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South Jordan Journal

The ‘Jordan’ Effect: One Mother’s 2,000-Mile Journey to SoJo’s 13.1-Mile Race

Jan 15, 2020 12:38PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

South Jordan’s race series not only qualifies someone for the Boston Marathon, but it can help a still-grieving mother who traveled to Utah continue to celebrate the life of her only son by running in one of its race offerings. (City of South Jordan)

By Jennifer J. Johnson

The Middle East’s Jordan River is significant to Judaism and Christianity—the Bible says Israelites crossed it into the Promised Land and that Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John the Baptist in it.

A whole lot closer to home, Salt Lake County’s Jordan River and one of its namesake cites—South Jordan—imbued (or took on) incredible spiritual significance to a woman more than 2,000 miles away who, without knowing more than the name of the river, the city, and its increasingly legendary SoJo race series of eight races, registered for October’s half marathon and bought a plane ticket to spend five days in Utah.

The Jordan effect

Elizabeth “Liz” Johnston was on a prep break at Nathan Hale School in New Haven, Connecticut.

The second anniversary of the middle school English teacher’s son’s death was coming up, and she and a friend had talked about running a race to commemorate his passing.

She Googled the phrase “half-marathons,” then paired it with “October 19.”

The result topping the list? The SoJo Marathon.

Johnston had been sipping coffee with one hand, type-tapping with the other.

The computer now had her full attention. She set her cup down and went to the SoJo Marathon web page. She was immediately drawn to a picture with the number “138” on a man’s racing bib.

“I saw it as a sign,” she recounts.

With only minutes left in the break, the woman who had never been to Utah and considers herself an extremely anxious flying passenger and a runner not comfortable with unfamiliar courses, paid the money to enter the SoJo Half Marathon (the casual runner’s fifth “half”), then—without checking in with spouse or job—booked a plane ticket to spend a few days in Utah prior to the race.

Seeing the signs

Jordan Sebastian, age 24, died Oct. 19, 2017.

Possessing what scouts and coaches deemed “a genius football I.Q.,” Jordan wore the number “1” on his high school football jersey. 

He then rose to red-shirting at the collegiate level to play five spectacular years—versus the traditional four years—for the University of Rhode Island, bearing the number “38.”

Jordan rose even further to coach youth in sports, while juggling his academic and athletic commitments while working on a master’s degree.

He was the only son of a single mother who had not married until her son was 12 years, raising him in a “sandwich-generation” home with her parents. Jordan was extremely close to his mother and his grandfather, who, mother Liz shares, was truly more like a father to the boy.

While a bit ambiguous in terms of organized religion, Liz Johnston is crystal-clear about spirituality: She believes.

She believes that both Jordan and her father continue to communicate with her.

Her father, Mark Johnston, or “Poppa,” passed, while Jordan was an adolescent.

Liz and Jordan both found solace when they routinely saw the number “211”—on license plates, road signs, etc. This number had been special to Poppa, so, they felt routinely seeing the number was a way he was communicating with them.

Jordan’s symbolic number—the “138” that his mother spotted on the SoJo Marathon website—represents his high school and college jerseys together.

“I asked him to show me numbers as signs,” she said.

A training partner, from beyond

“Jordan was such an athletic person—so much of what he learned and got out of life was through sports,” Johnston says.

Jordan was so athletic, she said, that his strength masked the colon cancer that eventually took his young life.

Hemoglobin is complex protein in red blood cells that feeds body tissues with oxygen. When Jordan was diagnosed, he had a hemoglobin level of “5.” The normal Hb level for a man his age is about three times that.

“He shouldn’t have been able to walk around,” Liz reflects. “Because he was so virile and athletic, his body masked it.”

According to the American Cancer Society, once diagnosed, 90% of those with the cancer live an additional five years. The young man had such a strong body and will that cancer’s devouring force had, for a long time, been misinterpreted as his having lingering cold, versus detection of the impending destruction.

His obituary says it best: “He was tough; he was resilient, and did everything with relentless determination …  powering through practice even during his illness. His tenacious spirit inspired many.”

Relentlessly inspired by her son’s strength of body and character, Liz says it “felt fitting to do something physical” on the anniversary of her son’s death.

The Jordan effect—'Seeing his name everywhere!’

Choosing the SoJo Half Marathon, then, was a no-brainer, she said.

“Being out there—seeing his name everywhere—I felt so connected to him,” she said.

“I always wanted to honor Jordan and make him proud of me—that kind of big love,” she adds, likely unaware that South Jordan is a city known to have polygamist residents and the vintage cable television show of the same name. (HBO’s award-winning “Big Love” ran from 2006 to 2011.)

To honor her fallen son, the mother who traveled more than 2,000 miles to run the SoJo Half’s 13.1 miles brought a pebble with her, which she planned to toss into the Jordan River.

While in Utah, she accidentally dropped the smooth stone.

Curiously, symbolically, and she would say “spiritually,” the flattened rock broke into two pieces.

So, just like the “best friends” jewelry teens are fond of—where a heart is broken into two pieces, with each having one half of the original shape as a piece of jewelry—one piece of “Jordan’s stone” now rests in the Jordan River, and the other is treasured more than 2,000 miles away by the mother who carries it with her.

As to future SoJo races? Liz Johnson, whose Dominate the Day charitable foundation hosts an annual “DTD” 5K race in honor of her son, is “definitely coming back.”

For this commitment, she, not surprisingly, has a symbolic number—“definitely coming back… 100%”