Tag Archives: Joe De Sena

Super Spartan Miami – Raising the Bar (April 12, 2014)

By Pete Williams

SpartanMiami6MIAMI – To see the current edition of the Super Spartan Race, it’s hard to believe it’s the same event that appeared here at the Oleta River State Park just two years ago.

That race was tough, but Spartan Race has dialed it up a notch to attract mostly hardcore athletes, creating a punishing, ass-kicking course over 8.5 miles, moving the date from mid-February to mid-April to add to the degree of difficulty with increased South Florida heat.

But the biggest difference is the window dressing. Two years ago, Spartan came across as just another fledgling endurance sports operation. There was little branding, lame black T-shirts that looked like 1980s concert rags, little sponsorship other than a cheesy “Dial for Men” partnership, and post-race refreshment that consisted of half a banana and a Dixie cup of tap water.

What a difference Reebok sponsorship, private equity investment, and the relentless drive of Spartan founder Joe De Sena can make. Saturday’s event was blanketed with black-and-red Reebok Spartan branding, from wind flags to obstacles wrapped in signage to literally miles of Spartan Race barrier tape lining the running paths throughout Oleta’s slash pine forests.

SpartanMiami3Throw in a tent city of sponsors, sharp fitted T-shirts, post-race refreshment that included the Core Power recovery drink, full bananas, and Clif Builder bars (a sponsorship that apparently has been swiped from arch rival Tough Mudder) and Spartan now comes across as a big-time endurance sports property.

But what makes the event is what Spartan is not. De Sena, an accomplished endurance athlete himself, has worked to distance his event from teamwork-style mud runs and the type of Fear Factor-style obstacles that Tough Mudder provides.

That means no water slides, plank jumps, claustrophobia-inducing tunnels, or electroshock. Just a relentless parade of ass-kicking, back-wrenching, cramp-inducing physical assaults that weeds out all but the most well-prepared athletes. Then there’s the mandatory 30-Burpee penalty for failing to complete any obstacle successfully.

SpartanMiami4There’s a tendency to say Spartan is more CrossFittish than other obstacle events. But we don’t know of too many CrossFit boxes that require 8.5 miles of running a month, let alone a day. No obstacle event better combines running, strength, and endurance demands.

We’ve done about 40 obstacle races and can’t recall ever seeing so many people doubled over with cramps. Spartan upped the number of water stops to four for this race, but we were glad we raced for the first time ever with a Camelbak hydration system. By the time our wave left at 10:15 it already was 80 degrees. Even with a course that included miles of shaded running in the woods, that was tough.

Though not as brutal as the obstacles, which seemed to be laid out in increasing order of difficulty. The first few miles were familiar — a half-mile slog through waist-deep water, a 30-yard swim (lifeguards, tow ropes, and life jackets available for those in need), monkey bars (interesting wrinkle with nets instead of bars, which were easier to grasp but tougher on the hands), and plenty of wooden walls.

SpartanMiami5After a twisting, meandering 5K trail stretch with a few obstacle breaks, the real punishment began. There was an up-and-downhill five-gallon bucket of gravel carry for 100 yards that left many competitors struggling in frustration. (The key was not to stop, suffering through the pain. Once you stop, it’s tough to pick the bucket back up.) This was followed shortly by Spartan’s 80-pound concrete boulder carry (slightly less for women), and another 100-yard carry, this time with sandbags. There was a dash across stumps that needed to be done American Ninja Warrior style to avoid a fall (and 30-Burpee penalty), the familiar horizontal pegboard crossing (which I’ve still never completed, 30 Burpees for me), and a new brutal tire drag-and-pull obstacle.

Spartan kept the sandbag hoist for mile seven and finished with the familiar gauntlet of final mile obstacles, including the spear throw (miss, 30 Burpees), rope climb, and barbwire mud crawl. There were no Spartan warriors wielding rubber mallets guarding the finish line, perhaps because athletes were so beaten down or because the novelty has grown tired.

SpartanMiamiTherein lies one of Spartan’s strengths — continually refreshing its product. Tough Mudder, forever switching locations and dates, held an event somewhere in the Everglades the same weekend. TM announced last week that it’s projecting $100 million for 2014 and we have no doubt that’s true, as its untimed, team-oriented marketing has proven successful. But Tough Mudder seems to constantly be searching for new obstacles as it tries to be all-inclusive, to say nothing of dealing with parking, traffic, and the out-of-the-way location issues.

