Early one afternoon, a bull-chested Spartan employee named Don picks De Sena up at his Pittsfield home and drives him into Boston, where Spartan has a real office, with real workers. Along the way, De Sena flops sideways in the back seat and attempts to nap. He covers his eyes, tosses and turns, takes a call, ends a call, tries again, gives up. It's not in his nature to nap. His father once called him a "triple A personality." His brain can't help but always be working on some new angle or other. When he got tired of taking potential clients to Rao's, for example, he decided to make a name for himself by taking them to gyms and marathons instead. "I just redefined myself. This one guy who had never run 10 miles before ran 50. What do you call those experiences when you have mushrooms? You know what I'm talking about. When he was at the point when he was seeing things, we bonded in a way nobody could break."
When De Sena tired of Wall Street, he moved to Vermont, where he continued to run his trading business. When ultra-marathons and Ironman triathlons began to feel too easy and he couldn't find anything left to challenge him, he took it upon himself to cobble together his first obstacle-course race, called the Death Race, which really was like death. "It's for the fringe extreme people," he says. This was in 2005, with only eight racers entering and three finishing, and they're still being put on today. The event waiver consists of three words: "I may die" — ready, set, go.
The races involve such things as cutting tree stumps out of the ground and slogging with them through muddy trenches, eating countless pounds of raw onions, hauling a bicycle to a pond, where a race official chucks the bike chain into the water for the racer to retrieve, running up a mountain, finding an egg tucked away in the brush, chopping firewood, whatever, as long as it is unexpected. In a Death Race, there are no ground rules. It might be scheduled to last for 24 hours, but at the last minute, De Sena might change it to 48 hours. Or 72. And, finally, the finish line might be in sight, and you're just about to cross it, when suddenly you'll be told to do 100 push-ups. "Everything that can go wrong will go wrong," he once said. "There's no light at the end of the tunnel. We're basically holding your hand to help you quit. The same way life does, right?"
"OUR WHOLE PHILOSOPHY IS, WE DON'T BELIEVE IN INSTANT GRATIFICATION. IF WE TAKE THIS KIND OF COOKIE NOW AND SELL OUT, WE DON'T GET ANY COOKIES LATER, MAYBE."
Not everyone goes in for this kind of thing, of course, so in 2010 De Sena set about broadening the appeal of the Death Race with a slightly more accessible event, the Spartan Race, which is more structured, has more rules, and features a set duration, but is still hugely difficult. This year, in Spartan's fourth year of operation, 750,000 racers have signed up to compete in 120 events in 17 countries. And that's not all De Sena is up to. He's got other races to put on, including the Peak Race, a truly ghastly 500-mile event ("Spartan's a baptism. Peak is an exorcism"); plus, he's developing a bunch of Spartan offshoots — a Spartan event for kids, a Spartan event for elite athletes. He just can't help himself.
"Listen," he says. "I'm either not doing this or I'm doing it big. If I'm going to be sitting at a computer and not be outside exercising, we better change a lot of lives, otherwise, what am I doing, right?" He goes on, "Here's the thing. When I was cleaning pools, if I have five minutes where I could just sit there, fuck it, I'm gonna go clean the guy's shed, straighten it all up, the lawn furniture, too. He's not paying me for that. I'm not asking him to. But when he comes home, he sees this, he can't live without me. Nobody else is gonna do what I do, right?"
Absolutely not. But it's not as if there aren't consequences. For one, he seems to lack a certain kind of sensitivity.
"A long time ago, we had a falling out, and I stopped talking to him for six months," says Cliff Gash, his childhood pal, who also got out of Howard Beach while he still could. "He just said, 'To know me is to love me, but if you're expecting a pat on the back or a hug, you're gonna wait. It ain't coming.' And when we were kids, he set up a fight between me, who was just a skinny kid minding his own business, and the toughest kid in the neighborhood. I had 50 kids walking down the block looking for me. He thought it was funny. You understand? Everything isn't rosy when you are intimate with his type of energy. There's a flip side to it. A lot will suffer."
De Sena with his wife, Courtney, before a 2003 Ironman.
De Sena's walking through Boston's streets now — he pauses only to say, "Very unhealthy, ladies," to a couple of caramel-macchiato-slurping plumpies — and into a building. His office is on the fifth floor. He takes the steps. Inside, a bunch of young people look up when he enters, then go back to their computers, while one guy over at a corner pull-up bar continues to knock out reps. De Sena strolls around, stops briefly to chat with a marketing person named Angeline, a Cornell grad like him. A while later, Angeline says she once tried to do 300 burpees, which is the Spartan gold standard rep count, only to have her muscle fibers break down and her kidneys fail, and to find herself porcupined by IV needles in a hospital, where she was diagnosed with a condition called rhabdomyolysis. When she told De Sena, he said, "Is your house burning down? Is your family OK? Did those bad things happen to you?" She said no. He said, "Then Spartan up!"
"And then the second time it happened," she says, "I call him and he's like, 'You're soft.' So now I have this condition. But every time I want to complain, I'm just like, Grrr. Hold it in. Suck it up. " Which is what De Sena and everyone surrounding De Sena would say and do, too. But maybe that's not as it should be. Maybe Angeline shouldn't have done all those burpees in the first place. Not everyone can do what De Sena does. "The bottom line is, Joe, this guy, he's unstoppable, he's superhuman. He's always been superhuman," says Gash. Then again, of course, when you're around a superhuman, it's only human to want to be super, too.
An hour later, De Sena is in a meeting with two of his top guys, to talk about sponsorship deals for Spartan, specifically about possibly getting onboard with Speed Stick deodorant, a Colgate-Palmolive product. On the upside, Colgate's a giant company with lots of money, and in the battle against Tough Mudder, more money is crucial. On the downside, Speed Stick is a mass-market product containing aluminum compounds (which some believe are noxious, though the claims are unproven), and perhaps that would send the wrong message to Spartan's core audience. De Sena listens to the pros and cons, then leans back and says, "Doesn't Colgate have any good brands, like healthy underarm deodorant? If we're giving a million people a Speed Stick, I would feel terrible. I can't — you know what I mean?" And so the matter is settled. "Our whole philosophy is, we don't believe in instant gratification," he goes on. "If we take this kind of cookie now and sell out, we don't get any cookies later, maybe. Why not get on Tom's of Maine, forgo the money, and find really cool, healthy, and emerging brands that believe in what we do and kind of shut everybody else out? I mean, I'm not going to do Speed Stick. I'm not going to. I don't care what they fucking throw at me."So this is who this guy is, and why he is where he is; and it's why all those people show up on his Pittsfield doorstep, ready to work for basically nothing, or continue to hang in his orbit in Boston, rhabdomyolysis be damned. It's an experience like no other. It can change their lives. And if it can do that, then De Sena certainly has nothing to worry about with his four kids, no matter that they will never experience anything like Howard Beach themselves.
The next morning, he's at the InterContinental Hotel, inside stairwell number four, which is so distant and obscure the front desk has no idea where it is. The time is 5:25 am. "I'm amazed, just amazed that I'm staying at this hotel, didn't go to jail, didn't get in trouble," he says at one point. "It could have gone a lot of different ways. I'm just amazed." Then he starts running the steps. There are 504 of them, spanning 21 flights, from ground floor to penthouse. He doesn't count them. He just pounds along, his shoes striking up a constant, obliterating racket of thunder and raindrops. Four times he does this. But it seems like he could go on forever.