This story originally ran Dec. 25, 2011.
Mention the name Jason Werst to almost any member of the Treasure Valley bicycling community, and they are likely to draw a breath and get a lump in their throat before talking about what an inspiration he was.
Only 40 years old, Werst fought back against leukemia twice in the last five years and got back on his bike for road races and trail rides in the Foothills — despite how much that fight took out of him.
When the third round of leukemia proved too much for him to overcome this fall, his friends were crushed and inspired at the same time. So sad to lose their friend, but proud that Jason Werst didn’t let cancer stop him from doing whatever he could to enjoy his life.
“I never once saw the guy down, which is amazing when you consider how hard that cancer was on him, “ said Kurt Holzer, a Boise-based attorney and well-known cycling enthusiast who often rode with Werst. “I sat down with Jason three weeks before he passed, when he was getting chemo at Saint Al’s, and all he talked about was bike racing.
“He was such a positive person. This was the kind of guy you would want your sister to marry, or be your neighbor.”
“He lived to push himself, to take it to the limit, no matter what he was doing, “ said Jessica Werst, Jason’s wife. “After his first diagnosis (with leukemia), when he went through chemotherapy, he ended up on a respirator in ICU for five days. He was that sick. Thirty days later, he did a 100-mile bike ride.
“He was so determined to live his life, no matter what happened. I think that was really inspiring for a lot of people. He always went full bore. He always challenged himself.”
The way Jason Werst lived his life was such an inspiration to Boise firefighter Rich Brown that he is going to climb more than 1,000 steps in March in Seattle to honor his friend and fellow cycling enthusiast.
Brown is leading a team of his fellow Boise firefighters in the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb — a timed race up the stairs at the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle in full fire gear. There are 69 flights of stairs, 1,311 steps, and 788 feet of elevation change. Although it will be challenging, “It pales in comparison to what Jason and other blood cancer patients have and will go through.”
Brown hopes to raise $5,000, which will go to the The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in honor of Werst and Brown’s father-in-law, who also has blood cancer.
Brown said Werst was embarrassed last year when he did the stair climb in Werst’s honor. At the time, Werst was in remission, and he was hoping his cancer was gone for good.
“He was like, ‘So I have cancer. So what? A million people have it.’ He never felt sorry for himself, “ Brown said. “When he was sick, he just treated the chemo and all the treatment like it was an interval, that he would just work through it, no matter what.
“Last summer, he was going great. He was in remission and biked whenever he could, “ Brown said. “It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for him to take a seven-hour mountain bike ride. He loved it.
“No matter what he was dealing with, Jason kept teaching me about the important things — Enjoy life. Enjoy family. Enjoy friends.”
Before he became a fixture of the Boise biking scene, Jason Werst was a soldier and a college track athlete.
Werst enlisted and served in the U.S. Army in Operation Desert Storm after he graduated from high school in Wallowa, Ore. After he was released from the Army, Jason Werst went to Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, Ore., where he ran in cross-country and track events, eventually being inducted into the EOU Hall of Fame in 2008.
Jason Werst became an avid cyclist after a back injury curtailed his running. He moved to the Boise area in the early 2000s and became a member of the Lost River Cycling club.
The leukemia diagnosis was a surprise, hitting Werst in early 2007 just months after he married Jessica. He went from being an athlete in top shape to having a hard time climbing steps, Jessica Werst said.
“He was instantly like, ‘I am going to beat this,’” she said. “He just kept a really positive attitude. When he couldn’t do what he wanted to do, he would set small goals, and then meet every one of them, like going one block farther on his walk every day.”
After an initial round of chemo and treatment, Werst’s second bout with leukemia had him going to Seattle to get a stem cell transplant in 2008. That was a five-month hospital ordeal, but it sent him into remission.
Werst was not able to return to his job as a plumber after his second round of treatment, but he was able to find a job fixing bikes at George’s Cycles on State Street.
That allowed him to interact with even more members of the Boise cycling community as well as work a job he loved. He would commute from his Nampa home to George’s on his bike most days.
The third bout with cancer hit Werst hard and fast this fall. After almost three years of remission, both Jessica and Jason were hopeful he had beaten cancer. But he just couldn’t beat it back a third time, Jessica said.
“He was committed to fight it as hard as he could, but he just never recovered from the chemo,” she said.
Jason Werst died Oct. 30. He is survived by his wife, Jessica; parents Etta and Marty Weatherup and Mark and Connie Werst; grandparents Norm and Amy Lou Werst; and other extended family members.