De Sena doesn’t seem to care how challenging he makes things. Though he’ll never admit it, he does care about Tough Mudder, which explains how he’s out-Muddered them on the marketing front. He now has better sponsors, better T-shirts, and better headbands (you know a headband is cool when you see women wearing Spartan bands in the gym, unlike Tough Mudder’s garish orange headbands that only Curly Neal could appreciate).

How big has Spartan grown? The Miami event was only Spartan’s second-biggest event of the weekend, with thousands flocking to New York’s Citi Field for a second-annual Spartan Sprint at the home of the Mets. The trailer to the new 300 movie prequel is featured on the Spartan website.

SpartanMiami2Spartan, like a good retailer or real estate agent, has claimed the best real estate locations, whether it’s a gorgeous state park in the middle of Miami, Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, or some of America’s finest baseball facilities.

We just wish Spartan hadn’t bailed on plans to hold a late-2014 Spartan Beast event at Little Everglades Ranch in Pasco County, just north of Tampa. Spartan apparently believed the obstacle market was too flooded to support another big obstacle event.

SpartanMiami7Maybe. Then again, Spartan is delivering more value than anyone in the category at this point. And it’s “Spartan Trifecta” challenge is growing in popularity. Athletes need to complete a Spartan Sprint (3 miles), a Super Spartan (8 to 10) and Spartan Beast (12 to 15) in a calendar year to complete the Trifecta. At each event, athletes get a medal and a second pie-shaped magnetized metal third (left) that with the other two form the Spartan trifecta.

Florida athletes who have completed the Special Ops Spartan Sprint in Tampa in February and this weekend’s Super Spartan at Oleta River must venture to South Carolina in October (or further) to complete a Beast and a trifecta. That might not have looked very attractive a year ago.

But Spartan not only has created a worthy challenge. It’s made it worth the trip.

(See other Spartan Race reviews HERE)

Spartan Special Ops: Major League OCR (Feb. 15, 2014)

By Pete Williams

An athlete battles to the finish on Saturday.

An athlete battles to the finish on Saturday.

TAMPA – Joe De Sena believes obstacle racing is a competitive sport, not a beer festival in the mud. Judging by today’s Spartan Race event here at Raymond James Stadium, Spartan is the new leader in the obstacle category, however we define it.

It wasn’t that long ago that Spartan seemed like another fledgling operation throwing races together in a field. These days, it’s a well-oiled professional machine. From the smooth traffic flow on the course and in the parking lot to the black-and-red Spartan signage blanketing the event to the premium medal and swag, Spartan now comes across as a major sports business that, indeed, has added big-name sponsors and private equity investors in the last year.

Raymond James configured for obstacle racing (courtesy Spartan Race).

Raymond James configured for obstacle racing (courtesy Spartan Race).

Then there’s the course itself. De Sena, the Spartan founder, bristles as the term “mud run,” believing that mud shouldn’t be the main draw of an event. There was opportunity to get dirty at today’s “Spartan Sprint Special Ops,” to be sure, but that was mostly limited to a crawl through dirt under barbwire the length of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football field (grass removed for the winter).

Spartan has had good luck with races staged at Major League Baseball venues such as Boston’s Fenway Park and New York’s Citi Field, but those events were limited mostly to the confines of the buildings with the baseball diamonds off limits.

But with Raymond James Stadium surrounded by vast grassy parking lots, Spartan could produce a hybrid event – its third overall race of 2014 – that combined the best of a sports venue race and a regular Spartan affair. That meant the second half of the 3.5-mile course was on the field or outside the stadium, incorporating a number of Spartan’s signature obstacles, including the spear throw, rope climb, and fire leap.

There also was the traditional concrete block hoist with a rope pulley and a newer event: carrying a 60-pound boulder (lighter for women) 10 yards, dropping for five burpees, and returning the boulder 10 yards.

Matt "Ultrabeast" Dolitsky reaches the top of the rope climb.

Matt “Ultrabeast” Dolitsky reaches the top of the rope climb.

Spartan also incorporated the football theme, requiring athletes to toss a foam football 15 yards into a bank of trashcans positioned in the endzone. The athletes mirrored the Tampa Bay Buccaneers historic quarterback troubles, with the vast majority missing the target and taking a 30-burpee penalty.

There are only so many creative ways to run people through a stadium, but Spartan positioned enough walls, obstacles, and stair climbs to make things interesting. Athletes had to carry heavy sandbags through the upper deck, penguin-walk stairs wearing ankle bands, and step over numerous railings separating sections of seating.

