Tag Archives: Joe DeSena

Ready to Spartan Up?

By Pete Williams

SpartanUpCoverWe 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?

SpartanMiami6We 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.

SpartanMiami4Therein 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.”

SpartanMiami3No 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.

SpartanMiami2“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.

Spartan Race Goes Big Time with Reebok

By Pete Williams

Photos courtesy Spartan Race/Nuvision Action Image

Photos courtesy Spartan Race/Nuvision Action Image

For much of the last year, Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena has argued that obstacle course racing is a legitimate sport for competitive athletes, not a casual mud run experience for the masses.

He’s bristled at his competitor Tough Mudder, scoffing at its untimed events and wondering why Tough Mudder has landed big-time sponsors such as Under Armour and EAS while Spartan – named Outside Magazine’s Best Obstacle Race of 2012 – has settled for lower-tier brands. This despite the feeling among many avid racers that Spartan is the most challenging event in the fastest-growing segment of endurance sports.

This morning De Sena, a Queens native who made his fortune on Wall Street, used the world’s biggest media market to promote obstacle racing and announce a multi-year deal between Spartan Race and shoe manufacturer Reebok. The agreement was announced prior to a traffic-stopping Spartan Race event in Times Square.

TXSprint2011The partnership includes title sponsorship, which makes the event now the Reebok Spartan Race. The race will be featured in the brand’s upcoming marketing campaign and Reebok will develop a range of products created for the demands of obstacle racing. The line will be available in the fall.

The deal should raise the profile of obstacle course racing, but we’re surprised De Sena gave up title sponsorship. This is, after all, the Spartan Race, and it’s tough to imagine King Leonidas giving someone else top billing. CrossFit, which has partnered with Reebok and has embraced obstacle racing – even though its mostly anaerobic, non-running program isn’t necessarily the best preparation – has resisted being called anything but CrossFit.

We wonder, too, what will happen if the deal is not extended once it ends. Will Spartan go the way of Muddy Buddy or even Ironman, with a new title sponsor every three years?

SROW_CM_6707For now, it beats having “Dial for Men” banners plastered at Spartan Race events, which was the case last year, with the soap sponsor giving the events a cheesy “Meet the Spartans” vibe. Then again, it wasn’t that long ago when Reebok was synonymous with leg warmers and step aerobics. Not exactly the badass, barbarian feel we’ve grown accustomed to from Spartan Race.

Under Armour, Tough Mudder’s partner, seems like a better fit with obstacle racing. But we’re guessing the Reebok/Spartan deal is more comprehensive and certainly more lucrative. Reebok once was considered a challenger to Nike, but since its purchase by adidas in 2005 often has seemed like a forgotten subsidiary. The Spartan deal might do as much for Reebok as it will for De Sena’s business, which is probably what the adidas folks had in mind.

Whatever the impact, it speaks volumes about how quickly De Sena, a legendary endurance athlete himself, has grown his brand. What began as a small, under-the-radar event called the Death Race in the hills of Vermont in 2005 expanded into the Spartan Race series in 2010, growing to 35 events last year and 60 this year.

spartan-fenway-sunday-promo-150De Sena financed the growth himself until August, when Boston’s Raptor Consumer Partners, a growth equity firm, invested in his business. Spartan does not reveal its finances, but De Sena said last fall that “we’re right there” when asked to compare Spartan to Tough Mudder’s stated 2012 revenue of $70 million.

Lost in the Reebok deal news was the formal announcement of a Spartan Race event April 13 at New York’s Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. Spartan drew rave reviews from the 8,000 athletes who competed in a November race at Boston’s Fenway Park. The “Tri-State NY Spartan Sprint at Citi Field,”  will consist of a three-mile course around Citi Field, which is adjacent to LaGuardia Airport.

De Sena has said Spartan is looking to do additional events in major sports venues. In November at Fenway Park, the storied home of the Boston Red Sox, athletes lugged 50-pound bags of sand through the outfield bleachers, jumped over barriers along the concourse level, hauled 35-gallon jugs of water up stairs near Gate D, navigated a cargo net wall constructed on the outfield warning track, and completed two dozen other obstacles.

spartan-fenway-sunday-promo-126Red Sox officials did not allow Spartan Race to alter the field, which meant there was no mud. Nor could athletes climb such famous landmarks as the Green Monster, the Pesky Pole, or even the wall scaled by a live teddy bear in the recent movie “Ted.”

Still, athletes raved about the Fenway experience. Veteran obstacle racers said it was at least as challenging as typical Spartan sprint-distance events. The event also attracted baseball fans who competed in their first obstacle races.

