Each lap remains a lease on life for distance runner Jon Mott

Despite a bleak family background, Northeast High alumnus Jon Mott has evolved into one of the area's elite distance runners.
Jon Mott and Sydney Devore run 4 miles around Lake Morton in Lakeland. Mott is a two-time Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K winner and the top Florida finisher  at the 2016 Olympic Marathon trials. (MONICA HERNDON   |   Times)
Jon Mott and Sydney Devore run 4 miles around Lake Morton in Lakeland. Mott is a two-time Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K winner and the top Florida finisher at the 2016 Olympic Marathon trials. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Feb. 21, 2018|Updated Feb. 21, 2018

LAKELAND — It took only one moment of teenage audacity for Northeast High's top distance runner to be immortalized as a sprinter.

Days before his high school graduation, Jon Mott sneaked off to a dugout in the baseball stadium. There, he stripped down to a pair of track flats, pulled a ski mask over his face, and dashed to the nearby football stadium, where a Vikings intrasquad game was being held before the entire student body.

"I can't believe how well it worked," Jon recalled. "I literally hopped the fence, (ran) clear straight through the middle of a play, and the fans were going crazy."

With football players in pursuit, Jon scaled a fence — naked, mind you — and made it to his buddy's getaway car in an adjacent neighborhood. They got about two blocks before four cop cars surrounded them. Jon was banned from the prom and Northeast's graduation ceremony. His twin brother picked up his diploma.

"I got called to the office and I'd never even met the principal, never in four years," said Jon's mother, Kathy Zullo.

"But they yelled at him and yelled at him and yelled at him, and then he walked out of the room and they asked me to stay. This is what they said: 'He ran like a freaking gazelle; no one could catch him.' "

It was hardly the only time Jon could have easily squandered his gift of fleetness by running off the rails. This bawdy caper came with a bleak backdrop.

Jon was one of three boys raised by a single mom who subsisted for years on disability checks. Drugs infiltrated the home, ultimately killing his twin. His older brother has done prison time for drug-related offenses.

When NAIA Webber International University in Polk County took a gamble on Jon and offered him a chance to run in college, he abruptly failed a urine test.

Four ensuing surgeries — for various ailments — didn't help.

Tim Russell, who has served as a coach and confidant to Jon for more than two decades, puts it this way: "He was feral."

And ultimately, fortunate. Whether sobered by his brother's death or seasoned by maturity, Jon started running for a purpose, not for pranks.

Honing his talent on the hilly red-clay roads meandering through the orange groves that encircle Webber, he evolved into an excellent runner, then an elite one.

More than a decade later, Jonathan Daniel Mott sits in the studio apartment in downtown Lakeland he shares with girlfriend Sydney Devore, an elite runner in her own right. The couple's flat-screen TV — they have neither cable nor Dish — is showing a replay of the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, where Jon finished 47th.

On this bright, warm morning, he's baring only his soul.

What kept him from succumbing to the same addictions as twin Matthew?

"Running," Jon says.

"He's told me that before," Devore adds. "He said that if it wasn't for running he'd be in jail — or worse."

Early Saturday morning, Jon will seek his third Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic overall 15K title. He's also a former Gasparilla half-marathon winner.

Last fall, on windy 75-degree day, he won the Detroit Free Press/Chemical Bank Marathon in two hours, 22 minutes. Two years ago, he was the top Florida placer in the Olympic Trials (2:27.03) and seems a solid bet to qualify for the Trials again in 2020.

Could he have envisioned all this a decade ago? Jon shakes his head incredulously.

Funny how far one's legs can carry you when running for your life.

"It's the best rags-to-riches story I've seen," Russell said.

Jon Mott, here with girlfriend Sydney Devore, says running has kept him from succumbing to the demons that have plagued his family. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Jon Mott, here with girlfriend Sydney Devore, says running has kept him from succumbing to the demons that have plagued his family. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)

A low point, and turning point

The Mott boys — identical twins born via C-section Feb. 20, 1987, in Parsippany, N.J. — were athletes long before they became runners.
Upon settling in Florida at age 12 following their parents' divorce, they segued from one sports season to the next. "Usually whatever that sport we liked, we did together," Jon recalled. "We played hockey (for a Palm Harbor travel team), we ran, we played soccer together."

