By Pete Williams
We already knew Joe DeSena was a legendary endurance sports badass, the guy who did 12 Ironmans in one year and who in a one-week span conquered the Vermont 100, Lake Placid Ironman, and Badwater. We knew a decade ago he created the Death Race, the no-set-time-limit event that brought a couple hundred athletes to Vermont for three or four consecutive days of mental and physical pounding, as well as the more accessible and widespread Spartan Race, now a worldwide series.
What we didn’t know was how DeSena got there. And while his just-published book Spartan Up is an effective get-off-your-ass, cut-the-crap, don’t-be-normal motivational book, it’s at its best as a memoir.
Who knew, for instance, that DeSena made his first fortune – he made his second on Wall Street – building swimming pools for anyone in New York’s five families of organized crime looking to take a dip? (His childhood next-door neighbor belonged to the Bonnano crime family.) Who knew that DeSena responded to rejection from Cornell University by showing up on campus in Ithaca every day until they eventually let him in? Or that he met his future wife in the transition of a triathlon, following her out on the run while still in a wetsuit? Or that he lost a casino bet to his future wife, a former Penn State soccer captain, after three weeks of dating and has a tattoo to show for it? Or that he nearly lost his left leg in a 2003 car accident?
We knew DeSena, now 45, was a little different in June 2011. That’s when we showed up to compete in a fledgling operation called The Spartan Race, which was putting an event on at a paintball field in Northern Virginia. Just three miles, it was an ass kicker with all of the now-signatures lifts, climbs, carries, spear throws, 30-burpee penalties, and challenges tailor-made to the course (getting shot at by a paintball sniper, having to hit a target with a paintball gun or do 30 burpees). Back then, DeSena stationed hecklers at obstacles (Dude, you’re not really wearing Spandex?) and patrolled the course himself doling out encouragement or grief as needed. We’ve since done three more, including two Miami Super Spartans, and training for a Spartan Beast in October.
It took DeSena and Spartan a while to distance themselves from more well-heeled events that drew bigger crowds to what are glorified Woodstock events with running. These days, it’s Spartan Race with private equity investment, national sponsors, and a loyal group of hardcore followers looking to push their bodies by overcoming the unforeseen as opposed to the paint-by-numbers racing of marathon, triathlon, and themed runs.
Therein lies the core message of DeSena’s book: Challenge yourself. Suffer. Deal with the unexpected. Get uncomfortable. Change your frame of reference. Doing 12 Ironman triathlons in one year seemed simple since he already had done eight 10-day endurance events. Push yourself through one unforeseen obstacle after another and you’ll no longer pitch a fit over the stresses of ordinary life.
DeSena has made no secret of his disdain for other races, though his competitors are not listed by name in Spartan Up. “Each (Spartan) obstacle includes an athletic element, a requirement for all of our courses,” he writes. “We don’t shock people with electric wires or place obstacles designed purely for a cheap thrill. We run competitions, not an amusement park.”
Spartan Up also is a pretty good parenting guide. DeSena hates helicopter parenting, trophies for showing up, and fast food. (He gives props to Whole Foods and Chipotle.) Think your kid is a badass? “I was walking in the mountains of Vermont with three of my kids, ages four to seven,” DeSena writes, “and near the four-hour mark, they started complaining.”
No whining, kids. Spartan Up! DeSena uses the story to illustrate a point. If the kids were accustomed to hiking eight hours, four hours wouldn’t be such a big deal. His sons, ages 7 and 5, speak fluent Mandarin Chinese because the DeSenas insist that their kids speak two languages. His four-year-old daughter has done sets of 300 burpees.
DeSena gives some training tips – apparently that will be the focus of his already in-the-works next book – but the biggest advice is to get off the couch and Spartan Up already.
“The use of our body is a privilege, one that millions of people forget, neglect and forfeit,” he writes. “Too many forget what enjoying life really means. And before they know it, carpe diem, Latin for seize the day, turns into mea culpa. Latin for my bad.”
DeSena has been offering $25 Spartan Race discounts to anyone who buys the book, which makes the book a freebie. I’ve done dozens of obstacle races and the Spartans were the only ones I considered quitting. But I Spartaned Up. “Nothing tops the feeling of continuing when you feel like giving up,” DeSena writes. “It changes everything, because it recalibrates your frame of reference.”
Listen to our Fitness Buff Radio Show interview with Joe DeSena HERE.