009: Joe De Sena of Spartan Race and Death Race

FYS 009 | Spartan Race

We’ve got another really cool guest. His name is Joe De Sena. Joe is the Founder and CEO of Spartan Race, which is a crazy series of races that they have now all over the world. If you’ve never done one of these races, they’re crazy. It’s extreme adventure racing. I did one of these types of races years ago with some friends during a Tough Mudder. In our case, we went up to Big Bear. It was about twelve miles. We had 22 different obstacles, everything from jumping over fences to going through cold water baths to carrying logs up the mountain. I’ve got to know Joe and he’s a very cool guy, very entrepreneurial. He just has a great way about attacking life from his own perspective, how he got this thing going. It’s spread virally all over the world in Russia, China, Japan and all over Europe. As always, please go into iTunes, Finding Your Summit. Rate, review, helps us out quite a bit and we appreciate it more than anything.

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Joe De Sena of Spartan Race and Death Race

I’m very pumped up because I have a fitness guru. I’m not sure if that’s the way that he would describe himself. This guy is a total stud. His name is Joe De Sena. He is the CEO and Founder of Spartan Race. If anybody has done these crazy races, that’s what they are. They’re crazy. I’ve done a couple of them and it takes a lot of training hard and everything else. Very excited to get in to this conversation about how this whole thing came about. Joe, how are you doing?

I’m doing great. I’m excited that somebody wants to talk to me.

You’ve done such a great job with platform. Within platform, you’ve done a great job of establishing between a book and the Spartan Race and you’ve got a podcast going on, which I’m a subscriber. It’s great stuff and it seems like when you do your format, are there two or three of you in the room talking, having these conversations?

Yeah. We took myself who has a perspective on things. We’ve got Colonel Nye, the military who’s got a perspective on things. We’ve got Johnny Waite who’s part psychologist and just a great guy, who’s got his perspective and then you got Sefra. Sefra is a character. She studied plants at Cornell. She gets into the whole earthy, crunchy side of things. I go out and interview somebody for twenty minutes and then we come back to the farm and we talk about it of what we learned.

I follow, I listen and it’s inspiring. I have a lot of content that I listen to and that’s certainly one of them. I know you’re an East Coast guy. You’re a New York guy. You certainly have been down the path of these entrepreneurial pursuits. I did a little background on you and it sounded between a t-shirt business and pool cleaning and all that stuff. You had a bug to be your own guy and start that way. That certainly must have created the foundation for you to where you are today, right?

Yeah. We have four children. We’re very fortunate with four healthy kids. Our eldest is eleven. I’m excited to say they are outside right now playing with a rope. The fact that it feels like when we grew up, we just go outside and play with stuff. That’s good because normally it’s an iPad or an iPhone or something. I think all the time, “How am I going to instill in them what you just described? How am I going to get them to sell t-shirts or get them to sell fireworks or do the things I did?” Somebody didn’t teach me that. I just did it. When you asked me that question, I did all that. I’m no stranger to business. I ask every single day, “The wheel turns in my head. How did I end up that way? How do I pass that on?” Not so much because we need our kids to be entrepreneurs but the drive and the passion and the enthusiasm, I’m relentless and I think maybe I’m wrong. Who knows? Those are good skills and attributes.

I’ve got two girls. One is 21 at USC and the other one is going to Arizona and she’s eighteen. I found that for me my magic in terms of the kids that they are today is lead by example. If there is too much coaching and things like that, to me they tend to push back at times. I show them the path by my actions has been inspiring for them and they’re great kids. I couldn’t ask for anything better. Now, you’re doing all these entrepreneurial stuff as a young kid growing up, you get in the base. Then you go off to Cornell and from there you end up on Wall Street, right?