To utilize Jon's speed, Northeast's baseball coaches even convinced him to join the team as a pinch-runner, though he quickly became flustered at trying to read signals. Neither brother really gave a thought to distance running until Jon nearly beat one of the school's top cross-country runners in a mile run in gym class.

"Then the gym coach went to the cross country coach and was like, 'You need to get this guy,' " Jon recalled. "He eventually talked me out of hockey and we became runners."

They became solid — if not spectacular — runners for the Vikings, distinguishable only by their hairstyles. Whereas Jon's was close-cropped, Matthew had bleached blond locks.

When they turned 18 as high school juniors, their mom — who had been struck by a car in New York City in 1993 — lost a sizable chunk of her disability payment, forcing her to go back to work. Jon describes the family home as a "real small, beat-up, three-bedroom house."

"I didn't see her too often," Jon said. "She worked a lot, about 50-60 hours a week. At the time, it was me and my brother, my older brother Sam, who was doing a lot of bad things; and then my mom."

As juniors, they earned second-team recognition on the St. Petersburg Times' all-county cross country squad. As a senior, Jon finished 40th at the Class 3A state meet.

"His brother (Matthew) was more talented, way more talented," Russell said. "His brother could've been very special, but he suffered from the lack of discipline … and the lack of a stable household much more than (Jon) did."

After graduation, their paths diverged. Jon accepted a partial athletic scholarship to Webber; Matt opted for culinary school in Orlando.

"Webber really took a chance on him," Russell said. "He did not have good grades, he did not have good scores. He was fast."

That college career ended nearly before it began. His first day on Webber's campus in tiny Babson Park, Jon failed his physical and was forced to undergo surgery for a double hernia. The failed drug test followed.

"It was one of those things that, yeah, you throw your hands up in the air and you wonder, 'You've got all this good stuff going for you, why mess it up with something like that?' " said Peter Ormsby, then Webber's cross country coach. "But I think we worked through it."

Nagging knee pain followed. Ultimately, Jon was diagnosed with iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome, a common injury among competitive distance runners. It occurs when the ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin becomes tight or inflamed.

When the IT band isn't working properly, movement of the knee becomes painful. Jon needed another surgery to correct it. Before his college career reached the halfway point, he'd also require a tonsillectomy and follow-up surgery when he developed complications from the tonsil procedure.

"(The IT band surgery) messed up my whole cross (country) and track season my sophomore year," he said.

Meantime, Matthew had returned home from a brief stint at culinary school. He landed a series of cooking jobs at local restaurants, but quickly lost each of them as his addiction to painkillers and over-the-counter drugs intensified.

"I had to deal with a lot of that with my family," Jon said.

Ultimately, Kathy entered Matthew into a treatment center, where he stayed for part of a summer. He later attended AA meetings, and appeared to be turning a corner.

But in the wee hours of July 3, 2009, he went to sleep and never woke up. Jon and Kathy say it later was determined Matthew died of a methadone overdose.

He was 22.

"It was rough on (Jon)," Russell said. "They basically were one person. They didn't go anywhere without each other. … That was a turning point for him."

Jon returned to Webber roughly a month later. Though still blanketed in grief, his running career took off.

In 2010, he qualified for the NAIA cross country championship for the third time (finishing 188th). He also took up marathoning, qualifying for the NAIA championships in that event in 2010 and 2011. In the 2011 marathon, he finished fourth, earning All-America honors and setting a Webber record (2:30.22).

He also graduated, then began pursuing his master's degree in sport management.

"I think for him to be in school and be running, it kind of game him an outlet to — and no pun intended — run away from a lot of that stuff and kind of deal with it on his own terms," Ormsby said.

That final collegiate marathon was more a beginning than a benediction. As a competitive runner, Jon was just getting warmed up.

"After I graduated with my undergrad and I was done running for college, that's when I decided I was healthy," he said. "And I started running as much as my body could handle."

