If you're the type that thinks, "Hey, maybe I ought to put my kid in a canoe and drag that canoe up the snow-covered side of a snow-covered mountain for no reason other than to do it," then your name could be Joe De Sena. Except there's already one Joe De Sena in the world, and not enough room for two. Besides, he's already done that. Just like he's already been in a horrific car accident, had doctors tell him his running days were over, and within a year completed 14 Ironman triathlons, leading his childhood friend Cliff Gash to ask, "You know what that's like? What human could do that?"
These days, De Sena spends much of his time in the kitchen of the Pittsfield, Vermont, farmhouse where he maintains the part-time world headquarters of Spartan Race, the country's foremost obstacle-course racing operation, which he founded in 2004. Forget Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and all the punky rest, Spartan is the hoo-rah most grueling, and De Sena won't let you forget it. He's 45, wears his hair cut above the ears, is old-school handsome like a young Charlton Heston, gives off a brisk attitude of no small talk, can drop and knock out 300 burpees, takes no vitamins, drinks no alcohol, has never touched a cigarette, et cetera. Also, he grew up in Howard Beach, in Queens, New York. And without Howard Beach, onetime home to Mafia bosses like John Gotti, there is no Joe De Sena.
He holds up a glass with something funky in it that looks as though it came from the bottom of a drainage ditch. "Hey, you want some green juice?" he says. "This green juice is great for you!"
His phone rings. He mashes it to his ear, talking Spartan sponsorship deals, then he's hunched over a laptop — more Spartan business — and after that, he's seeing to it that his wife, Courtney, 37, and their kids remove their shoes before entering the house. Here they come now, spilling in: Courtney quite slender, fit, and pretty; the kids all younger than nine, two boys and two girls, their names a jumble.
"LOOK, SOME PEOPLE SAY I'M CRAZY, BUT WE'RE HERE ON THIS PLANET FOR A SHORT TIME. I WANT TO GET SHIT DONE."
"Hey, no shoes!" De Sena pipes up. "It takes two-and-a-half seconds to take off your shoes. It takes 10 minutes to clean up and sweep. Hey, I'm just saying."
De Sena is big on time management and chop-chop efficiency. He was this way even before he started his predawn-until-well-after-dark pool-cleaning outfit at the age of 13, which he later sold for half a million back in Howard Beach, where he had 750 clients, most of them wiseguys. In a nutshell, he's always been superlative like that.
A guy named Mark walks into the kitchen and leans against a counter. Mark is a former Marine who looks like one and lives down the street in an unheated, no-running-water barn, sleeps with two sleeping bags shoved one inside the other. The barn is located next to the Amee Lodge, a bed-and-breakfast, where Mark is the handyman. De Sena, who came here to Pittsfield 12 years ago from a career on Wall Street, owns both places. He also owns two local farms, 700 acres total, one of which has 11 pregnant dairy goats on it; a mountain (the one he canoed up); a Pilates and Bikram yoga studio; a wedding-retreat business; and the Original General Store, a Pittsfield institution he took over shortly after arriving and remodeled, much to the consternation of the town, pop. 546, most of whom are regular old Vermonters, who took to calling De Sena "Joe Millionaire," and evidently hoped he would soon go away.
"It was like, 'Who is this guy?' " recalls Courtney. " 'Is a Hooters next?' "
De Sena with two of his four children, Charlie, 6, and Jack, 8, in Pittsfield.
"They didn't accept us at first, and I wasn't used to that," says De Sena. "As a kid, I could walk into any mobster's house, sit down, and eat dinner, right? I was liked. I was friendly. Then I'm in this town, and, yeah, I was not ready for that. Now I'll never leave, motherfuckers."
More to the point, he not only stayed, he also multiplied, because where De Sena goes, lots of other people go, too. That's the magnetic effect he has, mostly on those who have raced in his events — crawled under barbed wire, leaped over fire pits, chucked spears into the vast beyond, and slogged for countless miles carrying 30-pound buckets filled with rocks. The races change them. Afterward, they say stuff like, "You come out of it, and you weren't supposed to be able to do it, but you do it." They want more of how that makes them feel. So they show up on his doorstep, he opens the door, and in they come — guys like Mark, who's still leaning against the counter, arms at his side, looking relaxed but alert, maybe a little coiled.
Once here, no one is turned away. "It's a lot of chaos," says Courtney. "At any time, I could go into the kitchen and learn, 'Hey, this person is going to sleep on the couch tonight.' "
"It's like a vortex," says De Sena.
"You have to be able to tolerate that," says Courtney.
So far, about 100 guys and gals have found themselves sucked in like this, after which De Sena puts them to work at one of his operations, piling it on, job after job, task after task: Fill this truck with slabs of stone — OK, now fill this other truck — until most of them eventually give up and hobble off. "Those are the fireflies," says De Sena. "They flame out pretty quickly. See, I'll help anybody. But then you've got to at least show some spark." De Sena nods at Mark. "Like Mark here. He doesn't talk very much. He just wants to know what the mission is. Gets it done." At the moment, the core group consists of 10 men and four women, the lengths of their stays ranging up to four years, each of whom has successfully latched on to one of De Sena's favorite dictums: "If you bite off more than you can chew, keep chewing." So that's what you see when you come to visit Pittsfield these days, a lot of people chewing. But no matter what, of course, nobody chews more than the Spartan leader himself.