Yeah. I was running some businesses. My parents got divorced. My mother moved my sister and I to Ithaca when they got divorced. They took her to New York, which is where Cornell was. I had no intention of going to college. Nobody in my family had gone to college. I didn’t have good grades. It wasn’t something I was focused on. A friend of mine, right when we were leaving high school and I was going to move back to Queens where my dad was, where the cool things were going on, my buddy said, “Let’s go to Cornell.” I said, “How would we do that? My grades are terrible.” “My dad is a professor. He’ll get us in.” We both applied and it felt cool. I threw on a suit and had my first interview in an Ivy League school. I had some business and some things but this felt different. Neither of us got accepted. Then I was really interested like, “I want to go to this school.” I found out from him and his dad that we could actually go to school non-matriculated and not earn credits. However if we did well and they accepted us, we would then get those credits moved over. I said, “I’ll learn how to study this summer when I go back to Queens. I’ll go to St. John’s. I’ll take a few classes. I’ll learn this thing called studying and then I’ll come back to Cornell this fall. I’ll do my three classes they’re going to let me do. I’ll prove to them that I’m worthy.” I did it. I did really well and I was proud of myself. I carried around a suitcase. I wore a suit every day. I was like Alex P. Keaton from that show called Family Ties. “No way weren’t they going to accept me. I crushed it. Two As and a B in an IvyLeague,” and they didn’t accept me.

FYS 009 | Spartan Race

Spartan Race: There are times when you’re supposed to pivot. It’s hard to know.

I applied again, I did it again and then I did it again. I did it four times. I was broken by the fourth semester that maybe school wasn’t for me. Certainly, this school wasn’t for me or I wasn’t for them. I met somebody through my mother. My mother was teaching yoga to a lady who was running a textile department at Cornell, clothing and apparel. There were 93 women in her department and no men. She sat me down through my mother’s connection before I left to quit school because I wasn’t being accepted. She said, “What do you know about textile?” I said, “Not very much but I’ve sold some t-shirts.” “There’s 93 women in our department, were trying to get more men.” I said, “I love textile. I’d love to get in your department.” I don’t know if it was a woman idea or the textiles but she accepted me. I went to Cornell, met a guy at Cornell who manage billion dollars, Italian, took a liking to me the last two years I was there. He loved the fact that I fought my way in. When I graduated, I went back to Queens to run my construction business at that time and he persuaded me eventually to go to Wall Street.

The name of this podcast is called Finding Your Summit. It’s really about being hit with adversity and then overcoming that and accomplishing something successful. We’re going to get in to Spartan Race but if we stop the story right here, just the determination of you had your eye on the goal. You kept being rejected, rejected, rejected and you found your way in. It’s really cool.

You’ve got to be careful though because finding your summit has been a question I have asked myself for fifteen years, specifically around actual mountain climbing or when do you pivot? What you and I are talking about here is just being relentless. Thomas Edison, 900 light bulbs until he figures out the light bulb that works. There are times when you’re supposed to pivot. It’s hard to know. People get divorced, they change jobs or whatever. Who are we to say, “No, you’ve got to stick to it. Put your head down?” I guess there are times when you’re supposed to make a left turn.

That’s a whole area where we could really get deep into. I think based on a different time, my summit years ago was trying to play in the NFL and I made it. I was relentless with that. Then after that I came out and like you, I throw in the suit and tie thinking that was the right thing to do. Ultimately, I ended up starting different businesses that were multi-million dollar businesses, but that was all my focus. That’s all I cared about. Then I spun out of that and then this whole mountain climbing thing. Based on the time of your life, there can be multiple summits. It’s just what you’re going after at that particular time. It’s all good. It’s all adjusting. It’s metaphorical of course. It’s not about mountains. It sounds like it is but it’s really about whatever you’re keen. One of other things that I found for myself with that about knowing when to pull the plug, I found that my greatest strength is me being completely relentless and my biggest weakness is about me being completely relentless. We’re two birds of the same blow.

It’s learning how to fly an airplane and not jumping off buildings. John F. Kennedy died the day that I was supposed to go on my solo, junior. I thought, “That relentless personality I have, the relentless personality you have is going to be a dangerous thing for me as a pilot because I’m doing it. I’m going,” and so I pull the plug instead, “Flying is not for me. I would rather have a pilot that maybe isn’t so relentless.” Ed Viesturs, a famous US mountain climber, he puts in his book, “Getting up is optional and getting down is mandatory,” and that’s my favorite.

It’s awesome to climb with him too. The guy is an animal. You’re on Wall Street, you’re kicking it but you’re not tracking. It’s not you, you’re not feeling purposeful or something?

