By Alexandra Graves
It wasn’t twenty years ago that South Korea was considered a fly-over on the way to other parts of Asia. Then came the 1988 Olympics, and Korea exploded onto the world’s stage, a dazzling economic miracle. In much the same fashion, Korea’s own Ji Sung (Jesse) Yoo rushed headlong into the world of endurance racing in 2001 and rapidly became a force to be reckoned with.
The 40-year-old Jesse Yoo has set a standard unsurpassed by anyone else in the world, completing fourteen RacingThePlanet events since his debut nearly ten years ago. This year, he’ll push for three more finishes in the Gobi March, the Sahara Race and the Kimberley Ultramarathon.
The Gobi March and Sahara Races are something of a tradition for Jesse – this year will mark his fifth race in each location. He counts the Sahara Race as a favorite, summing up its vast, sandy expanse with one word: “Free.”
Jesse raced The Last Desert in Antarctica in 2007 and 2008, the first and only competitor (so far) to conquer that course more than once. In his second race through the Antarctic, he led Kyung Tae Song, a fellow competitor who is blind.
Jesse challenges himself off the course as well. In 2002, he changed careers and now runs a company in Seoul and gives business lectures. Last year, for another intellectual challenge, he wrote Hi Crazy, an account of his racing experiences that was selected as a book of excellence by South Korea’s Ministry of Culture. Jesse says his fans in Korea want to run with him, but believes they would in fact end up beating him in training. “They are faster than me. I don’t like training, so I’m very slow.”
Lack of training may seem surprising for an endurance runner, but when you run 700 kilometers over the course of a year, as Jesse hopes to do in 2011, training becomes superfluous. Instead Jesse focuses on keeping himself motivated during the races, enlisting the help of rock and dance music and envisioning the food awaiting him at the day’s finish line. When he does train, he prefers the landscape of his native Korea, where jagged mountains present a new challenge in every direction. And if there’s anything to know about Jesse, it’s this: he doesn’t back down from a challenge.