Joe De Sena’s Spartan Empire

John Midgley

You may not know who Joe De Sena is, but you know about his brainchild: The Spartan Race is a grueling competition in which participants scramble across logs, under barbed wire, and up greased, 12-foot walls toward a finish line anywhere from three to more than 26 miles away. It’s one of the originals in what is now an exploding category of extreme adventure-endurance races that attract athletes of any skill level – the only requirement is guts.

When De Sena, a former Wall Street trader, hosted the first Spartan Race in 2010 near his current home in rural Vermont, 700 competitors showed up. Last year, more than 500,000 people participated in 120 Spartan Races in 17 countries. (It is the second-largest company of its kind in the world after Tough Mudder.) De Sena himself ran several of those courses, bringing his personal adventure-race tally, including Ironman triathlons and ultramarathons, to 125. Somehow, the 45-year-old Queens native also found time to write a book, Spartan Up!, out this month – his guide to pushing through all of life’s challenges, on the race course and off.

We caught up with De Sena while he was en route from NBC’s Connecticut offices – where he’s developing a Spartan Race TV show – to Gulfport, Mississippi, where he was scheduled to lead a workout of a thousand troops at a Navy base the next day. “I could not pass up that opportunity,” he says. “I love to break the toughest.”

Where did you get your fanatical work ethic?
If you’ve ever seen Goodfellas, you know where I grew up. The heads of the five families lived in my neighborhood, near Howard Beach. At 13, I cleaned [Bonnano crime family boss] Joe “the Ear” Massino’s pool. I didn’t know who he was, just that he was really nice to me. He got me my first dozen customers for my pool business. Back then, discussions in the neighborhood were always about who was going to jail – who would rat and who could do the time. I never got mixed up in that stuff – my mother taught me right from wrong – but I wondered, “Could I do the time?” I always tried to be fitter, stronger, tougher than everybody else. I took cold showers to see if I could take it. I’d carry big rocks around the neighborhood. I’d work in freezing rain. I’d hear adults whisper loud enough to hear, That kid’s a hard worker. You hear that enough times, you become a hard worker.

You applied to Cornell four times before you were finally admitted. Why was it so important for you to go there?
My parents split up when I was a teenager, and I spent the school years up in Ithaca with my mother. A friend suggested I apply, and I got rejected. My family didn’t care – nobody in my family had ever gone to college or ever really talked about it. But that was unacceptable to me. I love what I can’t have. I took classes there as a part-time student until they accepted me full-time. It just wouldn’t have felt right to go to another school.

How do you go from Queens and Ithaca, New York, to adventure races in the wilderness in places like Alaska, Switzerland, and Canada?
A few years after graduating, I got a job on Wall Street. Within eight months of sitting at the desk, I began to put on the pounds. There was an extremely fit guy in the office, and we started running stairs in the building together. Like, 1,500 flights. The following year, in 1998, he suggested I go to my first adventure race, and I became obsessed. “What’s harder than this?” It brought me back to the primal basics.

Many people do one big race like that and then call it quits – check that off the bucket list. Why’d you keep going?
In 2001, I got into a car accident that ripped my hip out of the socket. The first four doctors said I wouldn’t ever run again. That made me hyperfocused. I wanted to prove them wrong. I started with Pilates and bounced back from there. By the end of the year, I’d signed up for 14 Ironman triathlons. I crushed them.

Did the adventure-race obsession change you? Did your Wall Street colleagues view you differently?
It changed the way I looked at the world. Rather than meeting clients at a bar, I chose to meet them only during workouts. I’d convince them to do Bikram yoga with me. If we did have to go to a restaurant, I’d have my backpack on to run home. Some people felt alienated by that. I’m a bit of a maniac when I get on a mission.

Why did you finally decide to leave banking and start Spartan Race, Inc.?
I felt like the adventure races I was doing – things like the IditaSport in Alaska, the Raid International Ukatak in Canada, Adrenaline Rush in Dublin – weren’t open to the masses. They were extremely expensive and could last eight to 10 days. I said, let’s create something shorter in duration and less expensive but equally painful – something that still takes people to that breaking point, where they transform as an individual.

How big do you think Spartan Race will become?
We want to take obstacle racing to the Olympics. That’s our plan – to build a participant base in 42 countries, create governing bodies in each, and eventually make an official bid. That’s why we’re trying to formulate a relationship with NBC, to help broaden our platform.

In Spartan Up!, you mention that you have a few tricks that help you push through pain. What are they?
I’m really good at compartmentalizing. If you’re 10 miles into a 100-mile run and you’re thinking about mile 90, you’re dead. You’ve got to think about mile 11 and completely shut out the next 24 hours. You’ve also got to be prepared to ignore what I call the little crickets in your head – those voices that give you extremely logical reasons to quit. You’ve got to know that unless there’s a serious medical issue, there’s no stopping until you reach the goal. Now that I’ve got four children, I’ve got a lot more crickets in my brain. It’s harder for me to go out for a five-, 10-, 15-hour bike ride – as relaxing as that is – because two hours into it I’m thinking, “How can I justify spending this time away from my kids?”

Your kids are all eight years old or younger now. Will they do Spartan Races someday?
The five-, six-, and eight-year-old have all done multiple Spartan Races. The other daughter is only one. I’m going to see if my eight-year-old son can do the Boston Marathon with me this year.

You’re raising little Spartans.
Structure is superimportant. Kids that age can’t make decisions, so you’ve got to make any worthwhile activity as mandatory as brushing their teeth. We have a kung fu teacher living with us, so every morning at 5:45 AM they do kung fu for an hour, and then again at 5:30 PM. We know how much easier it is to learn languages at a young age, so the only TV we let them watch is in Mandarin. My feeling is, we have a short window to keep the pressure on them. Why would you not? They’re gaining discipline, confidence.

Is your wife, Courtney, as intense as you? You mention in the book that on your first date, you took her on an unplanned eight-hour kayak ride with no food. You proposed three months later.
She’s an amazing athlete – in college she was the star of her soccer team – but it’s because of natural talent, rather than training, like me. She’s a lot more balanced. She lets the kids stay up later on weekends. She’s definitely my better half.

When was the last time you quit something?
The last time I came close to quitting, I was doing an Ironman in Utah. Ten miles into the run, I was so nauseous. I thought, “I’ve done 20 Ironmen; who needs this?” I walked to an ambulance and just started vomiting. But as I’m thinking I’m done, this woman with one leg goes by me. It reset my frame of reference. I spent the next 16 miles of that race keeping pace with the one-legged woman, battling it out.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!