The 30-burpee penalty, which distinguishes Spartan Race from typical help-your-fellow-athlete events, loomed large. We took three penalties for failing to stick the spear throw, convert the quarterback toss, or navigate the horizontal peg wall.

The event got underway at 8 a.m. under dark skies with the first wave of athletes addressed by Admiral William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command at nearby Macdill Air Force Base. This will be the first of several military-themed Spartan events.

Not your typical Spartan Race (photo courtesy James Green).

Not your typical Spartan Race (photo courtesy James Green).

Raymond James Stadium proved the perfect location for an obstacle race and not just because it’s the rare venue located within a major market, not an hour out of town. Spartan organizers used the ticket windows for packet pickup and parking lots accustomed to crowds of 60,000 easily accommodated 6,000, even with the northern lots taken out by the racecourse.

We’d like to see more events at major sports venues in Florida, which unlike the rest of the country have grassy parking lots. We thought Tough Mudder’s best race was its event a year ago at Homestead Miami Speedway, which though not as centrally located as Raymond James Stadium provided many of the same advantages. Alas, Tough Mudder, forever searching for a consistent Florida venue, is not returning to Homestead.

Spartan has made numerous upgrades to the window dressing of its events. Gone are the black cotton T-shirts with a race calendar on the back that looked like 1980s concert T-shirts. Spartan now issues gray, fitted Gildan Softstyle shirts, arguably the best in the industry outside of the folks at Rock On Adventures.

Spartan Special Ops hardware

Spartan Special Ops hardware

We’re not big on medals, but Spartan now has the best in the business. Athletes at today’s event received not only a commemorative Spartan Special Ops event medal with the date (as opposed to generic medals issued in every city) but also a pie-shaped Spartan Sprint medal that can be combined with a Super Spartan and Spartan Beast medal to form a 2014 Trifecta medal. Athletes also received a black Spartan headband with their race numbers, a badass look suitable for everyday workout use (and no doubt a dig at the garish orange Tough Mudder finisher’s headbands typically worn only immediately after the event.)

After this morning’s Spartan event, we found a dozen postcard flyers for future races on our windshield. Those events, at fields across Central Florida, will continue to battle for a share of the crowded mud run market.

When it comes to obstacle racing, however, Spartan has gone Major League, and perhaps now is in a league by itself.



Spartan Race Meets Special Ops

By Pete Williams

Workers construct a barbwire crawl the length of the Raymond James football field.

Workers construct a barbwire crawl the length of the Raymond James football field.

TAMPA – The latest incarnation of the Reebok Spartan Race will have a distinctive military feel. Tomorrow’s  “Spartan Sprint Special Ops 2014,” held at Raymond James Stadium here not far from U.S. Special Operations Command, will include appearances from top military brass, paratroopers, military equipment from private collections, and a few badass special operators for whom competing will be something of a light workout.

For all of the talk about how obstacle mud runs mimic military training, the Spartan Race might be the one that comes closest to delivering. Joe De Sena, who debuted the Spartan Race in 2010, sees the event as a fierce competition with stiff penalties (30 burpees) for any obstacle not completed and worthy of the tradition of King Leonidas and his legendary band of 300.

That tends to scare away the type of corporate team-building groups that Tough Mudder and other untimed events draw. Which explains why Spartan is expecting a relatively modest 6,000 competitors to attend the most conveniently-located obstacle race ever held in Florida, smack dab in the middle of Tampa at the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a morning when the New York Yankees will open Derek Jeter’s final spring training across the street.

An athlete prepares for the spear throw for tomorrow's Spartan Race, part of which takes place in the shadow of Steinbrenner Field.

An athlete prepares for the spear throw for tomorrow’s Spartan Race, part of which takes place in the shadow of Steinbrenner Field.

Spartan Race has staged events at several baseball facilities, including Boston’s Fenway Park, New York’s Citi Field, and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Those races, though well attended, had more of a CrossFit Games feel to them since Spartan could not tear up the fields and was mostly limited to staging inside the stadiums.

That meant lots of climbing grandstands and running along concrete concourses. There will be some of that at Raymond James tomorrow – the first race at an NFL facility – as athletes will navigate three of the four concrete ramps and tackle challenges on two concourse levels, part of an 18-obstacle course spread over 3.5 miles. (Though a pedestrian overpass connects the property to the Yankees spring training home at Steinbrenner Field, the Bronx Bombers’ first workout made it impossible to make the Spartan Race a baseball-football affair.)

