Joe De Sena learned the value of hard work cleaning the pools of Queens mobsters. And from Wall Street to the founding of his Spartan Race empire, he never stopped learning. now he wants to teach you.
Credit: Photographs by Peter Yang

On any given morning, De Sena wakes up around 4:45 am, throws his legs off the bed and into his workout gear, heads to the bathroom, takes a leak, brushes his teeth, doesn't really care if he makes noise that'll disturb Courtney ("I'm a big wake-up snob; everybody should be up early"), marches into the kitchen by 5 am, squeezes lemon juice into a cup of warm water, slurps that, hastily fires off a dozen emails, enters the mudroom, ties on his Reeboks ("No shoes inside!"), and opens the door on the outside world. It's 5:05-ish. He starts running through the brambles behind the house.

Ten 100-yard dashes later and hardly winded, he's on the second floor of a massive barn that's been converted into the most Spartan-like gym you can imagine. It basically consists of a rope dangling from the rafters and two chin-up bars attached to a crossbeam, which also anchors some TRX straps. That's about it. He's not an iron guy, he's a body-weight guy: 75 burpees, 30 pistol squats, 30 revolutions of the jump rope, five times up the climbing rope, and 30 pull-ups. Then he does them all again, four times. He's been awake for 90 minutes. An Asian man enters the room. He's a Sifu-level kung fu master and teacher. De Sena disappears for 10 minutes, returns with his two boys, who are still in their jammies and rubbing sleepy-winkers from their eyes. Thirty seconds later, the boys are running from one end of the barn to the other, warming up for their kung fu lesson.

De Sena keeps an eye on them, to make sure they tag the walls before turning around. "With kids, it's all about discipline," he says. "Extreme discipline." He pauses for a moment, then adds, "And allowing them to be creative."

After this, he may or may not take a shower. Today, he doesn't. He walks into the kitchen, opens his laptop, grabs the already-ringing phone, and gets right to work. Last year, an estimated 3.5 million people participated in obstacle-course races, up from around 50,000 in 2010, making them one of the fastest-growing athletic pursuits in history. Spartan and Tough Mudder are the two biggest names in the field, with Mudder having much better name recognition at present, which really frosts De Sena's kernels."You go to a cocktail party and bring up Spartan," he says. "Seven out of 10 times, somebody's going to go, 'Oh, is that like Tough Mudder?' And it's like, 'Are you fucking kidding me? Like, who the fuck is Tough Mudder?' " What De Sena means by this is mainly that the crap you see at a Mudder event — barbers offering Mohawks and mullets, Test Your Strength machines, and bulky guys wearing goofy costumes, even sparkly tutus — you'd never see at his. In his opinion, Mudder is a joke, with the race itself designed to appeal only to pasty-white, couch-loving suburbanites in dire need of bragworthy Twitter fodder and not much else.


"Our obstacles require athletic ability," he says, "while theirs are about branding, so they're going to electrocute you so that everybody talks about it, and it goes viral. That's not our MO." Anyway, Mudder events aren't timed, so you couldn't even really consider them competitions, the company's opinion apparently being that if you make it over the finish line, hey, you're already a winner. As Mudder's co-founder, a Harvard-educated Brit named Will Dean, recently said, "It's not a race, it's a challenge!" And how can he be proud of that? De Sena hasn't a clue.

To him, Mudder's events are yet another example of "the softening of America." He wants nothing to do with that kind of namby-pamby nonsense. As he often points out, go to any of his events­­ — the infamous Death Race is also one of his — and "you are ranked, judged, and timed." And, if he feels like it, you will be subject to his whims. If De Sena decides that a race should be extended once competitors get close to the finish line, then so be it. His guiding principle is that, "We all need adversity to grow," which at a 2008 Death Race near the summit of a nearby Vermont mountain almost cost him his life, with a bunch of mutinying, wooden-cross-wielding, disgruntled Death racers threatening to bludgeon him to death."

De Sena assaults the mountain behind his Vermont home, disciples in pursuit. 

They thought the race should have been over and they should have gotten their medals. They surrounded me and were closing in." He shakes his head, takes a sip of that green concoction, and says, "I was alone up there. They were furious. It was bullshit." He takes another swig and rounds in on the point, sort of. "Look, some people would say I'm crazy, but no," he says. "I'm on this planet. We're here for a short time. I want to get shit done. You don't have to get shit done. I want to get shit done. We have a guy comes to Spartan, missing two legs, an arm — an IED blew him up. He's high-functioning. It doesn't matter what you look like, physically. You're either getting shit done, or you're not."

Which is basically how he plans to take on Tough Mudder and eventually prevail in the war for worldwide obstacle-course domination. He's going to get shit done. He's working on a reality show with NBC. He's written a bestselling book called Spartan Up!, featuring his thoughts on business. He's trying to get obstacle-course racing into the Olympics — "specifically, Spartan obstacle-course racing," he says.

Now Courtney is back, shooing some of her shoeless kids around. She met De Sena 10 years ago at a relay-race endurance event, where she saw him finish his sandbag-carrying leg and then, apparently just for the heck of it, tag along with his teammate for the ocean-swim leg. She thought that was pretty unusual (and didn't learn until later that he'd waded into the water mainly to conquer his fear of sharks). For their first date, he took her on an unplanned eight-hour kayak trip on Long Island Sound, one PowerBar to share between them, with hardcore portaging involved. "And I didn't even know what portaging was. I mean, it was us mixing 20 dates into one." They got engaged four months later. She's had to put up with lot, but she says it's been worth it.

"Look, if the house burned down or a tornado came, you'd want him in your foxhole, and the next day, he'd be the first guy out with a shovel," she says.

But what if you want to sit down and talk about your relationship?

Quick as can be, De Sena says, "I'm not the guy."

Courtney says, "He's not the guy."

De Sena says, "If it's in a convertible in a rainstorm, maybe. Otherwise, you got the wrong guy. It's go, go!"

Courtney says, "Go, go. I like everything else about him — he's one of the only people I know, his actions line up to his values — so I accept him the way he is. I mean, who's better than him?"