I’m making money. My purpose at that point of my life, I just wanted to make money. I’ve been thinking about this recently. Just being able to say that I had a Wall Street firm, I felt like king of the mountain. I was feeling good. I wasn’t feeling great physically. I was losing that feeling of being alive because you’re sitting at a trading desk, you’re eating lots of garbage food. It’s all about money. Then once I had some money, plus now I know how to make money, that was a great accomplishment. Then it was like, “Now I want to do something purposeful.” When you’re making that kind of money, it’s hard to leave but I pulled the plug. I sold it and we bought a farm in Vermont. We did fourteen years on the farm. We raised four kids. They’re not completely raised, my oldest is eleven; a bunch of chickens, Scottish Highland cows.

I can relate to that because I spend way too much time in front of the computer with my media job. The refreshing thing is when you can get out into nature. In my case, it’s these series of mountains around the world. I feel like I’m going to petrify behind the computer screen with all the hours. You walk into these different buildings and you’ve got rows and rows and rows of these kids or people. Nobody communicates because they’re communicating with their computer out to the world. It’s a whacked out thing.

I’m doing it every day all day now. I thought I got away from it when I left Wall Street. It’s an addiction. I’ve got to throw the phone and the computer away at some point.

I want to talk about Death Race too because I’ve heard about it. A buddy asked me to be on it a couple of years ago. I’m not sure who came first or what came first. How did that originate?

I’m on Wall Street. It’s mid ‘90s and I stumbled upon long-distance adventure races. 350-mile, 500-mile event self supported, kayaking, biking and hiking. I find this stuff and I fall in love with it because I get off the trading desk and I feel alive in the mountain, which ultimately leads me to pull the plug and move to a farm in Vermont because I want to feel alive everyday. I want to be around nature and have trails to hike. I started doing all this stuff and I’m an entrepreneur, so by the year 2000 comes around I said, “I can put on events.” From 2000 to 2010, I messed around with a bunch of different formats. Most of them were very long distance events, 300-mile plus events or 72 hours or longer. The reality was it’s not economically viable. There are just not enough crazy people that want to do that stuff. I was passionate about it, I wanted to do it. I lost money for ten years playing with different names and formats, Death Race. I had an expedition at British Virgin Islands whereI added sailing. I have crazy races. I lost a guy for eight days down in the British Virgin Islands. He drifted a 150 miles in a dingy boat, ended up on an uninhibited island. We found him with the coast guard. It was not a money maker with those distances.

Then in 2010, after just losing money and getting frustrated with the whole thing as a business but having personal fund doing it, against my own wishes and my own instinct, I put together three-mile, eight-mile, thirteen-mile event called Spartan. Three-mile was the if you completed all in a year because that would change your life. Doing one race, climbing one mountain wasn’t enough to change your habits in my mind. You needed to come out of hibernation in the holidays and the winter. Do a tune-up race, a three miler. Do something in July, August, eight miles and then at the end of the year finish with thirteen. That hopefully would have changed your habits; you’re eating healthy, you’re training all year. That was the concept. That was 2010. By 2012 it looked like, “This thing is really going to work.” We were in five or six countries, a couple of hundred thousand people. With 35 countries now, with a million participants a year, I have got a tiger by the tail that I’m trying not to do what I was doing at Wall Street, which is sit in front of a computer everyday and be miserable, and here I am and doing it again.

FYS 009 | Spartan Race

Spartan Race: Doing one race, climbing one mountain wasn’t enough to change your habits.

Obviously there are people around the country, within your state, Vermont, and then the East Coast, West Coast. It’s spread across, and then it goes internationally. Where do you think the connection is for people?

I think the connection is a few things. One is sport; people like sport and this is a sport. You go out, you get the time to yourself and compare yourself to other people and compete. Two, it’s transformative, just like climbing a mountain. Einstein said, “During adversity, a man is introduced to himself,” men or women. You’re out there and you get to find out who you are just like climbing a mountain. There’s health and wellness. You feel good and healthy and you’re changing your habits. You’re waking up earlier and you’re going to bed earlier. I think those are the reasons why people go hook, line and sinker. They’re getting tattoos by the thousands with the logo on it. I think in this day and age of working out of cubicles, people are looking for something to align their lives with. This is a healthy thing to align your life with.

I did the Tough Mudder. I was blown away by everything you just talked about and how gung-ho people were. They jump over fences, under barb wire and that type of thing. I will never do that again because the last obstacle was running through this electrical field. There’s a 10,000 volt thing and I got the major hit. There was three feet of water. I literally got knocked out and fell face first, which got posted on YouTube. It was miserable. I would never do it again. I’m absolutely scarred for life.