“To run up and down the Green Monster seats and carry a 50-60 pound sandbag on my back up the stadium steps at least 10 times was insane, but very cool,” said Ann Marie Sheridan, 33, who owns a personal training business in Newton, Mass. “Plus it brought up strong memories of going to the park as a kid with my dad.”

spartan-fenway-sunday-promo-70Citi Field, which opened in 2009, does not have the long history of the 100-year-old Fenway Park. Still, the event should draw well from the New York market. This morning, Spartan Race staged “The Spartan Race Times Square Challenge.” Athletes scaled a 7-foot wall, carry 75-pound sandbags, navigated a corrugated pipe full of icy water, and crawled through mud under barbwire.

Spartan Race generally is regarded as the most difficult of the many obstacle events that have emerged in the last three years. Spartan issues penalties of 30 Burpees to athletes who cannot complete obstacles. Unlike Tough Mudder and other untimed events that stress teamwork and camaraderie, Spartan is marketed as an individual competition and includes four distances: the 3-mile Spartan Sprint, the 8-plus mile Super Spartan, the 12-plus mile Spartan Beast, and the notorious Spartan Death Race, an untimed affair that last year lasted for 65 hours.

On April 13, the Mets will be in the midst of an 11-day roadtrip. The Mets and crosstown New York Yankees typically spend much of the first weeks of the season away since mid-April weather in the Northeast can be chilly.

spartan-fenway-sunday-promo-154De Sena, whose Spartan Death Race is considered among the toughest challenges in endurance sports, thrives on adding to the degree of difficulty and no doubt would prefer cooler temperatures. Starting at 8 a.m., waves of 200 athletes will be released every 15 minutes.

Registration for the Spartan event at Citi Field is $110 through Feb. 13 and escalates to $135. Spectators are free, but must reserve seats. And in an industry known for charging for parking, athletes will have the option of not paying to drive to Citi Field.

They can take the subway.

Read our coverage of the 2012 Miami Super Spartan Race HERE.

Read our coverage of the 2011 Spartan Death Race HERE.

Read our coverage of the 2011 Virginia Spartan Sprint HERE.

Listen to our 2/25/12 interview with Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena HERE.


A Death Race Sweep (June 20, 2012)

By Pete Williams

(Published June 20, 2012) – Olof Dallner was just 16 months removed from a major alpine climbing accident when he entered last weekend’s Spartan Death Race in Pittsfield, Vermont.

Death Race team building

Death Race team building

The 34-year-old Swedish scientist, who has lived in New York City for the last three years, still feels some lingering effects from the accident in his left arm. But that wasn’t enough to keep him from winning the Spartan Death Race, perhaps the most mentally and physically taxing event in endurance sports.

Dallner, who also won the inaugural winter Death Race in March, was in the lead when the Death Race was called on Monday – 67 hours after it began and with just 51 of 344 athletes proclaimed official finishers.

The obstacle and challenge-driven race required competitors to complete more than a dozen unusual, grueling mental and physical challenges throughout a 50-mile course in the dense Vermont woods.

Olaf Dallner at a running event in NYC

Olaf Dallner at a running event in NYC

Some of the challenges included:  a 25 mile/12-hour hike (done as a team challenge) carrying either a kayak, water filled plumbing pipes or a tractor tire above their heads; a 250 question exam with brain twisters; swimming in the Chittenden dam; form work including stacking hay bales; 1,000 Burpees; log chop; a 2-mile body roll through a sheep paddock; carrying a 50-lb bag of cement to the top of a mountain on a 3+ hour trek up and through a steep ravine and waterfall (and if the bag broke they had to head back down to get a new one); plus many more grueling challenges, all the while carrying all required gear, food and water in 40-lb packs.

The theme of the race this year was “Betrayal” which came to life throughout the event.  Organizers planted seeds of doubt and distrust in the competitors by declaring that they was open to mislead or betray other racers, but other competitors were there to potentially do the same to them.

This format played havoc with the racers psyche.  The ultimate betrayal came after 30 hours when a group of competitors planted by race organizers deliberately began cheating during a challenge.  Once the other competitors saw how easy it was to cheat, many cheated.  But when confronted they understood that cheating was not without consequence.  The penalty for the cheat was 6-hours standing in a 45-degree pond and other comparable tasks.

“I’d see people get betrayed and they’d get angry and quit but that’s part of the game,”  Dallner said.

Dallner said his toughest challenge was something called “The Roll,” where competitors had to roll side-over-side across a quarter-mile field strewn with pine cones, brush, and poison ivy for three hours.

“I’m not sure what kind of plants those were but my arms were stinging pretty bad,” Dallner said. “My arms are all scabbed up from that.”

SpartanRaceLogoThis is what Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg had in mind in 2005 when they came up with the Death Race as an alternative to triathlons and other endurance races they felt had become predictable and routine. The idea was to create an event athlete couldn’t possibly train or prepare for in advance.

The race has gotten longer each year as it seems organizers like to wait until 80 percent of the field has dropped out before calling time. Last year’s race went on for 45 hours. In 2010, DeSena and the gang launched the Spartan Race, which now features events at three different distances.

