Racing Toward Wellness
Author: Lauren Hunsberger | Photography: Taryn Emerick | Posted In: Meet | December 2021
Five years ago, Rodney Jessen was facing a harsh reality.
“I was 57 years old, overweight, and just survived a pretty serious bout of skin cancer. Also, my [type 2] diabetes was out of control, and that resulted in fatty liver and cirrhosis of the liver,” he says while sitting at the kitchen table of his Kirkland home.
While recounting his health journey, he repeatedly gets work calls for OutToday, his plumbing, heating and electrical company. He picks up the phone with seemingly boundless enthusiasm, eager to assist in whatever problem the customer might have. And his current level of energy doesn’t seem to match the picture he’s painting of his extreme health problems just a short time ago.
“There wasn’t really one specific moment or epiphany. I just knew I had to change my life pretty drastically,” Jessen says. “I knew I couldn’t keep going down that path. My heart literally couldn’t handle it.”
That path was the result of what he describes as a lifestyle that revolved around spending most of his spare time at the local bar scene, drinking, eating tons of fried foods late at night and feeling absolutely horrible the next morning.
“It got pretty scary at some points, just based on the [test] numbers alone,” he says. And that says a lot considering his greatest passion in life has always been racing motorcycles.
Since Jessen was a very young kid growing up on the Eastside, motocross racing was his world, and he spent most of his time whirring and jumping through the woods with friends or on racetracks. He was so proficient that in his 20s he became an elite athlete, competing in the pro class at Seattle supercross.
And it’d be easy to assume, given his perceived attraction to extreme lifestyles, that he’s just a natural thrill seeker, someone who likes to live a little dangerously. But it’s more poetic than that.
“It’s not about the need for adrenaline at all though,” he explains. “Adrenaline goes away after the first few minutes. I am drawn to the sport because there are so many things you have to focus on that it allows you to escape everything else. You can get into a flow state that’s like nothing else.”
But, he left his beloved sport for a few decades. He got married, started a business, had children, and his life on the track grew more distant. That is, until his health took such a big hit. He knew he needed to get back in good health and had the idea to return to the activity that brought him so much joy when he was younger. “I felt like that was really the best solution for me.”
If you’re unfamiliar with motocross, racing might not seem like a difficult physical feat. Many people think the bikes do most of the work. But Jessen explains, that couldn’t be more untrue.
The bikes are usually around 200 pounds. “And it takes every muscle in your body to control them,” he says. “It’s all about core strength and a lot in the legs.
“On top of that, your heart rate is pushed to the absolute max, sometimes for hours on end. You have to train for that; you have to be in top cardiovascular shape.”
So, when Jessen decided to return to the sport in his 50s, the first thing he did was come to the Bellevue Club for strength and conditioning. It wasn’t an easy feat, and it took a few years to get to the point where he felt he could start racing.
“I’ve never been the type of person who can work out just to look good, or even just for health, if I’m being honest. I needed an additional incentive to get healthy again—and racing gave that to me,” Jessen says. “I had to return to what I love.”
Now, Jessen beams with life while he explains how motocross saved his life. He reconnected with friends on the circuit, giving him a sense of camaraderie, and he’s constantly traveling to races again. He keeps a meticulous shop in his garage and has fully embraced the life of a racer again.
“I’m in the best shape I’ve been in 30 years,” he says. “I can ride four-hour endurance races, multiple days in a row.” And, it’s worth noting that he’s leading the pack while doing so.
He also lost a significant amount of weight, managed to get his diabetes to a stable place and build muscle, which he admits is harder to do at that age, but far from impossible.
He says he knows not everyone who needs to transform their life should take the same road he did. It’s not a life that will make everyone healthy. His advice, rather, is to find the thing that makes you happy and lean into it. Leverage what naturally excites you to make lasting changes.