ARI: So now I’m going to be speaking with Joe DeSena, who is the Founder, CEO, and Chief
Headache Officer, he just told me, of the Spartan Race. So Joe, thank you so much for taking the
time to talk to me.
JOE: Thanks for having me.
ARI: I’m assuming that a lot of people who are going to be listening to this know what the
Spartan Race is, but if they don’t, can you just give us sort of an overview?
JOE: Basically military-inspired obstacle course, has deep seated roots in a race called the Death
Race that we formed back in 2004. Death Race was meant to break people, the same way the
Navy Seals do or any military department does when they’re bringing in new recruits. What we
thought was we would find people using this tool, Death Race, Spartan Race, that were amazing
people. People that, when pushed up against the wall, when under extreme stress, just got the job
done. They never quit. And those are people that inspire us, and we want to be around those
ARI: Right. I think I saw a video of that, and there was like an American Marine and a British
Marine, right, that ended up at the end of it? Was that right?
JOE: They did. They finished together, yep.
ARI: Yeah. So did you have military experience yourself?
JOE: I didn’t. I have military envy. Huge thanks to all the troops out there that are supporting us
and making our way of life easier. We give back – I personally, any time military is involved, I
want to be involved.
ARI: Yeah, and I get that. It’s funny, because for a large part of my life, I really wanted to be a
Navy Seal. Actually, I wanted to be a Navy sniper. I’m sorry, I wanted to be a Marine sniper or a
Naval aviator, and Crohn’s disease sort of got in the way of both of those ideas. But I have a
huge amount of respect, and I think that emulating that is really interesting, too, because – and
we’ll get into this more, but in the 1940s when there was war, it was the whole idea of total war,
and everybody was involved and everybody knew. I think now, most people don’t really have an
idea of what the men and women in the military do and live through and train through. So I think
it’s great that we can have these opportunities to have these little tastes, in a way.
JOE: I agree, I agree.
ARI: So the Death Race, from what I saw, was insane. You had to crawl up a river and chop a
stump out of the forest and then drag it back, and there was mental stuff. Did you kind of just
keep going and going on that, or was it all planned in advance?
JOE: That was something that we, Andy and I, dream up during the 11 months and 29 days each
year. “Man, wouldn’t it suck if we made people do this?” “Oh, wouldn’t people complain if we
had them do this?” So again, our whole focus is how do we break that person, how do we break
that participant. Because the one that doesn’t break is the diamond in the rough.
ARI: Right. There is that idea, of course, that everybody breaks at some point, right? So where is
that limit? How do you decide the difference between constructive and destructive?
JOE: It’s funny; yes, everybody has a limit. You can break anyone. So I purposely try not to
become friendly with any of the participants, because then you say “Oh man, we’re pushing this
person so hard; should we stop here?” I’d rather not know them, so I can keep even pressure on
all of them. When you get to a certain point where, through attrition, there’s 10% or 15% of the
field left, well, you know you’ve got your stars. So that’s the way we do it.
ARI: Sure, okay. Now, you had the Death Race and then you obviously decided you wanted to
make this just a little bit more accessible, right?
JOE: We wanted it more accessible, we wanted to reach the masses, and so Spartan Race was
born. Spartan Race I think had – I don’t know, 1200, 1500 people at the first event. Now, this
year, knock on wood, we think we’ll hit a million participants globally.
ARI: Yeah, and that’s insane to me in a way, because I remember when I did the Tough Mudder,
and it was a crazy race, and there was a lot of people. But on the one hand, you’re looking
around saying, “What is wrong with these people?” But of course, you’re doing it too. Why do
you think that there’s been this explosion of people who want to put themselves through this?
Because I don’t think it’s just that we as a race are getting stronger and better. There’s obviously
something that’s drawing people to this.
JOE: I think we’re humans, and as such we are animals, and animals would always prefer to be
out in the wild, right? If you look at your dog – do you have a dog?
ARI: I have two.