Austin Richmond (2) and Jonathan Mott (25) stay neck and neck in the 15K during the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic last year. (EVE EDELHEIT | Times)
Austin Richmond (2) and Jonathan Mott (25) stay neck and neck in the 15K during the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic last year. (EVE EDELHEIT | Times)

Still betrothed to running

Though equipped with an advanced education, Jon — to a degree — has put his professional life on hold in his quest to become an Olympian.

After finishing his master's, he remained in Babson Park, worked as a paraprofessional at an elementary school, and trained like mad. It paid off with his solid effort at the 2016 Olympic trials, but that effort served to only whet his running appetite instead of satiating it.

Today, he works for what he calls modest pay at a Lakeland running store and trains like mad. A month after his Detroit victory, he won his fifth Tampa Bay Times Turkey Trot 10K on Thanksgiving morning. In May, he'll run the Ottawa Marathon in pursuit of the Olympic Trials qualifying standard (2:19).

On Tuesday, he turned 31.

"He is really singularly focused — to his detriment," Russell said. "He has put off moving on with being an adult to doing what he's doing."

Maybe it's a simple matter of not being able to let go of his life preserver. Even Jon knows at some point, the Florence Nightingale effect must shift into reverse, and he'll have to divorce himself from that which rescued him.

Just not yet.

"It's challenging and not many people understand it," he said. "Also, it keeps me away from doing the bad stuff in life."

So he and Devore will rise in Saturday's wee hours and arrive in downtown Tampa well before dawn. Then they'll jog to the 15K starting line, where they'll be joined by reigning 15K champ A.J. Richmond, Jon's former Webber teammate and Babson Park neighbor.

Expect the two to be uncontested as they attempt to match each other stride for stride down south Bayshore Boulevard. Just another morning in the resurgent life of Jon, trading in dead for dead heats.

"I wouldn't have believed he'd be alive," Russell said. "From where he started, I mean, it's a miracle."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic

Health and fitness expo: Tampa Convention Center's East Hall, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and 6 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday

15K: 6:40 a.m. Saturday (starts Brorein Street and Franklin Street, Tampa)

5K: 9:15 a.m. Saturday (starts Brorein Street and Franklin Street, Tampa)
Half-marathon: 6 a.m. Sunday (starts Platt Street and Bayshore Boulevard, Tampa)

8K: 9:15 a.m. Sunday (starts Bayshore Boulevard and Verne Street, Tampa)

Registration: (Registration caps in effect for each race. When cap is reached, registration closes)

Saturday road closures: Police will start closing roads about 3 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. They will reopen on a rolling basis after runners finish: Bayshore Blvd. from Brorein St. to Platt St., Selmon Expressway eastbound exit ramp to Florida Ave., Franklin St. from Old Water St. to Whiting St., Florida Ave. from Channelside Dr. to Whiting St., Whiting St. from Florida Ave. to Tampa St. westbound, Morgan St. from Old Water St. to Brorein St. northbound, Morgan St. from Bell St. to Old Water St. southbound, Platt St./Channelside Dr. from Parker St. to Nebraska Ave., Bayshore Blvd. from Platt St. to Gandy Blvd., Gandy Blvd. from Zion St. to Bayshore Blvd.

Sunday road closures: Bayshore Blvd. from Brorein St. to Swann Ave., Platt St. from Plant Ave. to Florida Ave., Franklin St. from Whiting St. to Brorein St. southbound, Franklin St. from Channelside Dr. to Old Water St., Whiting St. from Florida Ave. to Tampa St. westbound, Bayshore Blvd. from Swann Ave. to Gandy Blvd., West Davis Islands Blvd. to East Davis Islands Blvd., Arbor Pl. from Davis Blvd. to Columbia Dr., Columbia Dr. from Arbor Pl. to Barbados Ave., Barbados Ave. from Columbia Dr. to Channel Dr., Channel Dr. from Barbados Ave. to S Davis Blvd., S Davis Blvd. to W Davis Blvd.

Online: Check out photos and results from the day at Share your own photos on Twitter using #PGDC18 or #GasparillaRun.