This Man's Story Is A Reminder To Live While You're Alive

How cancer taught one man to live, and how his story can teach us all

Jonathan Ko
Jonathan at JerezCourtesy of Jonathan Ko

This last April, I was sent a Reddit thread about a man named Jonathan Ko, who'd been diagnosed with cancer and was trying to ride every MotoGP track before his illness got the better of him. I'm a firm believer that everyone has a story and a struggle and so many articles with these ingredients end with someone just trying to get someone to fund someone's else's life or experiences. But there was something different about Jon and his story, something that resonated deep within me. Jon didn't want your money or your pity. Jon was moved by our wonderful community of motorcyclists and he just wanted to chase speed and life like the rest of us. The following is an article I wrote after spending several hours with Jon on the phone because, after hearing his story, I couldn't keep myself from wanting to help.

Jon was about to start a new drug trial and we decided to hold the story for a bit until we knew what sort of timeline he had and when he'd be able to ride again. During all of those conversations, Jon was so positive and sounded so healthy and full of hope. It was never a question of if, but when he'd be able to ride again and which tracks we'd be able to make happen first. Unfortunately, Jon's trial did not go as we'd hoped, and he passed away earlier this month. The news, when it came, was crushing. I needed Jon to ride again, needed his positivity and attitude to be rewarded with more time. I needed to see our community rally around him, and learn from his incredible heart in the process. It only seemed fair. However, life isn't fair, and that's why the message of Jon's life is more than one about some guy doing track days. It's about actually living your life while you're alive.

What would you do if you were diagnosed with a disease you knew would prove to be fatal? What would your life look like if you only had another year or two to live? Jonathan Ko was faced with that, and he knew there was only one place he could turn: motorcycles.

Jonathan spent the first year after being diagnosed with cancer doing everything he could to ignore the inevitable. To hide from his thoughts or his future in anything that would remove him from the present. We talked for a few hours last night, and he told me played video games for most of that first year. The chemo was killing his energy and he felt so overwhelmed. I can’t say that I blame him.

Jonathan was diagnosed five years ago, in April of 2011. At the time, he was attending graduate school for computer science at the University of Washington, and he told me his life just wasn’t focused. He was 33 and on the path for the “American dream,” or at least that general direction. A job, a wife, a car, a vacation. The normal stuff you’re supposed to do when you want to be happy and okay.

When he wasn’t in school or working, he played in recreational soccer leagues and rode sportbikes. Jonathan has always loved the looks and feel of a sportbike, even though he claims he’s far from a talented rider. His first bike was 1998 Honda CBR 600 F3, but that bike was stolen. He replaced it with a 2004 Suzuki GSX-R600 and told me he’d loved doing track days at his local pacific northwest tracks.

Jonathan Ko
Jonathan at a track dayCourtesy of Jonathan Ko

The diagnosis came fast. He started to notice pain and it didn’t make sense or seem to go away, so he did the normal guy thing to do. He went and saw a doctor. Soon, he found himself in an ultrasound booth, and the results came as swiftly as a kick to the groin. Cancer. Fuck cancer.

The initial diagnosis was cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer. But now they’re calling it gall bladder cancer. Not that it matters. It’s cancer. They can’t get it out completely. It’s going to win.

FUCK CANCER.

After a year and some change of chemotherapy and trying to avoid or numb himself from his life, he'd had enough. The thing was going to take his life, but it didn't have to win. Not yet.

Jonathan has always looked up to MotoGP riders. Very few humans on the planet will ever be able to claim they’re the best at something. That they’ve put their minds to the mastery of something and have come closer than anyone else in human history ever has. Riding a motorcycle is so mental, and requires you to put your mind in a very specific and very controlled place. To sync your body and mind into a perfect rhythm with a motorcycle and track. It’s as much brute force and aggression and violence as it is a beautiful dance that requires balance and grace.

Jonathan told me he spent a lot of time working with a therapist to understand what he was feeling, and they talked a lot about how to live the rest of his life fully. For him, that meant ditching the apathy or moving in a general direction philosophy on life. It meant pursuing something, searching for connection and meaning, and thinking about his own legacy.

That’s when motorcycles came back. As those of us who ride know, being a motorcycle removes distractions and focuses you like a 1,000 pound brick of Adderall. There simply isn’t room for other thoughts when you’re reduced to a chunk of meat sitting on top of a few hundred pounds of machine moving at a hundred miles an hour. It’s as complex a thing as it is basic.

Riding a motorcycle requires you to acknowledge that what you’re doing isn’t completely sane. It isn’t safe. But you can make it safe, or safer, and you’re completely in control of the experience. For Jon, riding calms him. It slows his mind down and settles him. It forces his brain to just process and react to what’s happening on the ride.

So, it makes sense that when he had the idea to try and ride all of the MotoGP tracks before he passed, he says it just felt right.