JOE: Dog gets depressed if it sits in the house all day. It is much happier when it gets outside and
runs and jumps, whether it’s raining or not. We have been conditioned to be wrapped in this
bubble wrap protection and sit inside and watch TV and eat doughnuts and drink coffee in a
temperature-controlled environment, and it’s not healthy, and it doesn’t make us happy. So when
we take people out of that bubble wrap and throw them into the woods and the wild, they’re
happy, and they tell people, and it goes viral.
ARI: Yeah, okay. That’s sort of the real thing that I want to talk to you about, is this idea of
creating adversity and how we become stronger from that, and creating those opportunities. Do
you participate in a lot of the races yourself?
JOE: I do, but lately it’s been just walking from participant to participant to say hello, shake
hands, and snap a picture, which is awesome. A lot of people want to tell us how we changed
their lives, and we always respond with “We didn’t change your life. You changed your life. We
just provided the platform.” So yeah, my participation in our races is not exactly where I’d like it
to be, because I do love getting out there and competing and sweating. I’m a really good typist
now. I do a lot of phone calls and I do a lot of pictures.
ARI: What do you do to make your life hard then? What’s your challenge on a regular basis?
JOE: Every morning, I meet my lion. What I mean by that is, in the old days, we’d go out, horse
and carriage, get attacked by a bear or a lion. So early in the morning, before I have breakfast, I
like to go out and meet a lion, and this morning was burpees and running and double-under jump
ropes and pull-ups on a rope. A little cold outside, but you just get it done.
ARI: Sure, okay. This is something you do with your kids too, I understand, right?
JOE: My kids do two-a-days every day. They’ve been doing it for three years. My eight-year-old
and six-year-old that run half marathons and swam a mile with lifejackets, and they do two to
two and a half hours a day, seven days a week of training.
ARI: Wow. What kind of training are they doing? Because I have a two-year-old and two 11-
month-olds, so I’ve got to plan for this.
JOE: They do kung fu, they do wrestling, and they do skiing.
ARI: Wow, okay.
JOE: The two to two and a half hours of hardcore training is around kung fu and wrestling, and
the rest of the participation in sports is really downhill skiing.
ARI: Okay, so they probably don’t have much energy left to give you attitude, I guess, at the end
of the day.
JOE: Yeah, they fold under pressure.
ARI: And swimming a mile, how did you work them up to that? Was that difficult, or they just
JOE: I put a lifejacket on them and said “We’ve got to get to the other side of the pond.” That
ARI: Wow, that is awesome. That’s good. I got concerned when you said two and a half hours a
day, but kung fu and wrestling, fine. They’re not obviously doing any weight lifting or anything
at this point. Are they?
JOE: No, no. They’ve got their little pull-up routine, they’ve got their upside down pushup
routine, they’ve got their burpees, all incorporated into the kung fu and wrestling.
ARI: That’s great, that’s really great. Is this a bigger life philosophy for you, or something that’s
been around for awhile, this idea of creating these difficult situations and stress? How did that
get ingrained in you in general?
JOE: I don’t know if you know; we have a book coming out called Spartan Up, and that book is
a culmination of, I don’t know, 40 years of my life regarding just that, like how do you put
yourself under pressure and if that makes you a better person. My mom, lucky for me, lucky for
my sister, growing up in Queens, New York, was a yoga, meditation, and endurance freak. Now,
for her, one example of it is meditating and fasting for 30 days. So my sister and I watched that,
and we just started to see what was possible. Or some of her friends from India that do this very
long run in Forest Hills, Queens. I don’t know if you know of it, but it’s a 3,000 mile run around
a 1 mile track.
JOE: That requires not only physical stamina, but mental tenacity. So I was really lucky; my
mother was really focused on teaching us that, and my dad had very similar attributes, but
regarding entrepreneurship. So I’ve got these two forces pounding this stuff into my sister and I,
and that’s really what the book is about. How do you take the positives out of that and help get
success in life.
ARI: For people who aren’t quite ready to participate in the Spartan Race or something like that,
how do you recommend people start making themselves – I guess uncomfortable, really, is what
you’re trying to do.
JOE: Yeah. I love burpees.
ARI: Nobody loves burpees.
