Much is known about him as a lauded data scientist, but Jeff Jonas has somehow flown under the radar as a record-setting Ironman. Until now.
Picture 60 people settled in for lunch at swanky Cili Restaurant in Las Vegas. They’re members of TBAN, the Technology Business Alliance of Nevada—a generally serious bunch—and they’re here to learn how to think differently about using data from a distinguished
Jeff Jonas is about to take the stage, and his introduction goes something like this: Please welcome Jeff Jonas, IBM Fellow and chief scientist for IBM Entity Analytics, whose software has helped Vegas casinos identify fraud, increased voter registration by 2 million, protected Singapore’s waterways from piracy and predicted possible collisions between 600,000 asteroids over 25 years to save the Earth from Armageddon. And in his spare time, he does Ironmans.
Then Jonas enters stage right in his typical dark button-down and black jeans, summons five years of Toastmasters training, and proceeds to tell a story:
“On the subject of Ironmans, I was doing the Ironman in South Africa. I’d finished the 2.4-mile swim, the 112-mile bike and I’m doing the marathon. While running the marathon, I come upon somebody walking, and as I come up to them I realize they’ve got a bunch of diarrhea in their shorts. I get right next to them and start walking next to them, and I say, ‘I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but this is the kind of friend that I am: You know you’ve got diarrhea in your shorts?’ And he looks at me and with his New Zealand accent, he says, ‘Do you mean I’ve shat my pants?’ And I’m kind of surprised that he hasn’t noticed, but it’s definitely in the right place, right color, and it can happen with stomach upsets. Then he wipes his hand on his back, and has now got brown, oozy junk on his hand. I’m startled. He looks startled, which is startling me. He looks at his hand, he looks at me. Then I kid you not, he sniffs it. Then he licks it.”
Note that luncheon organizers don’t know Jonas is going to open with this—or where he’s going with it.
“Then the guy looks at me and says, ‘Tastes like mango.’”
The room is in shock.
Mango gel explosion, awkward spot.
Fellow triathletes get it. But only a joke-loving genius like Jonas could relate an endurance poop story back to this audience, who’s now pushing away food and wondering WTH.
“I say, ‘This has a lot to do with my work,’” Jonas says. “Then their heads just go whaaaa?” Then his next slide says: New observations add up.
“Some people say something and you know what they mean, but a few minutes later you know what they meant,” Jonas says. “I would’ve bet $1 million that was diarrhea. But only after the conversation and events did I change my mind about the past. Getting computers to do that is super hard.”
So that’s what he does: Jonas is particularly talented at getting computers to differentiate between proverbial diarrhea and mango gels. And in his spare time, the 53-year-old has completed every Ironman on the planet.
Jonas was 31 when he ran his first marathon.
“I thought he was kind of wimpy,” his mom, Gail, jokes of that first race. She’d asked him to run the Avenue of the Giants Marathon with her among Northern California’s redwood trees, even though he’d never run outdoors and the event was five weeks away. (Jonas says he asked her to walk. A lot.)
Even as a kid in Healdsburg, Calif., Jonas wasn’t much of a sportsman, preferring projects like wiring his parents’ chandelier over phys ed. He played guitar in a group called Contraband as a teen—“I don’t even know how he learned to do it,” Gail says—and got the license needed at the time to be a radio DJ.
Jonas admittedly smoked his fair share of pot as a NorCal teen in the early ’80s, and if his dentist father or lawyer mother ever wondered whether he’d take up a family profession, they didn’t have to wonder long. Gail took Jonas to see a TRS-80 computer being shown at a small retailer in Santa Rosa when Jonas was 14. “He became absolutely enchanted with computers,” Gail says. “That became his passion, his work. The athletics came a great deal later.”
Jonas’ career trajectory is the stuff of computer science legend. He sold a word-processing program to the Los Angeles County School district for $200 when he was in high school. Then he dropped out after junior year to start his first software company, locking in his status as an OG tech entrepreneur.
He had 21 people on his payroll when he was 19 and declared bankruptcy at 20 after going $110,000 into debt. On top of that, he had a baby on the way—though he wasn’t dating anyone at the time—so his dad kicked him out of the house.
“So now I’m bankrupt, and I live in my car,” Jonas says. “All I want to do is build software, so I had to come up with a way to convince people to take a risk on me.” He took showers at a racquet club and kept his clothes in the back of his 300-class Mercedes for four months while he couchsurfed and worked out a strategy.
“I found projects that other people had failed at,” Jonas says. “Then I’d spend time understanding the problem, and I’d write a little blueprint. Like you wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint.” One of the first projects: genealogy programming for the Llama Association of North America.
By 23, he’d done well enough to open up a new office, scrap the Mercedes, and test-drive a 735i. He was sitting in the rear passenger seat when the salesman crashed the BMW into an embankment at 63 miles per hour. Jonas broke his neck at C2, the same injury Superman actor Christopher Reeve suffered in his paralyzing fall.