Much of the race will take place outside in the grassy parking lots north of Raymond James Stadium, including Spartan’s signature gauntlet of race-ending obstacles, including the spear throw, rope climb, and final dash past mallet-wielding Spartans. With grass removed from the stadium for the winter, Spartan was able to construct a barbwire mud crawl the length of the football field.

All of which makes the Tampa race something of a hybrid event for Spartan, closer to a traditional Spartan Race than the in-stadium baseball events, and more of a military-style competition.

Not your usual concourse obstacles at a Bucs game.

Not your usual concourse obstacles at a Bucs game.

Two years ago, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), based at Tampa’s Macdill Air Force Base, began looking to work with an event that might rival the Marine Corps Marathon. Though there’s no official relationship between SOCOM and Spartan Race, there’s some interaction.

Col. Tim Nye, a recently-retired SOCOM public affairs officer, now serves as Spartan’s military liaison officer and is helping plan races near other U.S. military bases.

“People are making a connection between obstacle races and the military in terms of health, fitness, and teamwork and that’s good,” Nye said today, overlooking the field as workers applied the finishing touches. “But with the proliferation of events, the question becomes what qualifies you to put on a race like this? Can you put it on and push people without breaking them? There’s a need in the industry for some standardization and the military is all about what the standards are and following them.”

Spartan athletes must scale a rope and ring a bell -- or face a 30-burpee penalty.

Spartan athletes must scale a rope and ring a bell — or face a 30-burpee penalty.

Spartan Race has come a long way since we tackled our first Spartan event at a paintball facility in Northern Virginia in June of 2011. Back then, it was a bare-bones, truly spartan affair lacking the window dressing of a major traveling national production. As recently as April 2012, Spartan’s biggest sponsor was Dial for Men (deodorant), which gave events a cheesy “Meet the Spartans” vibe.

These days, the Vermont-based Spartan Race has private equity backing, major corporate sponsors such as Reebok, an ambitious worldwide schedule of events at multiple distances, an NBC Sports television special, and an upcoming book. Driving it all has been DeSena, 45, who made a fortune on Wall Street, once completed a dozen Ironman triathlons in one year, and has made no secret of his desire to get Americans off the couch and his distaste for rival Tough Mudder’s untimed, non-competitive format. He bristles as the phrase “mud run,” viewing obstacle racing as a sport worthy of inclusion in the Olympics. (Indeed, with the exception of the barbwire crawl and a possible fall from the rope climb, there’s no mud in tomorrow’s affair.)

This all-steel depiction of two soldiers by Tampa artist Dominique Martinez will be on display at the race.

This all-steel depiction of two soldiers by Tampa artist Dominique Martinez will be on display at the race.

This morning, Spartan set up shop in the shadow of the Yankees and Buccaneers, two of the wealthiest franchises in sports. Dozens of workers wore red and black Spartan gear, blending in with the Raymond James and Buccaneers branding.

The workers rolled out chain link fencing and Reebok Spartan-branded signage, set up a huge Spartan souvenir tent, and prepared for both 6,000 Spartans and De Sena’s latest aggressive push into the world of professional sports.




His Name is “M.U.D.”

By Pete Williams

Dolitsky7It was only 18 months ago that Matthew Dolitsky was a bulky 6-foot-1, 225-pound recreational hockey player wondering how he’d possibly complete a six-mile obstacle mud run.

The now-42-year-old discovered his calling that day, finishing fourth in his age group at the inaugural Highlander Adventure Run in Central Florida. He completed Tough Mudder six weeks later, at the end of 2011, and in 2012 entered 36 races of all endurance varieties.

“I became a distance junkie,” he says. “I found myself committed to overcoming distance and challenges before I was ready. That inspires you to step up your training.”

These days, he’s a lean 185 pounds and a veteran of the World’s Toughest Mudder and the Vermont UltraBeast, the most challenging versions of Tough Mudder and Spartan Race, respectively. Along the way he’s completed dozens of other obstacle events and endurance challenges.

In June he’ll compete in the Spartan Death Race, the most notorious event in the category.

Dolitsky4Created by Joe De Sena, a former Wall Street trader and a longtime endurance athlete who once completed a dozen Ironman triathlons in one year, the Spartan Death Race has no set time. Participants must race round-the-clock, braving the Vermont elements and whatever twisted challenges come out of De Sena’s mind. The 2011 event began around midnight with athletes deadlifting 30-pound rocks for six hours, followed by a hike upstream in waist-deep, 45-degree water. Athletes spent most of two days traipsing through the hills of Vermont town of Pittsfield with 40-pound logs strapped to their backs.

