Is This Any Way for a Spartan to Behave?

Spartans party on the Norwegian Sky.
Spartans party on the Norwegian Sky.Photographs by Brian Finke

Joe De Sena looked out over the brilliant cerulean waters of the Bahamas, and grimaced. Nearby were two swimming pools, four hot tubs, an outdoor stage framed by gas-fueled tiki torches, and hundreds of men and women in bathing suits holding bottles of light beer. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” began to play over the poolside sound system.

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here,” De Sena said.

He was wearing what he always wears: mud-caked cross-trainers, camo-print cargo pants, and a T-shirt displaying the logo of the business he founded, Spartan Race. Since the first competition, in 2006, more than 2 million people have taken part in De Sena’s obstacle-course competitions. They’ve thrown spears, crawled beneath barbed wire, and leaped over open flames. The races are designed to be both physically strenuous and Instagram-worthy. Some Spartans are professional athletes; others are dilettantes who show up for work on Monday morning hoping that a colleague will ask, “How’d you get that bruise?” Until now, Spartan events had taken place in muddy fields, on Army bases, and in empty baseball stadiums — never on a luxury liner.

From the bubbling waters of the various hot tubs emerged many tanned and sculpted arms, triceps decorated with barbed wire tattoos and wrists adorned with fitness trackers. They had boarded the Norwegian Sky, an 850-foot ocean liner, for the inaugural Spartan Cruise. The three-day journey would take them from Miami to Great Stirrup Cay, an island in the Bahamas owned by Norwegian Cruise Line, where participants would compete in a three-mile Spartan Sprint, the shortest and easiest Spartan race.

At capacity, the Sky holds 2,000 people. It was not at capacity. “I’m bleeding money on this,” De Sena said. Spartan had chartered the ship for the weekend and then spent five months trying to sell enough tickets to make back its money. Early buyers had paid full fare — starting at $829 per person — but as the date neared and berths remained empty, prices were slashed.

“Spartan Cruise” is, of course, an oxymoron. In ancient Sparta, seven-year-old boys were plucked from their homes and sent to the agoge, a harrowing combination of boarding school and basic training where the staple meal was a broth made of vinegar and boiled pigs’ blood. A luxury cruise, by contrast, can be completed by a person in a coma. The Sky offers 24-hour room service, hot-stone massages, and glass elevators playing reggae Muzak. A troupe of singers and dancers roamed the ship in heavy pancake makeup. Six other staffers, three male and three female, worked, essentially, as dance geishas. Every night they assembled near the pool in matching T-shirts and led passengers in the cha-cha slide and a bit of G-rated twerking.

(A Spartan entrant taking on a seven-foot wall obstacle.)

“Someone on my team said, ‘Cruise,’ and I went, ‘Sure, sounds like an adventure,’ ” De Sena told me. After all, a growing number of brands — including Star Trek, Paula Deen, and the National Review — have experimented with theme cruises as moneymaking ventures or marketing ploys. But, De Sena said, “I’d never been on a cruise before. I just figured we’d do what we do, but on a boat. I didn’t really envision what it would be like.”

On the poolside stage, three of the Sky’s bartenders wheeled out tables laden with blenders and shakers. Drew, the cruise’s entertainment director, who looked like a young Dan Quayle and sounded like a black comedian’s impression of a white guy, grabbed a cordless mic and announced a mixology competition. “Which cocktail will prevail?” he said. “The Tequila Sunrise? The Sex in the Pool? Or will it be our healthier option, the Melon Squash?”

De Sena groaned softly. “Had I known what I know now, maybe I could have . . .” He trailed off. “It wouldn’t have been this.”

Shortly after boarding, before the Sky had left the port, I made my way to one of the poolside bars and ordered a club soda.

“Not drinking?” the guy next to me said. He held a beer. “Normally I wouldn’t indulge before a race, but — come on!” He made a sweeping gesture with one arm, taking in the sunbathing bodies, the Captain & Tennille-ish duo playing a bossa nova cover of a Rihanna song, and, over starboard, the rush-hour traffic heading toward Miami Beach. “What am I gonna do, sit alone in my room?”

His name was Joey Patrolia. He had a shaved head, a three-day beard, and a torso that looked airbrushed even at close range.

“How do you think you’ll do tomorrow?” I asked him. I meant it as small talk, but he answered with earnest specificity.