“I was sitting in the car, unable to move, unable to breathe, watching myself die,” Jonas says. “I was watching my hands turn gray and thinking, ‘This is bad. I’m dying right now.’”
A man—to this day, Jonas doesn’t know who—opened his door. “They look up at me and ask, ‘Can you breathe?’ and I lip sync the word ‘no’ three times. Then they go, ‘Do you want me to lift your head?’ and I lip sync the word yes once.” The man held his head up for 27 minutes until an ambulance arrived. Jonas could breathe, but he was totally paralyzed. “If he had rested my head, settled it or tried to help somebody else, I would be dead,” Jonas says. There’s no mention of the man in police reports.
“The next scene is, I’m sitting in the hospital, completely paralyzed, and I’m like: I think I can still use my nose and attach a pencil and still program.”
And program he did. About eight days into an 18-day hospital stay, his toe wiggled. “Then wheelchair, walker, cane, left leg drag, four months of rehab,” he says. “Now my left side cramps up more easily because my brain doesn’t talk to it fully.”
He threw himself back into work, famously inventing a program called NORA, an acronym for Non-Obvious Relationship Awareness. It mines data sources to determine relationships between people—in kind of the same way Jonas discovered the difference between poop and GU at Ironman South Africa.
Jonas developed the NORA tech through his company, Systems Research and Development, for Las Vegas casinos to help detect who’s who—and who’s colluding with whom. IBM bought the company in 2005, Jonas stuck with them, and was named an IBM Fellow in 2012. It’s the highest honor a scientist at IBM can achieve, typically bestowed upon less than 10 people a year, and a title that puts Jonas in the company of five Nobel Prize winners.
A variation of Jonas’ NORA blueprint has been used to accomplish everything from identifying terrorists to revolutionizing voter registration practices, and he’s still perfecting that type of analysis through his new Venice Beach, Calif.-based startup, Senzing.
“If there are only three things in my life that are the most unimaginable,” Jonas says, one was the honorary doctorate in science he got from Claremont Graduate University, because he didn’t finish high school. “One is to become an IBM Fellow, because you can’t will it. Then there’s becoming one of the three people to finish every Ironman.”
Jonas happened upon triathlon when a friend took him mountain biking in Brian Head, Utah, about three years after running the marathon with his mom hooked him on exercise in general.
A sign at his hotel’s front desk advertised The High Altitude Triathlon, an approximately Olympic-distance race put on by Ironman great Scott Tinley with a base elevation of 9,800 feet. Jonas signed up on a whim. He didn’t know who Tinley was and misread the race distances.
Race morning, “I look at Scott Tinley,” Jonas says, “and go, ‘Are you telling the truth? There are people that can swim freestyle all the way across there?’ And he looks at me like, ‘Why are you here?’” Amazingly, Jonas finished. “I was second to last. I was so dehydrated, I was ill for four days.” Despite all that, he started racing tris here and there—mostly shorter distances and at lower altitude.
A few years later, in 2002, Jonas decided to take on his mom at the now-defunct Half Vineman. “I crushed her!” he says. “And I thought to myself, ‘I could possibly do that two times through.’” Full Vineman was his first iron-distance race, in 2004.
At that point, triathlon was becoming a nice change from the mental challenge of his job. “He was just so passionate about his work, which takes place in his head, primarily,” Gail says. “The balance between intense thinking and intense physical activity—it changes your focus.”
Then—as things often do with Jonas—racing Ironmans became a fun puzzle to crack. By 2010, Jonas had completed 15 iron-distance races and figured it could be possible to do them all. (There were 25 on the schedule then.) That year, he signed up for three, but only did two. So the next year he signed up for five to make sure he’d finish at least a few of them and wound up doing them all. Then he met Luis Alvarez.
“This crazy guy approached me on the bike,” says Alvarez, the 140-time Ironman finisher whose entourage of iron-competitors has numbered in the hundreds. Jonas told Alvarez about his goal to complete every race in the world.
“I didn’t know if he was for real,” says Alvarez, the 55-year-old CEO of Mexican fuel tank manufacturer SAG-Mecasa. The two of them chatted in 20-second increments so they wouldn’t get busted for drafting, and afterward Alvarez sent Jonas a note asking what he could do to help.
The idea of tackling every Ironman in the world intrigued Alvarez, even if it wasn’t an officially recognized achievement; a constantly changing race roster makes it too tough a title for Ironman to manage. (See: Membership Rules below.) The club, for now, was all in Jonas’ head.
Then Alvarez started noticing Jonas and his shenanigans at events, even if Mike Reilly, the “Voice of Ironman,” did not. (Jonas jokes that Reilly, to this day, announces him as Jeff Jones.) When you’re racing five-plus Ironmans a year, you can pull some stunts.
Jonas now holds the record for fastest T2 at IM Wales (1:57, posted in 2011) because he biked in his running shoes so he could toss his rig at a volunteer and sprint for it. (He was surprised that a pro blasted through T2 within 14 seconds of his time.)
