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."

While he's played with many jazz legends, trombonist Roy Rubinstein of Lombard, upper right, played several gigs in the 1970s with the clarinetist in the first row, Woody Allen, who is better known for his movies. Courtesy of Roy Rubinstein
  Having run 112 marathons and ultramarathons, retired Fermilab physicist Roy Rubinstein, 85, holds the certificate mailed last week to his apartment in Lombard informing him that he's the nation's fastest ultramarathon runner in his age group. Mark Welsh/
  When he retired at age 80 after 43 years as a physicist and administrator at Fermilab in Batavia, the staff signed this framed image that Roy Rubinstein hangs in his Lombard apartment. Mark Welsh/
When he ran the 50K (31.1 miles) Chicago Lakefront Ultras at the end of October in 8 hours, 3 minutes and 18 seconds, Roy Rubinstein, 85, of Lombard didn't realize that he beat the American record for his age by more than an hour. Courtesy of Matt O'Bryant
  Roy Rubenstein of Lombard didn't know that he shattered the U.S. record for his age group in a 50K until the organizers of Chicago Lakefront Ultras reached out to him. The 85-year-old bettered the old record for his age by more than an hour. Mark Welsh/
  A triple threat, 85-year-old Roy Rubinstein had a wonderful career as a physicist and administrator at Fermilab, recorded albums and played hundreds of shows as leader of his jazz band, and recently ran the fastest ultramarathon in the nation for someone his age. Mark Welsh/
  This closet in the Beacon Hill senior community apartment of retired Fermilab physicist Roy Rubinstein holds medals from the 112 marathons and ultramarathons he's run around the globe, as well as some of the CDs recorded by the Chicago Hot Six jazz band he leads. Mark Welsh/
  Leading a jazz band isn't all that different from his career leading teams of physicists, says Roy Rubinstein, 85, of Lombard. You have to manage egos and get everyone moving in the same direction. Mark Welsh/
  His career as a physicist at Fermilab didn't keep Roy Rubinstein from enjoying his hobby as a trombonist and jazz band leader. Mark Welsh/
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