Endurance sports have always been a significant part of Jason Potsander’s life.
It began as a freshman cross country runner under coach Mark Hostetler at IMS, and continued with track and cross country at Goshen College. Then cross-country skiing, open water swim races and fat biking in the snow during seven years in Anchorage, Alaska.
Living in Goshen, Indiana since 2010, Potsander has competed in road cycling races, gravel races, and Olympic-distance triathlons. Cycling is a passion that Potsander and his wife, Heather share with their children Selah (15), Solomon (12), and Analise (12).
When doctors identified stage IV pancreatic cancer in 2019, Potsander’s active lifestyle did not become a casualty of the diagnosis. It was the key to his fight.
“I knew there was no other option than to double down on my family passion for cycling,” Potsander said. “I had been through a few hard times before, without having the physical and emotional outlet of cycling, and it wasn’t pretty. I vowed to never stop trying to be active with my family no matter what injury or hardship came up.”
Since his diagnosis, Potsander has completed a sub-24-hour Everest bike ride and earned a Michigan Gravel Race Series (MGRS) fat-bike title. He won the Lumberjack 100-mile tandem title earlier this year. In October, he was honored with the Goshen College Champion of Character Award.
Potsander, a 2001 graduate of Goshen, said that the trophies and awards themselves are not the most significant rewards for his dedication and perseverance.
“The most rewarding part has been the way I’ve accomplished these feats with my family and friends,” he said. “The most rewarding part has been sharing the journey with all who care to follow along. The most rewarding part has been the bond of love and forced conversations I’ve had with my friends and family because of these events and our lifestyle. Many say I inspire them, but when I look at the lives of my friends and family, I can honestly say they inspire me just as much or more so.”
Potsander has endured more than 50 cycles of chemotherapy and four major surgeries.
“I have over 30 inches of surgery scars on my body including a 1-inch brain incision,” he said. “Throughout it all, sharing my love for activity, riding, and racing and racing has been key to my overall well-being and happiness.”
It hasn’t been easy.
When the chemo treatments began, cycling power tests showed Potsander that his power output had decreased by 20%. The drugs caused neuropathy in his palms and made it painful to grip the handlebars.
“The scariest side effect was throat restriction that literally felt like I was choking during a ride or race,” he said. “After a few races I learned to accept that it would happen and just keep cycling through it, knowing it would pass in 5-10 minutes.”
In 2021, Postander competed regularly in the Michigan Gravel Race Series (MGRS).
“I raced every few weeks for eight months straight with friends I named, ‘The Cancer Be Damned Team,’ while also enduring 4-hour chemo sessions every week,” Potsander said. “Every week I asked God for miracles to happen on the racecourse and off the racecourse in life itself. Sometimes the miracles were not what I asked for, but they were always there.”
Potsander was in position to secure the Fat Bike division series championship with one race left on the schedule. But a chemo port blood infection put him in the hospital a week before the finale.
“I remember wondering how I could possibly be out of the hospital in time for the race, let alone feel good enough to race,” he said. “I remember doing a test ride three days before the series finale and not even being able to keep up with my kids on an easy gravel trail.
“However, as was often the case that season, when I raced with my Cancer Be Damned team, I felt like I had a supernatural power to sustain 20 mph average speeds for up to 1.5 hours on a 30-pound fat bike. I can’t explain it, but it felt so good.”
He was able to save energy drafting behind his teammates, who also assisted him over the hills.
“The most rewarding thing about that season was knowing that “my guys” would always be there for me and that they were sacrificing their races and family schedules to help me at these races,” Potsander said. My worst fear had been conquered. I knew that I would not be alone, and failure was not an option. I knew one way or another they would get me across the finish line.”
A brain surgery later in the year caused weakness in his right leg and required a change of plans for the Lumberjack 100, which was coming up in June.
Instead of competing in the fat bike category, Potsander and a teammate would race in the tandem division.
“Very few mountain bike races even have a tandem category because it is so crazy,” he said. “It’s like driving a school bus through the woods between trees 18 inches apart.”
“One of my teammates on the Cancer Be Damned team had a motocross background and could quickly and instinctively pick lines on the trail to keep us upright and he became the ‘captain’ controlling the braking and steering while I was the stoker, providing additional power.”
After the race, Potsander learned that they had reached speeds of over 30 miles an hour on the downhill stretches with the trees of the Manistee Forest just inches away.
“I was beyond amazed,” he said. “The entire next day I was half amazed at the feat and half giddy to still be alive. It was the scariest 10 hours of my life.”
Also rewarding for Potsander has been passing his love of cycling on to his three children.
“A lot of other biker dads have asked me, with envy, how I got all three of my kids to love mountain biking,” Potsander said. “All I can say is that I won the ‘biker dad’ lottery, but I will say that having always watched me race and knowing no other lifestyle certainly helped.
“The thing I love about mountain biking as a family sport is that it offers both skills and endurance. When my kids were younger, they had ‘all the time in the world’ to develop their technical skills riding over rocks and roots and balancing their body position in ways that allow them to keep them upright. Now as they’ve gotten older, they are developing more stamina.”
Selah, Solomon, and Analise recently completed the Michigan Scholastic Cycling Associations six race series. The Potsanders traveled over 2,000 miles during the seven-week stretch for the six races. Selah placed fourth overall in the novice 9-12th grade girls division, Solomon placed seventh overall among the novice 6th grade boys, and Analise placed third overall in the novice 6-8th grade girls division.
“While my wife does not ride at all, she offers much needed support to help with all the logistics of food and clothing and many hours of driving that go into some of our events,” Potsander said. “Heather’s support truly is the key in making all my family rides and races happen with the kids. Our common vision to support our kids and expose them to some of the best riders and trails in the Midwest, if not the country, really helps us on those long days and weekends when you wonder if the effort and time are worth it. To see the smiles and confidence in our kids at the end of the day helps us know we are on the right track.”
Before taking a break from competition over the winter, Jason and his kids will participate in the largest one day point to point mountain bike race in North America: Iceman Cometh in Traverse City, Michigan on November 5.
“When we ride and race as a family, we are all fully in the moment and enjoying each other and the beauty and challenge of the course,” Potsander said. “There are no bills to pay. There is no cancer. There are no worries. We are simply loving each other and making memories and that feels good and keeps us coming back for more.”
Follow Jason’s journey at linktr.ee/jason.potsander.