Dallner said he got into Spartan Races after being sidelined for nearly three months following an alpine climbing accident in Vermont in February of 2011. An ice pillar he was climbing collapsed, sending him on a 75-foot fall. His ropes held, but he still crashed against the wall, breaking his helmet in two. He spent four days in an ICU in New Hampshire and underwent surgeries to repair nerve damage in his arm.

Dallner, who works in genetics developing a hormone that controls eating behavior, quickly discovered a knack for obstacle racing and won the winter version of the Death Race in just under 32 hours.

Upon arriving at last week’s version of the Death Race, he reported that he did not meet the race requirement of generating media coverage prior to the event. Weinberg said he would have to swim 12 miles afterward, relinquish his title (if he won), or quickly come up with some media coverage.

Dallner already is scheduled for both versions of the 2013 Death Race.

Spartan Race Coming to Fenway Park (May 23, 2012)

By Pete Williams

(Published May 23, 2012) – Spartan Race, the grueling obstacle race series featuring penalties of 30 Burpees for each challenge not completed, is taking its show to Fenway Park, the historic, 100-year-old home of the Boston Red Sox.

Spartan Race: Coming to Fenway Park (Photo Courtesy Nuvision Action Image)

Spartan Race: Coming to Fenway Park (Photo Courtesy Nuvision Action Image)

Spartan Race typically sets up in remote areas, staging events of between 3 and 12 miles and consisting of 15 to 25 obstacles. The Fenway Park event will be a one-mile time trial taking place entirely within the ballpark on Nov. 17.

Unlike other obstacle events, Spartan Race does not provide course information beforehand. Joe DeSena, the creator of Spartan Race, would say that Fenway’s signature feature, the Green Monster left field wall, will come into play.

DeSena, who is friends with former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, says he was contacted by the Red Sox to put on the race, the team’s latest foray into non-baseball events. For about 30 years beginning in 1973, Fenway Park was used exclusively for baseball. Since 2003, the Sox have staged everything from Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones concerts to the NHL’s Winter Classic.

Though the Fenway version of the Spartan Race is just one mile long, it’s priced like a regular Spartan event – or a Red Sox game. It’s a whopping $110 to register through June 17 and escalates to $150 through Nov. 9. DeSena says the event is likely to sell out by Aug. 1, with 10,000 competitors expected to participate in what likely will end up being extended over two days.

Even spectator tickets cost a whopping $40.

“You go to Starbucks for breakfast you end up spending forty bucks,” DeSena says.

SpartanRaceLogoDeSena, a Queens native who grew up a New York Yankees fan, made a small fortune on Wall Street before moving to Pittsfield, Vermont, where he operates a small resort hotel. An avid endurance athlete who once completed 12 Ironman triathlons in a year, he created the Spartan Death Race in 2005 because he believed Ironman and other ultra-distance events did not present a big enough challenge.

Athletes competing in The Death Race, held annually in Pittsfield in mid-June, do not know how long the event will take place, what it will entail, or even the exact starting time. Last year’s event kicked off with competitors deadlifting rocks for six hours. The event had a religious theme and at one point athletes carried logs on their backs for 24 hours. The Death Race continued for 45 hours before DeSena called it with just 35 of the 155 athletes remaining.

The Spartan Race, launched in 2010, is a scaled-down version of The Death Race consisting of the Spartan Sprint (3-mile), Super Spartan (8-mile), and Spartan Beast (12-mile plus) events. Athletes typically haul heavy objects such as five-gallon buckets of gravel, drag concrete blocks, climb walls, flip tires, and run a race-ending gauntlet of guys dressed as 300 Spartan warriors wielding double-sided mallets.

Athletes also must perform challenges relating to the host property. At a Virginia event last summer at a paintball facility, athletes had to dodge gunfire and successfully hit a target from 10 yards away.

Failure to do so earned the athlete 30 Burpees, the standard penalty for not completing challenges. Athletes typically do three or four sets of Burpees, which makes Spartan Race arguably tougher than other events in the category, including Tough Mudder, which do not issue penalties.

Tough Mudder, like Spartan Race, debuted in 2010 and now hosts dozens of events worldwide. Each series is likely to clear $50 million in revenue this year. Unlike Spartan Race, which issues timing chips and awards points in a year-long race series, Tough Mudder does not market its events as competitions but team-building exercises.

Boston’s average high temperature for November is 52 degrees with a low of 38. DeSena said the cold and threat of ice and snow will only add to the Spartan challenge. The Fenway Park race could be the first of several ballpark Spartan Races, though athletes in Central Florida should not get excited about a Tropicana Field event.

“We put on very unique events, the only truly competitive events and fans of the Red Sox are pretty competitive people,” DeSena says. “We want to do more of these – but only in the best of the best stadiums.”