That’s the difference between us and them. If you remember the Fonzie in Happy Days, there was a saying called jumping the shark. They did the jumping the shark because they were trying to revive the show. We’re not going to electrocute people. We’re not going to do silly things. We’re not going to do tear gas because it makes a lot of noise. It’s like jumping the shark. It’s good PR and good media. That’s not athletic, it’s silly. If I was going to be involved, it had to be athletic. It had to be something we can take to the Olympics, which is why we chose the name Spartan. Anything with the name mud in it would be a fad. You couldn’t really build a lifestyle brand around it.

It’s a great name. For those who haven’t seen it, the logo too is killer. You’ve got flames coming out and it’s cool. The colors, you spent obviously a lot of time thinking about this and visually what that would look like. It shows really well. What countries do you see this expanding outside of the US?

Last year, we lived with a family in Tokyo to grow out Japan. The year before that, we lived in Southeast Asia and Singapore to grow out Southeast Asia. Now, we are all throughout Europe. We are beginning Latin America. We are all over Asia, US, Canada, 35 countries. There’s not a country in the world that we don’t go to and sell out. For instance, you go to Japan, “The Japanese aren’t going to like this.” Four years I fought with the Japanese, “It’s not going to work.” I opened up two months later, it sold out. China, “You’ve got to change the product. They won’t work in China,” sold out. This is a human thing. It doesn’t matter what country, what culture, what the economic conditions are, they want it. They all know the word Spartan. We studied little Greek history going to school but I just assumed in China, they’re not talking necessarily about the Spartans. The Spartans were the most bad ass military that the world has ever seen. Any modern day military in any country, the units within those militaries in any country typically call themselves some version of a Spartan. It really infiltrates all countries we go to, the word and the brand.

My favorite movie of all time is Gladiator. It’s just so awesome when Russell Crowe was down there in the Rome theatre and they’re trying to kill him. They’re Gladiators. They’re Spartans and they’re out there fighting back. Just that word makes you feel tough. How do you stay in shape? You’ve got all this stuff going on. Your whole goal was to get off your ass and get out there, start running and be much more involved in these different events or races that you’re doing and then you created one. On top of that, you’ve created this really integrated platform where you’re branching on these different countries. You actually go and live in that country, you get to experience the culture, what the people are like. What a great life.

I tell my wife that all the time, “There is no complaining. We cannot complain.”

You have no complains, at the same time I have two, you have four. You just have a lot of responsibilities going on. How do you carve out the time? You look great.

My routine is non-negotiable. Everyday, it’s a minimum of an hour to 90 minutes. Then I get roped in to going to do things whether it’s a Spartan Race or a 50-mile run or something. I typically need about two to three weeks to tune up. I keep a base level of fitness with my hour to 90 minutes a day. What does that look like? It’s a lot of body weight exercises. It’s certainly burpees because I’m a burpee freak. It’s got pull ups in there. It’s got a lot of mobility and flexibility exercises. I’ll do air squats but I’ll make sure I spend a couple of seconds at the bottom just loosening up. I’ve got all kinds of Bikram Yoga moves that I incorporated into strength moves. At the end of the day when I look at 70 year olds, they just start to lose the ability to move. I don’t want to lose that. None of us should. I try to remain really mobile. I go on small rounds. I don’t run a lot. I never get injured. I train like a boxer in some ways. I wait until there’s an event coming up and I’d take it a little more serious. Otherwise, I’ve got that base level of 60 to 90 minutes a day.

There’s a guy that I interviewed, another climbing icon. This guy’s name is . He’s 88 years old. I was actually in Sun Valley and I saw him walked by. When he walked by, it was like seeing Paul McCartney or something. I jumped up and I’m fired up. I didn’t know the guy. Growing up in the State of Washington, both he and his brother Jim were absolute icons. His brother Jim was the first American guy to climb Everest. They started a whole integrated climbing expedition group out of Mount Rainier. When I ran over to him in Sun Valley in this bar, I go up and I grabbed him by the arm in the back and he spins around. I delivered my thing in 30 seconds. When I grabbed his arm, this guy is 88 years old, and it was like grabbing my hardwood table. The guy was like a tree trunk, still super active. He’s not climbing like he used to do, but at whatever level he can still do it. He is doing something to keep that body lose and all the movement. If I’m an inspiration to anybody being my age, somebody coming up and how I’ve been able to keep in shape, this guy is absolutely my idol. I was like, “That’s who I want to be.” I don’t have to be like this broken down car because you haven’t gone in for a tune up in twenty years.