“I’m gunning for top 25, but if I crack the top 10, that’ll be huge,” he said. He draped an arm around the shoulder of a friend and competitor, Ryan Atkins. “This guy here could win the whole thing.” Next to Atkins was Hunter McIntyre, a square-jawed young man with a quiff of blond hair who had the air of the class clown in a screwball frat comedy.

These were the Spartan elite; there were several dozen of them onboard, and they were attending the cruise free of charge. “Don’t listen to any of us,” McIntyre said. “We’re just idiot adrenaline junkies who suck at long-term planning.”

(Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena leads a warm-up.)

Most Spartans lie somewhere on the spectrum between pro athlete and schlub. In one of the buffet lines, I met Casey and Tifany Markee, who live in a suburb of San Diego. Casey, 40, is shaped like Fred Flintstone. Great Stirrup Cay would be his second Spartan race and Tifany’s first. They had paid about $5,000 for a suite. “I’ve got back problems, but I’ve been trying to get in better shape,” Casey said. He wore a Fitbit, a baseball cap with a built-in bottle opener, and a T-shirt that read the liver is evil. it must be punished. “Signing up for a race, setting that goal, is my way of staying on track. Or trying to, anyway,” he said.

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The ship still had not moved. De Sena took the poolside stage and led his flock in the central Spartan sacrament: the burpee. The Spartans set aside their drinks and completed a largely symbolic set of three. As they let loose their trademark battle cry, “Aroo!” (derived from the Marines’ battle cry, ooh rah), the Sky, as if propelled by the engagement of their cores, set sail.

Later, in the Outrigger Lounge, there were more burpees: this time, a contest pitting elites against normals. There I met Burt Simpson, a 54-year-old limo driver from New Jersey. “Not Bart Simpson,” he told me. “That guy’s a much more animated character.” Burt, just over five feet tall and slightly stooped, was frail in the chest and soft in the belly, with a pinched voice and pale skin. He wore wire-rim glasses and a CamelBak, and his T-shirt read 100% spartan badass. “There are still some obstacles that I need help with,” he said. “The monkey bars, for instance. I usually end up just riding some guy’s shoulders.”

Spartan calls itself  ”the world’s toughest race.” It also calls itself  “a true adventure that anyone can do and everyone should try.” The only way to make this contradiction less contradictory is to slightly redefine the terms. Toughness as a state of mind, a commitment not to perfection but to endless self-improvement — “perennially training,” as Chris Rutz, a 45-year-old fitness instructor from Scottsdale, Arizona, who has run more than 80 Spartans, put it.

(Hot-tub action the night before the race.)

If the Spartans have anything significant in common, it is a nebulous utopian spirit, the conviction that our society has lost its way and that we can somehow right it by eating good fats and sprinting up mountains. At the Stardust Theater, whenever the stage was not occupied by the cruise director and his troupe, Spartan tried to keep things on-brand by inviting some of the fitness mini-celebrities to give motivational speeches. Each one talked about bodily self-discipline as a path to transcendence. “Life is about pushing your limits, physically and mentally,” said Dean Karnazes, perhaps the world’s greatest ultra-marathoner. Ben Greenfield, a prominent personal trainer, talked up pranayama breathing, “which gives you mental clarity as well as an anti-aging cortisol drop.” Joe DiStefano, Spartan’s fitness and training director, said, “Don’t go looking for answers until you start asking the right questions.” His speech was about recipes.

One morning I met Sefra Alexandra, an earthy life force who owns a luxury camping business in Vermont. She sat cross-legged in an armchair on the upper deck, cradling a mug of tea in both hands. A crow landed on the ship’s railing. “Blessings be the day, Mr. Crow,” Alexandra said.

“I’m a barefoot-in-the-woods-foraging-for-mushrooms type of person,” she continued. “So why am I at my most comfortable around these muscly ex-military dudes, crawling through the mud?

It’s a visionary, creative community. It’s a community that looks at the world and says, ‘It’s imperfect, but let’s shake it up. Let’s get up earlier, work harder, move faster.’ ”

A friend approached, and Alexandra, without standing up, pulled her in for a hug. “In that sense, I guess I’m sort of the prototypical Spartan.”

Race day. The Spartans, elite and schlub alike, left their staterooms wearing eye black and Lycra and brightly colored mesh sneakers, and headed down the stairs and into the viscera of the ship. Each person was handed a Sharpie and a waiver that read, in part, “YOU MAY DIE.” We boarded small boats that whisked us to Great Stirrup Cay. The dance geishas were already at the dock, twerking their morning greeting.