An Interview with Joe DeSena, Spartan Race Founder (Feb. 15, 2012)

Going over the wall at Spartan Race Carolinas. (Photo by Brent Doscher - Nuvision Action Image)

Going over the wall at Spartan Race Carolinas. (Photo by Brent Doscher – Nuvision Action Image)

By Pete Williams

(Published Feb. 15, 2012) – We spoke this morning with Joe DeSena, founder of the infamous Spartan Death Race and the Spartan Race series, which quickly have become recognized as the toughest races in endurance sports – perhaps even more so than Tough Mudder.

You can listen to that Fitness Buff Show interview HERE. Some highlights:

— DeSena does not like the term mud runs, preferring “obstacle racing,” believing the competition is more about overcoming obstacles than dealing with mud.

SpartanRaceLogo— Though his company plans to attract more than 350,000 competitors to 41 events this year, including several overseas, he bristles at the idea of people entering huge teams of athletes, some of which are not prepared for the rigors of the race.

— More than 10,000 people applied to be on “Unbreakable,” the upcoming reality show that will pit 100 athletes in seven days of Death Race-like competition in Vermont this spring.


Committed to The Death Race (Jan. 11, 2012)

By Pete Williams

Two-time Death Race winner Joe Decker

Two-time Death Race winner Joe Decker

(Published Jan. 11, 2012) – For all the talk about Tough Mudder and the Spartan Race, there is one event that remains far above the rest when it comes to crazy, hardcore, physical challenges.

That’s the Death Race, held since 2005 and rebranded last year as The Spartan Death Race.

Death Race participants don’t know how long the race will last. They’re not even given a start time, just told to be at a farm in Pittsfield, Vermont on a certain day in June ready to go.

As for the challenges, they’re like no weekend mud run, including Spartan Race and Tough Mudder. Last year’s Death Race began late on a Friday night with athletes squatting 10-to-30 pound rocks…for six hours.

They spent the next 39 hours navigating a series of grueling mental and physical challenges throughout a 40-mile course that runs through the woods. Competitors had to wade through icy water, haul 20-pound stumps up and down mountains for hours, memorize Biblical verses, and carry a 10-gallon bucket of water for 2.5 miles.

The Biblical verse challenge came after 15 hours of racing and required the athletes to memorize the scripture, climb the top of a mountain and recite. Get it wrong? Go back to the bottom and do it again.

SpartanRaceLogoLast year, 185 started the race and only 35 remained when it was called after 45 hours. Remarkably, some of them are among the 200 committed for this year’s event (June 15), including several who finished the race. Rebecca Hansen (left) was one of two Floridians to finish last year’s event. The 50-year-old ultramarathoner from Naples committed for 2012 shortly before embarking on last year’s race.

Paul Roarke,the 51-year-old former U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sergeant from Pensacola who dropped out after suffering a leg injury 26 hours into the race, also is back. Megan Mays, 28, of Tallahassee, the only other Florida finisher last year, plans to return to Vermont, but only as part of a support team for other athletes.

Rebecca Hansen, shown competing in triathlon, will attempt to finish a second Death Race.

Rebecca Hansen, shown competing in triathlon, will attempt to finish a second Death Race.

Joe Decker, the two-time defending champion from San Diego, apparently is not returning. After all, it’s not like he has anything left to prove.

Other Floridians among the registered: Joe Falcone, 35, of Boca Raton; Doug Bush, 32, of Davenport; Joshua Clifford, 26, and Abraham Lara, 27, both of Fort Walton Beach; Andrew Andras, 35, of Miami; Bruce Harris, 48, of Milton; and Ricky Weiss, 28, of Tallahassee.

Unlike other endurance races that offer a detailed map, Death Racers have no idea what to expect next as the course map and list of challenges are kept secret.  This provides competitors with one of their biggest challenges as the length of the race can range from 24 to 48 hours. For an endurance athlete, not knowing where the light is at the end of the tunnel can be sheer torture.

Race founders Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg created the Death Race after becoming bored with marathons, Ironman triathlons, and eco-challenes. Though it’s not an official policy, it seems they let the race last until about 80 percent of the field drops out. Thus, the event gets longer each year. Last June, they called it after 45 hours with 35 athletes remaining.

“We commend the brave athletes for taking on this challenge and taking the ultimate test,” Desena says. “We are creating a course that offers no mercy and breaks the will of at least 80 percent of the entrants.  We have never had more than 20 percent of the participants complete the course.  We don’t expect that to be challenged this year.”

Spartan Race Town, HQ Devastated by Irene (Sept. 2, 2011)

Hurricane Irene caused massive road damage in Pittsfield, Vermont

Hurricane Irene caused massive road damage in Pittsfield, Vermont

By Pete Williams

(Published Sept. 2, 2011) – The town of Pittsfield, Vermont, best known in the endurance sports world as the site of the Spartan Death Race, is recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Irene that took out bridges, rendering the town an island and making helicopter travel necessary.