Jonathan Ko
Jonathan riding at Phillip IslandCourtesy of Jonathan Ko

Jon tells me that, outside of this, he’s been very fortunate in life and has managed to save up a decent chunk of change to finance this endeavor. He works for Google now, on a 60% full time basis, and says they’ve been nothing short of incredible with accommodating him.

What he does need help with is getting bikes to ride at tracks he has to fly to, and navigating the cities, cultures, and languages in foreign countries. He’s already ridden five tracks, but has fifteen more to go. You can see a list here.

Given what Jon told me about his desires to find meaning and connect, it’s no surprise this is his request. I have to imagine he probably isn’t loaded enough to fly in, rent a bike, have it prepped, and fly out. Nor does that sound like a very rewarding experience.

Since he started trying to ride more tracks, Jon’s been able to ride a wider variety of bikes (though he promises he isn’t picky and will gladly ride anything anyone will lend him). So far, he told me he’s ridden a few BMW S 1000 RRs, a Yamaha R6, a Honda CBR250R, a Kawasaki Ninja 250, and a newer Suzuki GSX-R600. I asked him which was his favorite and, while he appreciated the power and electronics of the BMW, Jon was most comfy and had the most fun on the Suzuki. A man after my own heart.

Jon told me that he’s had a great run, but that he’s started to feel his health finally deteriorate a bit. He says he’s still in good health, and forgets about the pain or lack of energy when he’s on a bike. He says he knows his limits, though, and can tell when he probably shouldn’t ride an entire 20 minute session on track.

We talked a lot about his fear, which becomes a natural focus when faced with such a thing. Jon told me that he’s had a great five years. That he’s proud of how he’s attacked this goal he set for himself, even though he can acknowledge his goal doesn’t have purpose outside of just meaning something to himself.

He fears his time on bikes is starting to wind down. Like a storm in the distance, he knows that it’s coming. It’s just a matter of how long can he last, how much can he accomplish, before it gets here.

“Unfortunately, my time on two wheels is coming to an end. I feel so much sadness about it, about not accomplishing my goal, but I’m hoping I move on to the acceptance stage (of grieving) soon.”

He went on to tell me that his biggest fears are that of dying itself. The actual act. The pain involved. Talking to him, you can tell he’s had these conversations before. He’s tried to make people like me, people who’ve never given this line of thought its due diligence, understand this thing he can’t avoid.

Jonathan Ko
Jonathan at MugelloCourtesy of Jonathan Ko

Now, he wants to focus on the why? Why are we here? What’s the purpose of all of this? He’s trying to learn the skill of letting go, as he has to close doors on parts of his life that once seemed so normal. At some point he’ll have to let go of soccer. And then motorcycles. And then, as Jon said, “it just all goes away at some point.”

I asked about how this quest to ride these tracks helped with his questions about life and his answer, while indirect, really resonated with me.

For Jon, he says that riding in these places makes him feel some connection to the riders who ride there in search for perfection and victory. They’ve treated their craft, the act of riding a motorcycle perfectly, with a fervor and ferocity that few people do. They pursue mastery in a way many of us feel programmed to, only they have the balls to actually give it all they have.

He wants to connect to that. Wants to give himself into pursuing something in the way they do. It gives him some meaning or purpose or is something he can set his mind and body to every day. He’s coasted for so much of his life, and he doesn’t want to coast anymore. Set a goal and make it a hard one. Then go and do it.

Riding on a track is a pursuit of mastery, of mastering oneself. For Jon, it isn’t about the lap times or being faster than the guy next to him, it’s about getting in the zone and finding that flow and rhythm where he’s riding as smooth and as well as he can. Outside of riding, Jon told me he’s just hopeful for more time. More connections with people, with the community of motorcyclists who’ve already been so good to him.

Most importantly, he wants to be able to look back and say he found something he loves and went after it. That people look at his life and say he did the best he could and did a good job at the things he put effort towards.

Jonathan Ko
Jonathan at Phillip IslandCourtesy of Jonathan Ko

Jon has a track day lined up at Silverstone for August, and already has a bike sorted for it. He has a day at Miller booked for this May, but told me he’s starting a new drug trial that might force him to move it. He has the track day and bike booked and will book the travel once he finds out if he can keep the day. Hopefully he won’t have to re-evaluate his goals to ride all the tracks, but that sort of depends on how this next drug trial goes.

If you live near any of the tracks Jon hasn’t been to and have a bike or know a track day organizer, or just live/know someone who lives nearby and want to help Jon when he gets into town, you can reach out to him at nottimeenough@gmail.com.

Jonathan passed away on August 2nd, 2016, surrounded by his family and will be greatly missed. While he didn't think he spent much of his time living, the contact I've had with those around him would suggest otherwise, and his attitude towards creating a life you want to live is one every one of us can learn from. If you feel so inclined, donations in his memory can be sent to the Memorial Fund for Jonathan Ko at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Whether you donate or not, you should spend some time with his blog. His candor, honesty, self awareness, and optimism make for a beautiful lense with which to view the world. And next time you go for a ride, think about just what a gift it is.