JOE: [Inaudible 00:10:12] really fast. Running, walking. Yeah, so I love them because it just
gets right to the point, and your heart’s racing, you’re aggravated. So that’s where I meet my
lion. I’ve always approached life that way, because of my mom and dad. Whether it’s taking a
cold shower or whatever, you’ve got to build grit, because if you can build grit, and you can
change your frame of reference, it makes life a lot easier.
Specifically, if you were training for the Spartan Race, first, you’ve got to read the book. Second,
you’ve got to just wake up in the morning, don’t hit the snooze button, and get out and do
something. It could be walk a mile, it could be do some burpees, it could be do some pull-ups.
But if you want a formal training program, we put out a workout every single day for free.
There’s 400,000 people download it every day, and people that follow it lose weight, get in
shape, find new friends, get healthy. It’s really simple. All the tools are very accessible.
ARI: This is all physical stuff you’re talking about. What about on the mental side? Do you try to
push that as well?
JOE: Yeah, the mental side I get through the physical stress. What I mean by that is if I needed to
train my mind, I would have my wife drop me off 40 miles from the house without any money.
JOE: So now you’re dealing with this situation where you have money, you’ve got no food, no
water, and so you’re going to go through all kinds of shallow troughs, mentally and physically.
When you come out the other side, 8, 10, 12 hours later, and you make it home, you learned a lot
about yourself. You start to make – oh, did I lose you?
ARI: No, no, I’m still here. Just we’re getting some lag, so I shut off my video. But we’ll keep
JOE: You start to do something I call upside, downside decision making, and what I mean by
that is you start to understand what’s really important, what details are really important in life on
a daily basis that are going to further you towards the goal or towards success, and which ones
you just don’t deal with.
As an example, if you’re doing a 40-mile run, walk, whatever it may be, and you start to feel a
hot spot in your foot or your knee starts to bother you, if you’re not trained properly, mentally,
you might not stop and take care of that tiny little issue. But if you are trained, and you
understand that all these little details in life make a difference, you’ll stop and take care of that
hot spot before it turns into a blister, which gets you walking funny and ultimately gets you out
of the race.
I love the analogy of NASA. When that astronaut gets into his space shuttle, if he was to turn one
dial just a centimeter to the right or to the left, that might not seem significant, but it could get
the astronaut to land on the wrong planet, actually. So it is significant. Training your mind for me
is about pushing your physical limits and then finding out – your body will follow your head, so
you’ve got to put yourself into a situation where your head wants to stop and work through all
those things that help you get through to the other side.
For me, one of those techniques is short-term goals. I know I have 35 miles ahead, but I just need
to make it to telephone pole. If I can just get to that telephone pole, I’ll deal with the next goal
when I get there.
ARI: Right, okay. That makes a lot of sense to me, because for instance, when I was doing Iron
Man, it always felt to me like much more of a mental game than a physical game. And especially
for an endurance event, which Spartan Race is also an endurance event, obviously. The human
body is well tuned for endurance. I think that that’s sort of – we’re finding out more and more
that that’s sort of a given. You don’t necessarily have to train the endurance. It’s that mental
aspect to know that you can keep going, you’re not going to die, you know?
JOE: That’s right, that’s right. You have to know. This morning I was in a lot of pain with my
workout, and my mind goes right to “It could be worse. It could be 30 below and I could be
freezing, because I’ve been there.” So if you can change your frame of reference, which all that
training does, it makes life easy.
ARI: Right, that’s something that I really want to harp on for people for a second, is that idea of
being able to tell yourself “I’ve been through worse.” That is a huge, huge win in some ways, to
be able to say that. And not everybody can without having gone through something, but being
able to say “I’ve been through worse” is really, really helpful. You have been through about as
bad as I’ve heard about, such as doing the Iditarod on foot, right?
JOE: The Iditarod, yeah.
ARI: What in the world made you decide to do it on foot?