According to the Spartan Race blog, the lodge at K1, where a thousand athletes earned medals during a Spartan Beast Race event last month, collapsed due to the effects of Hurricane Irene. The Pickel Barrel, where hundreds of athletes gathered with their turkey legs and celebrated their completion of the Beast, has suffered flooding. The bridges up and down Route 100 have collapsed, making it impossible to travel through the heart of the Green Mountains, by car or by foot.

The Spartan Race is headquartered in Pittsfield, where race organizer Joe DeSena makes his home. DeSena launched the Spartan Race this year, expanding upon the Spartan Death Race he created in 2005.

SpartanRaceLogoHaving visited the beautiful Pittsfield community during the Death Race in June, we’re stunned and saddened to see photos of the damage. Here in Florida, we always keep the possibility of a hurricane in the back of our minds, but it’s not something Vermonters have had to consider.

There are a number of ways to contribute to the rebuilding and recovery efforts listed on the Spartan Race blog.



Biggest Spartan Ever? (Aug. 15, 2011)

By Pete Williams

Spartan Warrior?

Spartan Warrior?

(Published Aug. 15, 2011) – Al Harrington, like any NBA player, has some time on his hands these days. With the NBA lockout nearly two months old and labor peace nowhere in sight, pro basketball players are looking for something to do.

On Sept. 24, the Denver Nuggets forward will compete in The Spartan Race at Wolfe’s Pond Park on Staten Island. This is the eight-mile Super Spartan Race. I admire Harrington, 31, for attempting it, but having done the 3-mile version of The Spartan Race in Virginia in June, I’m skeptical of any 6-foot-9, 250-pound guy getting through it, world-class athlete or not.

The Spartan Race, which debuted in Florida this year and returns to Miami on April 23, is one of the tougher events in the ever-growing obstacle mud run category. There’s a lot of crawling under barbwire and other tight areas, climbing through and around obstacles, carrying huge rocks, and doing 30 Burpees for being unwilling or unable to complete challenges.

I can’t imagine navigating the Spartan Race balance beam with Harrington’s size-17 feet. (Thirty Burpees for Al there). In Virginia, where the event was held at a paintball site, a sniper took aim at us during one obstacle. Al would provide a huge target. And I’m guessing Burpees are a lot tougher being 6-foot-9 than 5-10.

I’d be most concerned with an event that provides literally a thousand opportunities to twist an ankle or throw out a knee. Maybe Harrington doesn’t have to worry about playing basketball anytime soon, but what if an unlikely settlement is reached?

Then again, it can’t be any worse than risking a knee or ankle over the course of a basketball game.

SpartanRaceLogoWhen you spend two-plus hours on the ground and in the woods, poison ivy is likely. I acquired the worse case of my life at The Spartan Race. Fortunately, a cycle of prescription steroids knocked it out quickly. Would Harrington be allowed to ‘roid up? Does it matter in a lockout?

“This competition is definitely outside – way outside – my comfort zone,” Harrington said in a Spartan Race release. “But I’m hoping to inspire people to focus on finishing despite the obstacles before them. The Spartan Race is all about doing one’s best. Sure it’s great to win, but just as good to know that you came to play, played all the way, and didn’t hold back.”

Harrington will have no trouble leaping over fire, a staple at The Spartan Race. If he can make it to the end, his size and jumping ability will come in handy. Athletes must climb over a six-foot wall, seven-foot wall, and eight-foot wall, all greased from previous competitors. Most of us struggle. Harrington can probably leap over them.

As for the guys dressed as extras from the movie 300 who guard the finish line and swing giant mallets at the athletes, I’d be worried if I was them. What Spartan wannabe is going to challenge a guy as big as Xerses?

Heck, when Harrington completes the race, he should don the red cape and loincloth and guard the finish line himself.

Spartan Race organizers say 20 percent of the field doesn’t finish. I’m predicting a Harrington finish, some pain for the guys guarding the finish line, and some sore knees the following day.

Spartan Women (July 6, 2011)

By Pete Williams

(Published July 6, 2011) – There are endurance athletes and then there are people like Rebecca Hansen, 49, and Megan Mays, 28, who were among the four women (and just 35 overall) who finished the 45-hour Spartan Death Race in Pittsfield, Vermont, last month.

MaysCompetitors in The Death Race have no idea how long the event will be – it gets longer every year – and only a vague idea of what obstacles and challenges they must face. This year’s group was forced to do six-hours of squats, wade through 45-degree waters, and spend two nights climbing mountains in the dark.

Oh, and they had to do most of it with heavy logs tied to their backs. No wonder most of the 155-person field dropped out.

Mays, who lives in Tallahassee, and the Naples-based Hansen underwent a staggering amount of training for The Death Race, but even they were amazed at what Death Race creators Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg threw at them.

We spoke to them in March on The Fitness Buff Show about their preparations for the event and again this morning, 10 days after the race. You can listen to that interview HERE or read an edited transcript below. Here’s our report on the race from a two-hour visit to the site.