You and I are on the same page there. We’ve got to take control of that ourselves. People listening to this podcast, we own that. There’s only one body we get to live in. This is it. You don’t take care of it, nobody else is going to. I’m with you.

Herschel Walker used to always talk about his body being his temple. I believe that too. I’m just very aware of what I put in my body, in my rest and working out. A lot of times, I do two a day still. There’s something early in the morning that gets you going, gets you in the right mindset. Then depending on the day, if there’s an opportunity to go out for a jog or something at night, I just go out and do it. It’s the fuel for life to me. Where do you see Spartan Race going at this point? You’ve grown the brand. It’s doing awesome.

We’re going to Olympics. This will be an Olympic sport. That would be super exciting.

You’ve created this category. How does that work? How do you become an Olympic sport?

I wish I could tell you that I knew how that worked. The way I operate my life is I fire and then I get ready and then I aim. I went out three plus years ago and I told the world doing podcast like this and getting in the media. I said, “We’re going to be an Olympic sport.” I had no freaking idea how we’re going to do it. I figured that if I said it enough it would just happen. That led to people calling me. That led to having some meetings with the Olympic committees. It really looks like this is going to happen. We’ve got to be in 42 countries, we’ve got to have a bunch of federations around the world. We’ve got to have a buy-in from the Olympic committees. The reality is in some ways we’re a perfect fit. We’ve got this giant audience. If you look at a lot of the sports that are Olympics sports, we outshine them, 5,000 to 1 as far as number of people, spectators. This is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.

Hopefully, you’re going to be that guy up there lighting the torch. It’s amazing to take something and grow it and then it takes on a life of its own, which is what Spartan has become, which is really cool. You’ve done so many things about drive and determination and winning and getting there and overcoming things. There are probably a lot of subplots that we didn’t talk about in terms of things that you had to overcome whether it’s the Japanese government or whatever, “No, this isn’t going to work here,” and overcoming that. What would you tell people as a parting word of advice about young guys that are getting out there, they’ve got their eye on something that they want to accomplish and they’re hit by some kind of adversity?

FYS 009 | Spartan Race

Spartan Race: You better become proficient at adversity if you want to be successful on this planet.

I would say to young people you’ve got to prepare for adversity because there is no way around it. Just like what Steven Pressfield said, he only became successful when he realized that everyday you wake up, you’re going to face resistance. Everyday in the mountain you’re going to face issues. You’ve got to climb the second you wake up until the moment you go to bed in your tent. Unless you accept that, you’re not going to be successful. Whatever the endeavor is, whether you’re going to be a mom, a mechanic, a monk, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about money. It’s about being successful and achieving the goals you set out to achieve. You better become proficient at adversity if you want to be successful on this planet. How do you become successful? In the old days, it was just living life. We would get on a horse and carriage and try to go across the United States. That was serious work. Your grandma died along the way, your wife gave birth, one of the wooden wheels broke; that was no joke. You get frozen out there. Today, we’ve got a manufactured adversity. I’ve got to do my burpees. We had to take some cold showers. Maybe park a mile from the grocery store. Maybe take the stairs instead of the elevator. If you could get used to and get proficient and start to build something we call obstacle immunity, when a proverbial shit hits the fan, it’s going to be no big deal and it will. There is no business, no goal that you’re going to go after in life that you’re not going to face tough times.

If you haven’t gone through a tough time, you’re lying to yourself. It hits everybody.

That means you’re climbing 100-foot hill in the backyard. You’re not going out of your comfort zone if you’re not facing adversity.

Where can people find you? I want to make sure that they know about your podcast, which is really cool and the Spartan Race. Where can they sign up? Where can they join?

They can go to Spartan.com and learn all they want. They could shoot me an email anytime at

It’s been great and a pleasure. I’ve been chasing you around to try to get you on this podcast and finally it happened and very excited about that.

Thanks for having me.

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