We disembarked at the island, a 250-acre ring of well-manicured beaches. The signs in the sand made clear, if it wasn’t clear already, that the island was built for severe, womblike levels of relaxation: clamshell shaded chairs this way, float rentals that way. Amid all this, Spartan had erected its own incongruous infrastructure. The course was a three-mile loop around the island’s perimeter. Along the way were obstacles that took advantage of the local features: crawls through sand, short swims across narrow straits. A few yards before the finish line, Spartan staffers were feeding logs into an open fire pit — three or so feet across, flames leaping up to knee height. This would be the final obstacle, the Fire Jump. Everyone who finished the race would receive a medal, a banana, and a photo of his or her heroic leap across the micro-inferno.

I spotted De Sena, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and high socks, walking backward while addressing a camera crew from CNBC. “You compromise, but you never compromise your values,” he said as he passed one of Great Stirrup Cay’s several bars. It was 10 am and the barbacks were already in place, filling ice buckets. On the menu were margaritas and piña coladas ranging in size from small to Fun Bowl, which came in a 45-ounce souvenir cup.

A thousand people were registered for the race, but only about a hundred could fit on the course at a time, so there would be many heats: elites first, then progressively slower groups throughout the day. The first group approached the starting line. A generator was chugging nearby, and the area smelled like diesel fumes and sunblock. “Spartans, prepare for glory!” an announcer said. A smoke bomb went off, then a horn. The racers sprinted around a corner and were gone. Seventeen obstacles and 28 minutes later, the winner crossed the finish line.

(The Men’s Elite heat at the starting line.)

My heat, one of the last of the day, included men and women of all ages and children as young as eight. The MC did the usual spiel — “Spartans, prepare for glory!” — but we were prepared for mediocrity, and we knew it. The vibe was all camaraderie, no competitiveness. I was hopeless on some of the obstacles — I hadn’t climbed a rope since middle school, and it showed. But we pressed on, helping each other with the Big Cargo Net, the Dock Jump & Swim, and the Tire Flip, until we cleared the Fire Jump and crossed the finish line, hooting and shouting. My time: an hour and change. We walked toward the beach, comparing our cuts and bruises and swapping war stories. Then I found the rum bar and ordered a piña colada.

“Size?” the bartender asked.

“Fun Bowl,” I said.

That night, back on the Norwegian Sky, awards were handed out in Dazzles Nightclub. The top three female finishers and the top three male finishers stood uncomfortably on a waxed dance floor in front of a shimmery purple curtain. The top prize was $3,000. They lowered their heads one by one, and De Sena placed medals around their necks.

Then he turned to address the crowd. “We lost a lot of money this weekend, but you guys are having fun, right?” People applauded and arooed. “Next year, we’ll buy a decommissioned old battleship and use that instead.” It was hard to tell if he was joking.

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We headed up to the pool deck for the White Hot Party. The dance geishas emerged wearing matching white T-shirts that glowed electric blue under the UV lights. A five-piece band played “Moves Like Jagger.” Hunter McIntyre, clad in white short shorts and a red fanny pack, approached. “You’re thinking this whole thing was a clusterfuck. They’re losing all this money; it’s terrible for their brand. Right?”

I didn’t argue. “You could be right,” he said. “Or think of it like this: What’s better marketing than people having fun? How many of these motherfuckers are gonna make this their Facebook profile photo or get a Spartan tattoo?” Taken this way, the spectacle behind us looked less like a botched opportunity to make profit and more like a loss leader, an opulent gala for Spartan’s most loyal customers.

(The big cargo obstacle.)

I noticed that De Sena had vanished. I found him alone in his stateroom. A bottle of champagne and a tray of chocolate-dipped strawberries sat untouched on a bedside table. He did not pretend to be thrilled at the way the cruise had turned out, but he was used to the feeling. Building the Spartan brand had often entailed concessions. “Spartan is all about pushing yourself, not getting soft,” he said. “But American culture is constantly telling us, ‘Have a seat, have a cookie, be comfortable.’ And we exist in American culture. If it were up to me, we wouldn’t even have plastic cups at the races — just buckets and ladles. But my team said that would be insane. So we have cups. It’s a little wasteful, but it makes people comfortable. Same with this: It’s not perfect, but you do what you can.”

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