier than keeping pace with him as a runner, who recently got this email from Chicago Lakefront Ultras co-race directors Jeff Fleitz and Bill Thom.
"Bill and I were not sure if you were aware, but it looks like you have shattered the existing USA Track & Field Men's Ultra Road 50K 85-89 Age Group record," Fleitz wrote. Running for the 11th time in that fall 50K (31.1 miles), Rubinstein finished in 8 hours, 3 minutes and 17 seconds, demolishing the old record for his age of 9 hours, 5 minutes and 51 seconds set in 2013.
"I can't believe that I'm anywhere near to a record holder. But thanks for letting me know," responded Rubinstein, who received an official USA Track & Field certificate in the mail last week. In telling that story, Rubinstein quips, "When you are 85, running should be in quotes."
Rubinstein was born on Sept. 12, 1936, in the old British industrial town of Darlington, about 250 miles north of London. His father, Solly, left what is now Poland because of his protests against Czar Nicholas II of Russia and fought for the British during World War I. His mother, Miriam, the daughter of a rabbi, left her home in that same area for economic reasons.
Rubinstein got his degree in physics from the University of Cambridge and his doctoral degree in particle physics in 1961 from the University of Birmingham. Rejecting a chance to have his college jazz band turn pro, Rubinstein came to the United States in 1962 on the Mauretania ocean liner for a job at Cornell University, doing physics research and some teaching.
In 1966, he'd fly from the campus in Ithaca to New York City, rent a car and drive to a second job doing research for Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. An older relative living in New York City invited him to dinners and arranged to have young, single women knock on the door every week to borrow a cup of sugar. He had a few dates before he met Nora, a young mom with two little kids. They were married in 1968, and Rubinstein helped raise son Alex and daughter Anita in a huge, old house on Long Island that once was owned by the family behind the Otis Elevator Co.
In 1973, Rubinstein took a job at Fermilab in Batavia and moved his family to Glen Ellyn. That allowed him to play with bands at John's Buffet, a tavern in Winfield known for live Dixieland jazz music. "By 1980, I was leading the band," says Rubinstein, whose work can be found on vinyl albums and on compact discs.
At Fermilab, he was a leader in high-energy physics research, authoring more than 50 published papers. In his role as assistant laboratory director, Rubinstein basically was the lab's foreign diplomat, spearheading collaborations with nations around the globe. He was instrumental in bringing Latin American scientists to Fermilab.
"If anybody is interested in knowing what it's like to sit in United Airlines economy class for well over a million miles, I can describe it," says Rubinstein, who became a U.S. citizen in 2008.
Looking for a way to unwind from the stress of his career, Rubinstein started running around the block and on the Illinois Prairie Path near his Glen Ellyn home. He ran his first marathon in 1987 at age 51 in Milwaukee on a Sunday morning. He had a jazz gig that afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin. Pleased with his time of 3 hours and 39 minutes, Rubinstein was so tired he had to pull over four times to rest on the drive to Madison and didn't realize he was dehydrated. "Once I had something to drink, I was back to normal," he says. "I drove to Madison, played for three hours and drove back home."
His wife died in 2019, and Rubinstein still lives in their spacious apartment in the Beacon Hill senior community in Lombard, where physics certificates compete for space with a multitude of marathon medals and a mass of musical memories. He practices his trombone almost every day. His band, which played about 50 times a year before the pandemic, has a performance Feb. 23 at Beacon Hill, and others in the works. He runs four or five times a week, and he completed seven marathons and ultramarathons last year.
"Leading a physics group is similar to leading a music group," Rubinstein says. "You have to keep everybody going in the same direction, and each has prima donnas who want all the attention. There's always competition among members. There's always a lot of psychology in leading these two types."
He retired from Fermilab at age 80. While he admits his running and trombone playing are slowing down, he has no plans to stop, and no regrets. "I really enjoyed being a physicist, and I enjoy music as a hobby," Rubinstein says. "I've had fun, and they've paid me to do it."