He did the entire bike at Lake Tahoe in his wetsuit. (“It was freezing and if I had a wipeout, it’s like I was wearing a giant padded Band-Aid.”) One time, he drank seven glasses of wine before IM UK (“I was nervous”). And he raced Arizona on a full-suspension Cannondale, an intentional handicap (“I did it with my girlfriend at the time, and I was afraid she was going to beat me”).
Jonas and Alvarez became friends and started bunking together at races, often working right up until showtime, with Jonas taking international conference calls on the balcony and Alvarez chugging away on his computer, both running their multi-million-dollar enterprises.
“He is so passionate and so humble,” Alvarez says of his partner in big-ticket tri. “He has the money to rent a private jet, but he’s not picky about anything. He’s happy eating street tacos in a T-shirt.”
Finally in 2013, Jonas and Alvarez completed every race on the Ironman roster, save Sweden and Copenhagen. But there was a catch: Copenhagen was scheduled the day after Sweden. If they wanted to realize Jonas’ crazy dream that year, they’d have to do them both.
“I look at a map, and there’s an ocean in between,” Alvarez says. (The Strait of Oresund, to be exact.) They finished Sweden then took separate cars for the five-hour ride to Copenhagen to accommodate business calls.
“We got together in the morning and both of us were drained, cold,” Alvarez says. On top of that, Copenhagen had a 15-hour cut-off. “I hoped my friend would do it,” Alvarez says. “But if not, we’d find another day, because we wanted to do it together.”
Both men wound up dropping out of Copenhagen on the bike, exhausted and uncomfortable. They’d have to wait another year to create their club. But a fun twist made it worth the wait: John Wragg, a now-67-year-old retired teacher who holds the record for most Ironmans ever completed at 220, would also nab every Ironman in the world upon completing Copenhagen the next year.
“Have you seen that picture?” Jonas says of the photo of him, Alvarez and Wragg at Copenhagen’s finish line in 2014, when all three of them, together, became the first to complete every full-distance Ironman in the world. “If somebody said you can pick four or five pictures in the house that you own to keep—excluding family—that picture of the three of us coming across the line,” he pauses, reliving that moment in his head. “As I was approaching the line in Copenhagen, when I realized that it was happening, I really was starting to choke up. It’s so unexpected to have been a paralyzed person and somehow do them all.”
Then the game of maintaining membership status began.
“After finishing Copenhagen, we were very happy because we would keep our record for a long time,” Alvarez says. But Ironman added three new events in 2014: One in Maryland, and a doozy of a weekend with one in Mallorca, Spain, on a Saturday, and one in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Sunday.
“That was very bad news,” says Alvarez. “We called each other and said, ‘Hey! We will only be members of the club for two months!’” Then Jonas’ brain started ticking. They’d failed to finish Sweden and Copenhagen back-to-back, and those races were only four hours apart by car. How could they do two Ironmans on two continents in two days?
“We thought it was impossible,” Jonas says. “And then I started wondering if you can get from a helicopter from Mallorca to Barcelona and take a plane. And then I cracked the code.”
The weekend involved a private jet, showering in an airport, a nail-biting run-in with U.S. Customs because of Alvarez’s dual citizenship between Mexico and Spain, a lot of sweat and patient, loving girlfriend-sherpas. But the two managed to pull it off.
“One of the things I love about Ironman is it resets your brain,” Jonas says. “Now when I have hard things to overcome, like a really hard project—maybe I need to work 36 hours straight. I just think to myself, ‘Wow man can I do that?’ And I’m like, ‘F^#! that! Absolutely.’ It gives me confidence to do hard stuff. It’s a powerful thing.”
That’s a perk of defying physical expectations. But what keeps him going, chasing the impossible dream, is even simpler. “You get to see the world, the races are always in very interesting places. And I’ve met some really great people,” he says. He mentions Susan Haag, the first woman to complete 100 full Ironmans. “It’s one of those things that’s really stuck with me. She goes: ‘You know if you quit something, there is no chance a miracle could come along.’”
On paper, club entry is simple: Look at the current circuit of full-distance M-Dots. If you’ve done them all—doesn’t matter when—you’re in. New races that haven’t happened yet don’t count because no one could’ve done them.
The feat was simpler, but still tough, a decade ago, when there were about 20 full-distance races on the calendar. But two changes of ownership since then have brought rapid global expansion, doubling the world’s 140.6s. In 2016, Ironman produced 37 events. And just this year, the brand added four more: Santa Rosa, Argentina, Italy and Gurye, Korea.
“It’s like whack-a-mole,” Jonas says. You might do one this year that disappears off the list next year, as Coeur d’Alene will in 2018, so it no longer counts; anyone looking to join the club wouldn’t have to do it since they can’t race something that doesn’t exist. New races must be made up within one year of their appearance.
There are currently four people in the Ironman World Finisher’s Club: Jonas, Alvarez, Wragg and Elizabeth Model, 58, CEO of Downtown Surrey, British Columbia’s Business Improvement Association and Wragg’s life partner.