DolitskyAthletes have no idea when the event will end, but it seems like De Sena and Andy Weinberg, his tag-team partner, like to let it last until only 20 percent of the field is left standing. Since the race attracts a more accomplished field each year, it gets longer. Last year it went on for 67 hours. The event’s website has the ominous URL of youmaydie.com.

Sound like fun? Dolitsky thinks so.

“People say I’m crazy,” Dolitsky says. “I’ve worked up to doing all the races people said were too tough to do. I went from being a guy scared of a six-mile race into someone who craves the most extreme races.”

Dolitsky says obstacle racing fits where he is at this point in his life. A Long Island, New York, native who came to Tampa more than two decades ago to go to college at USF and pretty much never left, he’s divorced, with two young sons. He worked in construction and law enforcement for years before going to work a year ago as the footwear manager of a prominent running store in Tampa.

“Money is tight but I’ve found a lot of happiness through racing,” he says.

Dolitsky6He’s also proven himself worthy of his nickname of “The Ultrabeast,” placing 126th out of the 156 competitors at the Spartan Ultrabeast event in Vermont last fall. (Two hundred others did not finish.) This despite being among a group of runners who went off course and ended up running 31 miles instead of 26. Dolitsky also survived the World’s Toughest Mudder, the 24-hour version of Tough Mudder in frigid November temperatures in New Jersey, wearing a wetsuit most of the night.

Prior to the Ultrabeast, he posted his “Beast Mode” workouts on Facebook, both on his own page and on MudRunFun, a growing community of obstacle racers. After the race, someone called him “The Ultrabeast” and the name stuck. He changed his Facebook handle to Matthew Ultrabeast Dolitsky, which is appropriate since the initials are M.U.D.

These days The Ultrabeast is perhaps best known for tires. During the World’s Toughest Mudder, he was intrigued by an obstacle called “Drag King,” where athletes pulled tires for a half mile. Back home, with no gym membership, he began training extensively with tires, flipping one for a mile and a half along the streets near his South Tampa home, getting some strange looks along the way. He started running with a tire, even completing the Gasparilla Half-Marathon with one on his shoulder. He’s even signed up to run the clothing-optional Caliente Bare Dare 5K on May 5 — with a tire.

Dolitsky3“I’ve gotten so much positive feedback and it’s great to see other people now running with tires,” says Dolitsky, who has organized tire training runs. “For the most part people say, ‘You’re crazy – but keep it up.'”

The challenge with tire running is not necessarily the weight of the rubber but getting a comfortable position. Dolitsky switches shoulders, wraps the tires in tape, and puts a bead of foam inside for a better grip.

In preparation for the Spartan Death Race, which inevitably has a wood-chopping challenge, he began swinging a sledgehammer onto a tire. But tire training is but a small part of his Death Race preparation. He goes on 100-mile bike rides, usually through the night after work. He swims, cycles, and runs and has entered Ironman Louisville for August, even though he’s never completed more than a sprint-distance triathlon. He’s a fan of unusual races like the “Yak-a-Thon,” the second-annual kayak/mountain bike/run challenge that Rock On Adventures will stage in May.

“I’m trying to anticipate everything they can possibly throw at us for the Death Race, which I know is impossible,” Dolitsky says. “But I’m trying my best to train for it all.”

Between the Death Race in June, Ironman Louisville, and return engagements with the Spartan UltraBeast (September) and World’s Toughest Mudder (November), Dolitsky has a full schedule. Actually, that’s just part of his race calendar. He still jumps in Central Florida obstacle mud races, asking for permission to do multiple loops of the 3-mile and 6-mile courses to better simulate the distance of his longer events. At the 5K American Mud Race in September, he completed nine laps, mostly with a tire, to simulate a full marathon obstacle run.

Dolitsky2Not bad for a guy who not long ago wondered if he could finish just one six-mile lap. Dolitsky wasn’t sure if his new hobby was registering with his boys, ages 4 and 5, until he was out with them one recent weekend in a kiddie play area. Another boy pointed to his dad’s race shirt and said that he had done Tough Mudder.

Without missing a beat, Dolitsky’s five year old said, “Yeah, well my dad finished the World’s Toughest Mudder.”

Not only that, he’s The Ultrabeast.