On September 14th, the day before the XTERRA Pan Am Championship, John Lewis registered for both the XTERRA Utah Sprint and the XTERRA 21K Trail Run National Championship at the XTERRA Expo in Ogden, Utah.
For the sprint, he was given number 666, which is typically eliminated from the available numbers. The next number he was given was number 714, which was the area code he and his brother shared while growing up.
“I definitely think this was my brother’s doing,” said John, 51. “This is totally something he would pull to mess with me.”
When John’s brother Jim was alive, he was often a joker with a quick wit and ready laugh. So naturally, John assumed that Jim was still at it. This was a tough year for John. In addition to losing Jim to cancer, he also lost his good friend and business partner, Blair Lierd. Both were only 54.
John lives in Eden, Utah, and his brother Jim lived in Dana Point, California. The two saw each other once a month because they both worked in development at Wolf Creek Resort in Eden. Additionally, they were both triathletes, spent hours training together, and followed each other’s workouts on Strava.
“Jim considered Utah his second home,” said John. “We have trained for most of our races together and I’ve lost count of how many times we have competed in the XTERRA Pan Am Championship and XTERRA Utah Sprint triathlons.”
John admits that as kids, they fought the way most brothers do. When they were in college, they realized they were each other’s best friend and became inseparable. Together, John, Jim, and their good friend Blair shared significant milestones in their careers at Wolf Creek Resort as well as many training rides. While Blair didn’t train as intensely as John and Jim, he competed in the XTERRA Utah Sprint triathlon and joined the brothers on mountain bike rides on the Sardine Trail at Snowbasin.
A year and a half ago, Blair was diagnosed with cancer. Both John and Jim were devastated at the thought of losing their good friend, colleague, and training partner. The trio spent as much time together as they could. They laughed often, and tried to boost each other's spirits.
Then, disaster struck again.
“About a year ago, Jim texted me that he had been mountain biking near Dana Point and crashed,” remembers John. “Immediately, I thought, wait, why did you fall? We never fall. The next day he texted me that he fell again and I said, ‘Dude, you need to see a doctor. Something is wrong.’”
Jim went to the doctor who told him it was just stress. But John - and Jim's wife Janine - insisted that his brother go back and get a second opinion and an MRI.
“I just knew,” said John. “My head hurt talking to Jim. Something wasn’t right.”
An MRI revealed a plum-sized tumor in Jim’s brain called a glioblastoma. A few months after the diagnosis, Blair lost his battle with cancer. Jim fought as hard against cancer as he could, but John lost him in March, 2018.
“They weren’t just my brother and my friend,” said John. “They were my right arm and my left.”
After Jim’s death, John spread his ashes on Sardine Peak. He admits the grief has been overwhelming. When he realized it was almost time for the XTERRA Pan Am Championship in September, he signed up for both the XTERRA Utah Sprint and the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship the following day. With a history of 100-mile ultra runs and a 37-day bike ride that took him from the west coast of the U.S. to the east, John wasn’t worried about being fit enough for the races. But training for them without his two best friends was both devastating and cathartic.
“Every day I want to pick up the phone and call them and I can’t,” said John. “But training for XTERRA got me back into the swing of things. I ride or run the Sardine Trail every week of my life, so to not do it when there was an XTERRA on would have been a travesty. Plus, Jim’s ashes are on the top of the peak. He’s literally right there.”
After John registered and picked up the race number that was identical to his childhood area code, he looked over and saw the timing tent, with the initials “JTL” on top.
“My brother’s full name is James Taylor Lewis,” said John. “I saw the JTL on the timing tent and I thought, ‘OK, Dude. I get it.’”
John felt his brother’s presence with him in both of the races. He finished fourth in his age group in the triathlon and third in the next day’s 21K trail run.
“I smiled all the way through,” said John. “I absolutely feel closest to Jim and Blair when I’m on the Snowbasin Trails. And this year, I definitely got help from beyond.”