There is never a need to feel uncomfortable at a gym, especially in a group…
Spartan Race – An Interview with Joe De Sena
Obstacle racing is one of the fastest growing sports in the world and Spartan Race is the leading the way with over 130 races scheduled worldwide in 2016 and more than 50 in the US alone. These events are for athletes of all levels and abilities and are all about getting people out of their comfort zones into the outdoors.
At the core of Spartan Race is the idea of team and working together to overcome obstacles and becoming better versions of ourselves. I am intrigued by the old world motto of Spartan Race race and their mission of transforming people through the physical rigors of endurance events that utilize everyday landscapes.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Joe De Sena who is CEO and Founder of Spartan Race, as well as being a highly successful entrepreneur. He talks the talk and walks the walk having turned his passion for endurance racing into a vocation, when he started Spartan Race in 2010. His racing resume is the stuff of legend with over 50 Ultra events and 14 Ironman races in one year alone. Joe was more than willing to tell us his story and to pass along his experiences on the road to building Spartan Race into a worldwide lifestyle brand.
Can you tell me how you got your start and how Spartan Race was conceived?
I grew up in an area of Queens that was a little rough and tumble. Lots of organized crime and things like that. To keep myself busy I got into the swimming pool and construction business, doing jobs around the neighborhood. One of my neighbors would be like “can you clean my pool?” and another neighbor was like “can you fix the bricks around my backyard?” I built that business up over about a decade. I was lucky enough to go to Cornell for college and when I graduated I continued to run my business which was pretty big at that time. I had this friend from school who was begging me to join him on Wall Street so I finally sold my construction business to the guys who were working for me and went and did a decade on Wall Street. We built that firm up and also eventually sold it. I met my wife around that time, we bought a farm in Vermont and had four children.
So during most of that time I was racing, doing Ironman’s, Ultra racing and other long distance adventure races. Basically anything that was crazy, I was into. I loved to test myself and be out in the wilderness. I had this idea around 2000 to start a social network for crazy people who were doing these races that I was into. I figured there would be about 50,000 people worldwide that would be interested in joining and being part of this network. So from 2000-2010 I was putting on crazy races. They were big, like 5-10 day races. We’d get 50, 100, 200 people to these events but there really wasn’t enough lunatics out there to do it. Also social media wasn’t as big as it is today and we really didn’t have a very effective way of promoting and growing the network.
In 2010 and really against my own judgement I started Spartan Race which was a shorter distance that was meant more for the masses. It really took off. The name was right, the environment, the timing and it just worked. We are now in 30 countries and about a million participants a year. We transform those lives because Spartan is bad ass enough that it gets people off the couch. I was just working out with a guy two weeks ago in Singapore who works for the IMF and is a very senior guy. Now I’ve got him doing burpees. White collar, blue collar, brown collar, it doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from. If they have addictions, no addictions, breaking up with their wife or happily married, heavy or skinny. I get hundreds of thousands of emails that say “ you changed my life” or that “I was this or that and now i’m racing and training. I’m fit, I’m healthy and I’m eating better.” My goal is to get Spartan Race into the Olympics. If we can do that then I know we’re here to stay and that is progressing much more quickly than I thought it would. That’s our story in a nutshell.
So in beginning you were looking to create a race for crazy people and not necessarily what it is today?
Yes and the thing that we are still doing that is entirely different than anybody else, and a reason why it’s gotten so big, is that we’re treating it like a competitive sport. I’ve always wanted it to be in the Olympics and to be considered a real sport. The beer and the party atmosphere really has never been important to me. It’s more about putting people back in touch with the earth and the environment. Without sounding too crunchy there are psychological and biological things that occur when we take our shoes off and walk through the grass, just as the opposite happens when you sit in front of a computer screen all day. Our brains and our bodies are wired to interact with our natural environment and we don’t do a lot of that anymore. So if I’m getting people out there and they’re saying it’s transformative and they enjoy it, there is no secret sauce to that. All I did was put you back where your body belongs.
What would you say to the guy who works 9-5 and maybe has a gym membership but has heard about Spartan Race and wants to know more?
I’d say don’t be scared. In life you need to get outside your comfort zone because if you’re not growing you’re dying. This is a way to do it. If you think back to your college or high school days, the work always gets done because it’s due on a certain day. Very few people do the homework well before it’s due. The last nail of the construction job gets put in the day before the wedding. It’s just the way the world works. So if you’re running on a treadmill and you’re feeling fit there is a difference between that and actually putting a date on the calendar and saying I’m going to do a Spartan Race or a marathon or whatever it is. It’s going to force you to do all the homework leading up to that date. Without that date very few humans are going to push their limits and get out of their comfort zone. It’s going to force you to drink less, hangout with healthier people and wake up earlier. I had a guy who weighed 696 pounds. His whole life he struggled with weight. I got him down to 264 with this program. We all need it. No matter how motivated or successful we are. We all need a hard line in the sand that says “get your shit together by this date.” The Spartan brand does that.
You guys took over Fenway Park last year. Will you be back this year?
Yeah, we do it every year. We do a few races in and around Boston. I was actually against it at first because running around Fenway Park just didn’t feel authentic to me but it’s been great. Fenway was actually the only race where at the end of the race we found garbage pals full of puke. What Fenway did was gather all of these people who really loved the team and the idea of being inside Fenway but who weren’t ready for the race. It was a good sign though because by using the Fenway brand we got all those people off the couch. Puke and all.
Where in the world are you seeing the most growth for Spartan Race?
Doesn’t matter where we go. Brazil, Spain, France, Singapore – humans are all wired the same way. It doesn’t matter the culture or the language we speak. Grass is grass, mud is mud. I’m just giving them a taste of how things used to be.
As Spartan continues to evolve as a brand what are you most excited about?
For me the excitement is around training people and getting them to eat healthy. We’ve got some big partnerships with Whole Foods and Reebok with whom we’re actually making a running shoe. I’ve got strong opinions about what types of shoes people need for training because I’ve trained all over the world and I know what people need. Education is a big one too. We’re basically teaching resiliency and grit and I love transforming kids who have very little of that these days. We’re not really a bad ass culture anymore and most kids play games and sit on the computer all day. If we can get these kinds off Minecraft and outside that will be good. My kids are doing it everyday. My seven year old ran the New York Marathon and my 8 year old did the Boston Marathon.