Q: How do you feel?

Megan: I feel pretty tired still, definitely recovering. My muscles not happy with me, but mentally I’m ecstatic for going through the race and finishing.

Rebecca: I’m pretty good, feeling back to normal.

Q: How did you step up your training leading up to the Death Race?

Megan: I had the help of a wonderful local gym here in Tallahassee. The owner Laurel Blackburn got very creative coming up with some death race simulations for 12 hours and that was very helpful. We don’t have a lot of mountains in Florida so there was no helping training for that, but putting us through those exhausting, menial tasks that went on forever really helped.

Hansen2Q:  The event began with a ring of stones ranging from 10 to 30 pounds that you had to squat for five hours. What was that like?

Megan: I was shocked when I heard what we were supposed to do and doubtful I could make it through the first day. One guy dropped one on his foot and broke it.

Q: So now you’re at 1 a.m. in the woods in the freezing water looking for fish.

Rebecca: That was my favorite part of the race. I grew up trout fishing with my dad and the glow of the lights was beautiful. It was freezing but we caught trout in a baggie with our hat and I really enjoyed that part of the race.

Q: I didn’t realize there were volunteers and support crew. Did you meet up with people or bring them along?

Megan: I had an awesome support crew. Three came from Florida and two lived in New York and drove over for the weekend and I definitely could not have finished without them. It was all about team effort.

Q: What were they allowed to help with?

Megan:  They were allowed to clothe, feed you and tell you where you were but they weren’t allowed to touch your gear. They couldn’t put your backpack on you or help you with any of your tasks.

Mays2Q: How much of these people did you see?

Megan: In the beginning it was touch and go. They would check on me and bring me food, but toward the end I had one of them with me at all times.

Q: Rebecca, you are involved in ultramarathons, what kind of preparation did you undergo?

Rebecca: The most valuable thing I did was a 60-hour race simulation. I had gone 48 hours without sleep but I wanted to see if I went to 60 what would happen. I slept two hours a night and did race stuff when I was awake and the second night I’m lying on my lawn and fireants crawled on me and bit me. I was groggy and moved to my neighbor’s lawn and the sprinkler goes off. By the third day I was in a stupor and I was really exhausted but I knew if I could get to 60 with that much exhaustion I could get through anything. I did this 10 days before the race.

Q: Megan, when I saw you at the Death Race you were wearing long pants. How did you choose wardrobe for this?

Megan: I wasn’t very well prepared. I brought all of the workout clothes I owned and I knew that I didn’t want poison ivy or bug bites, but I was not prepared for the cold. I had two racers give me shirts off their backs because I was in water and shaking so bad they were worried I would go hypothermic. Just the way everyone helped each other was awesome.

Q: Are there limits to what you can bring?

Rebecca: I had some good people coaching me that had done it before but if I had to do it again – and I will next year – I would take the bare minimum.

HansenQ: Just 10 days removed from the race and you’re commited to doing it again?

Rebecca: Andy (race co-founder Andy Weinberg) asked me before the race if I would so I signed up before the race.

Q: Megan?

Q: I have no plans to do this next year but I do have a friend going back so I promised to be on his support team so I’m looking forward to helping him.

Q: You spent long hours climbing those mountains, often in the dark. Did you have much to go by?

Rebecca: We really didn’t. Megan and I met on the second mountain and I was nervous because it was thundering and lightning and there was a nice man that helped us out there. His instruction on how to climb a mountain in torrential downpour was invaluable. The mountain was hell and it just didn’t let up.

Q: It seems like you had to carry a log forever.

Megan: At least a full day and probably more than that – at least 25 or 26 hours.

Rebecca: At least three-quarters of the race. Love the log.

Q: It seems like this race gets longer every year. Does it seem like this harder than what you’ve seen from the last couple of years?

Rebecca: When Andy told me to sign up, it was a 24-hour race. Then it became 36 and then longer. I think because 35 of us finished they’ll bend over backward to make it more difficult and longer and tougher next year.

Q: What was the toughest part of it?

Megan: The biggest challenge was being out there the second night and it was dark and I was tired and going up a mountain and not knowing where I was going. I almost sat down and didn’t get up. Once the sun came up, I felt better and was going down the mountain and I just pushed through those times.

Q: What was your biggest injury in the race?

Megan: I didn’t have too many injuries but I was going into the race with knee problems and they got really achy, especially since half of the race was downhill. I didn’t get any major injuries, but I did see people with gashes and broken fingers.

Q: Could you sense when people were dropping out of race?

Rebecca: It was the second night when a lot of people dropped on that second mountain. I was climbing with some guys and they ditched me. I didn’t realize they had quit the race. As people tired and started to hurt, they dropped out. They weren’t necessarily physically tired but mentally tired. Going through that water and pushing toward hypothermia, people were pushed to their limits.

Q: Was there a lot of swimming?