JOE: Well, that wasn’t the plan. The plan was we were going to do cross-country ski, foot,
snowshoe, and mountain bike – actually, the mountain bike section of that trail in the snow, with
the proper equipment. It snowed so bad that year that you couldn’t use any piece of equipment
except for snowshoe. When we got over the Alaskan Range, over the pass, there was no snow, so
we couldn’t cross-country ski. So again, we were on foot. Yeah, it just didn’t work out as
planned, but we got the goal complete. We got to the finish line.
ARI: Was that the worst thing? What did you tell yourself in that situation, since it’s hard to say
“I’ve been through worse” then?
JOE: I’ve been through worse. My wife will kill me for telling you this, but we have four
children, and our last child, we were in the hospital, the baby was sick, and the priest entered the
room to give the baby Last Rites, and it was game over. So it’s a tough situation, but you learn to
deal with obstacles and adversity, and so “All right, it’s terrible, but I’ve got to deal with this” –
only to find out that the doctors had misdiagnosed something and we could take the baby home
five minutes later. Everything was fine. Miracle, it was great. But that grittiness, that ability to
deal with adversity, has applications well beyond doing a race.
ARI: Wow, thank you for sharing that with us. That must’ve been the worst five minutes of your
life. I can only imagine.
JOE: That was a tough period.
ARI: Yeah. Wow, okay. Well, I wasn’t expecting that. So then – sorry, I was going to ask
something else about the Iditarod. Oh, all right, so you’d been through worse with that situation.
Okay, so how do you train in general though, now, since you said you’re not doing a lot of the
races as much? You have your lion in the morning, but do you actually have a training routine
that you do? Or is that the Spartan workout that you post?
JOE: I always do my burpees. I committed to myself by and large six, almost seven days a week.
I do 300 burpees every morning, and I like to incorporate something else in it. So the last two
days was a two and a half hour snowshoe followed by 300 burpees. This morning, I mixed in the
double-under with the rope pulls and some running. But by and large, I’m a big believer in
burpees, because again, it gets you in that mental state where you just want to kill yourself, and I
like to get myself there every morning, because it makes the rest of the day easy. There are other
ways to get to that state, but it requires like six hours on your bicycle. Within 20 minutes in
burpees, you can get to that same place.
ARI: Right, it’s that intensity, of course. Does 300 burpees take you about 20 minutes?
JOE: No, it depends if I’m in the mood or not. If I’m watching my kids do kung fu, it could take
me 50 minutes. If I’m racing, maybe 18 and a half minutes. It just depends what kind of mood
ARI: Good Lord, okay. I remember the CrossFit Open Workout, I think three years ago. The first
one was seven minute [inaudible 00:19:02] of burpees, and I got to like 100 or something, and
the top guy got to 180 or something, and I felt just destroyed. But yeah, burpees are effective,
there’s no question. So then what sort of – I mean, you’re already are global, and there’s so many
races now. What’s next on the horizon for Spartan Races? Hello?
JOE: It’s a health and wellness company, and we’re really interested – I’m really interested – in
getting the message out there that there’s this whole life philosophy, and if you follow it, or some
version of it, you will have a much better life. So the book is a step in that direction to explain to
the uninitiated, people that haven’t done a Spartan Race, or may never do a Spartan Race – it
might just be too scary for them or they’re afraid of getting injured in their mind, so they don’t
want to step out of their comfort zone – so the book provides a platform for those people as well.
So that’s the next step for us, and then from there, hopefully TV and other platforms to help
transform lives. If I have my way, I won’t be sitting on a computer doing emails all day every
day. I would like to be out there actually sweating too, and doing some fun stuff with my family.
But aside from that, I think it’s just getting bigger and a more vocal platform globally to maybe
change 100 million lives.
ARI: That’s great, that’s really great. Joe, thank you. That’s all the time we have. I really
appreciate you taking the time. I know you had a little crisis before that is probably no big deal
compared to 300 burpees, so thank you for staying on the call. I recommend everybody check
out Spartan Up, the book, as soon as they get a chance. And if you’re up for it, get into a Spartan
Race, because they are fun, I promise you. They’re hard, but they are very fun. Joe, thanks again.
Really appreciate your time.
JOE: [Inaudible 00:21:17]. Thanks, Ari.