Rebecca: We were chest-deep swimming across that pond with your backpack. I thought I was going to go under. It wasn’t swimming, more like dog paddling with a backpack and a log.

Death Race survivors

Death Race survivors

Q: How tough was handling nutrition during this?

Rebecca:  I thought I had it down from ultramarathoning events. I had ziplock bags of four hours worth of food and the second climb my food floated down the river and I ran out of water and there was a period of eight hours when I didn’t have anything. That was more psychological than anything.

Q: Did it seem like the racers helped each other out?

Megan: Absolutely. I didn’t feel any competition at all but that was because I was in the rear, coming in the back end of the group, I got help from so many other racers so I offered whatever I can. I can’t say I had fun at the Death Race, but it was the most awesome weekend I ever had.

Q: Anything you trained for that you were disappointed wasn’t included?

Rebecca: I thought there would be more barbwire. I set up an obstacle course on my lawn simulating that. I shouldn’t say that otherwise there will be tons of it next year.

Q: What do your neighbors think of this?

Rebecca: They look at me like I’m a lunatic and my kids come out and shake their heads and go back inside.

Q: After finishing the Death Race, it must be a letdown to jump into a local 10K or sprint triathlon. What do you possibly do for an encore?

Megan: I’m setting my sights on mountain climbing. I don’t have Everest in future but I want to summit Denali in the next couple years. I have no mountain climbing experience.

Rebecca: I’m training for my first double Ironman in February and some of the guys I met in the race were talking about Primal Quest next year, so I’m talking about that too.

Read Megan Mays’ blog chronicling her training and race experience HERE.

Spartan Race: Toughest Obstacle Event? (Feb. 25, 2012)

IMG_3876By Pete Williams

MIAMI – (Published Feb. 26, 2012) – If the measure of an obstacle race is how sore you feel afterward, then the Spartan Race is the toughest, most challenging event in the category.

After finishing Muddy Buddy and Warrior Dash, I felt like I could get back in line and do them again. At the end of Tough Mudder, I was tired but not sore.

After completing the eight-mile Super Spartan Race at Oleta River State Park here Saturday morning, I’m sore all over. My legs are scraped, feet blistered, ribs bruised, head pounding. During the course of the race, which included running through woods and brush, pretty much everything but my shorts was ripped from my body: race number, timing chip (which I carried the rest of the way) and even my RoadID.

Does that make Spartan Race the best event in the category? Perhaps. But it definitely could be with a few tweaks.

Navigate this or do 30 Burpees

Navigate this or do 30 Burpees

There are things Spartan does better than anyone, starting with adapting to the venue. At a Spartan Race I did last June at a paintball facility in Virginia, snipers fired paintballs at competitors. At another point, we were given guns and given one chance to hit a target. Failure to do so earned you a 30-Burpee penalty.

Perhaps the coolest challenge here at Oleta River was rappelling down an overpass ramp. At the bottom, athletes were given a six-foot rope attached to a five-gallon bucket, which they had to drop about eight feet into the water below. The idea was to get as much water into the bucket as possible – it was tough to fill it more than half way – and hoist it back up, where it was poured into a 30-gallon trash can. Once the trash can was full, it was dumped and the athlete climbed the rope back up the ramp.

It was a terrific mental and physical challenge – I almost fell with the bucket into the drink – one of many at Spartan Race. Tough Mudder is perhaps more effective at making the athlete uncomfortable, whether it’s with claustrophobic dark underground tunnels or the Chernobyl Jacuzzi ice plunge. But Spartan Race does a better job breaking athletes mentally and physically. I’ve done a dozen of these races and the two Spartans were the only ones I considered quitting because of the challenges.

There was the 100-yard tire carry, a 100-yard rock pull, heavy tire flipping, a pulley requiring the athlete to raise a 5-gallon bucket of cement 15 feet, and an endless (3 mile?) twisting run through the woods where it seemed you had to turn every 15 yards, all the while making sure you didn’t go the wrong way. There were just enough pieces of red tape hung to keep athletes on course.

30-Burpee penalty for failed challenges

30-Burpee penalty for failed challenges

But what makes Spartan Race more challenging than any other race, including Tough Mudder, is that it issues 30-Burpee penalties. If an athlete fails a challenge at Tough Mudder or other races, he simply moves on. At Spartan Race, she must do 30 Burpees, the jumping, thrusting, push-up like move that’s tough under any circumstances, especially in muddy clothes after running several miles in Miami heat.

There were five challenges with Burpee penalties: monkey bars, balance beam, climbing 8-foot walls, scaling a knotted rope about 15 feet, and moving across a peg wall. Screw up any of them and do 30 Burpees, though the monkey bar penalty was only 10. (Women could jump onto a board nailed on the 8-foot wall about 18 inches up.)

So that’s potentially 130 Burpees. I did 90, having fallen off the balance beam and peg wall and given up on the knotted rope.

But here’s where Spartan Race was disappointing. It featured two swimming challenges, neither of which involved Burpees, for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t swim. The first was 150 yards and everyone could – and did – walk across. The second was only 30 yards or so, too deep to walk across, and for this Spartan Race provided ropes equivalent to lane lines to hang onto. Life jackets also were available.

Life jackets? Really? Give 30 Burpees to athletes who fall off a balance beam but give floaties to those who won’t swim?

Somewhere King Leonidas is shaking his head.

Ring the bell or, yep, 30 Burpees

Ring the bell or, yep, 30 Burpees

Obviously there are safety issues. But if you’re not going to swim, you should face a Burpee penalty and your finish time should reflect it. At the Savage Race, the popular Central Florida event coming up in Clermont in two weeks, there’s a 150-yard swim in deep water. Athletes who can’t or won’t do it must perform 30 Burpees and take a 10-minute penalty. When the race debuted last August, there was a 5-minute penalty (plus the Burpees) but race organizers didn’t feel that was enough of a handicap since, after all, it could take five minutes to swim that distance in shoes – or take five minutes to remove shoes, swim, and put shoes back on.

But at Spartan Race, some of the top finishers didn’t swim. Sort of runs contrary to the tough-as-nails, ultimate athlete vibe Spartan likes to promote, doesn’t it?

Here’s another beef with Spartan Race. The final obstacle involves getting past five meatheads wielding these double sided mallets. These guys take their gig way too seriously. Yes, I know I’m going to take some shots going one-on-five toward the finish line. It’s part of the race. But it must be embarrassing to fall for a head fake delivered by an exhausted guy 15 years older than you. Why else would you deliver cheap shots to the back of my head after I’ve blown by?

Might want to work some speed and agility training into your next WOD, fellas.

Spartan Race also takes the spartan theme a little too far. I counted three water stops, which isn’t nearly enough for a race in 80-degree temperatures that takes most more than two hours. As for free post-race refreshment? Even by obstacle race standards, a bottle of water and a banana is pretty chintzy. Keep the free beer. My kingdom for a Mix1 or Muscle Milk.

Spartan Race continues to issue black beefy cotton T-shirts with the year’s schedule of events on the back, a concert shirt look that went out in 1989. (Tough Mudder is just as guilty, though their shirts are gray). This year Warrior Dash has followed the lead of several of our popular Florida obstacle races (Highlander, Savage Race) and switched to the softer, fitted T-shirts.

Obviously it’s about the race not the shirt. I have more race shirts than I could ever wear and, besides, I aged out of the coveted 18-to-34 demographic that makes up most of these events some time ago. You don’t want me wearing your shirt. But judging from the lines of twenty-somethings waiting to get on race shuttle buses from the designated parking lot at Florida International University, you do want those kids serving as walking billboards for your brand, especially when it’s the coolest brand in the category. Print some fitted red Tultex shirts with the Spartan logo that they’ll actually wear.

Spartan racers Whit Lasseter (Left) and Geishel Valverde

Spartan racers Whit Lasseter (Left) and Geishel Valverde

All of the above are easy tweaks. I’ve gotten up twice while writing this story and feel it more than after any obstacle mud run, running race, triathlon, or paddleboard event. Spartan Race seems to have succeeded in becoming the toughest event.

Joe DeSena modeled the Spartan Race after the Death Race, the brutal no-set-time challenge he stages in Vermont each June. When I had him on the Fitness Buff Show earlier this month, he bristled at my use of “mud run,” stressing that Spartan is an obstacle race.

That’s a good point and perhaps a distinction that could give Spartan an edge over Tough Mudder in the long term, even though TM is drawing bigger numbers at the moment. Tough Mudder is an untimed event with no results posted, with the goal of finishing together with your teammates, helping them over obstacles. Spartan bills itself as a race, a new endurance sports category, where athletes must get through on their own or do 30 Burpees along the way.

At the moment, Tough Mudder has an edge in popularity and sponsorships, which include Under Armour and EAS. Tough Mudder provides all-you-can-consume EAS protein drinks and energy bars at the end of its races. Spartan Race’s Miami event was sponsored by “Dial for Men.” The soap came in handy at the post-race showers, but the “Dial for Men” banners everywhere gave the event a bit of a “Meet the Spartans” feel. Seems like sports marketers are missing a great opportunity with Spartan Race.

I hesitate to lob constructive criticism at DeSena, though not because he comped me into his race as a member of the media. DeSena has a track record of taking suggestions and making his events harder. Several athletes I spoke to in Miami who did last year’s race said this year’s edition was much tougher. One guy said he finished in 1 hour, four minutes last year but took nearly two hours this time. “And I was much better prepared,” he said.

DeSena has a Wall Street background and knows a thing or two about building businesses for the long haul. If Tough Mudder and Spartan Race were stocks, I’d be bullish on both, but it seems Spartan Race could be the better long-term play.