Is the emperor of obstacle course racing an insane masochist? Or do we really need his events to discover what we’re made of?
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
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When the Spartan racers appear, stumbling out of a trailhead, they look like a pack of postapocalyptic survivors. It has been 72 hours since they strapped on their packs and headed into the Vermont woods for the Agoge, an agonizing endurance test. Covered in mud and grime, faces contorted in grimaces or just eerily blank, exhaustion has them staggering like drunks.
Watching from the other side of the road, Joe De Sena lets out a huge laugh. “They think they’re coming to the end because they can see The Farm.”
Then another laugh, this one at the maniacal end of the scale.
“Now, I’m going to throw them in the pond.”
As founder and CEO of Boston-based Spartan Inc., De Sena is the emperor of obstacle course racing, or OCR, where weekend warriors pay hundreds of dollars to crawl through mud and barbed wire, get electrified, fall from palpitating heights into cold water that will take your body to the point of hypothermia, and run mile after mile for the privilege of getting to the next obstacle.
It sounds like masochism. It is also, according to some reports, the fastest-growing sport in the world, and Spartan is the sport’s biggest brand.
The Agoge (pronounced “eh-GO-gee’’) is named for the regimen used to train boys in ancient Sparta, and it is the most grueling entry on the Spartan event calendar. It provides a mostly sleepless torture fest of physical, mental, and survival challenges. Think fire walks and meals of foraged bugs bundled with an insane amount of trudging from challenge to challenge, all designed to take people to their limits. There are now Spartan Agoges in locations throughout the world, but this is the original, held twice a year just outside Pittsfield, Vermont (the next one starts February 2). It begins and ends at Riverside Farm, or simply “The Farm,” as devotees know it, the epicenter of this sport, this lifestyle, this movement. It’s also the De Sena family home.
Most of the people at this Agoge are elite endurance athletes or have military service backgrounds. Still, five of the 67 who began this three-day event have dropped out. The rest shuffle toward a replica Spartan helmet with a bell inside. Spartan staffers keep the helmet with the competitors throughout the Agoge; if anyone wants to quit, all they need to do is ring the bell. Now the bell is the finish line, and ringing it means they’re done.
But Joe De Sena has something else in mind. A serious-faced man with heavy brows and a mischievous smile, he’s wearing a dirty black Spartan sweat shirt, a baseball cap, and some old Carhartt jeans. He positions himself in front of the group and the helmet, a half smirk on his face, and prepares to send them into “the Joe Zone,” a place filled with harsh twists and the promise of a juicy reward: “It’s going to break you multiple times,” is how he explains it, “but you’re going to meet and know yourself, and hopefully you’re going to like what you learn.”
De Sena sees it as his job to mess with people, to “get them comfortable being uncomfortable.” He’s the kind of guy who’ll stick an elbow in your ribs, then look you in the eye and ask if you’ve had enough. The hordes of Spartan competitors pay him for the chance to answer “no.” They do it, he says, because they are not being properly challenged in their own lives. Obstacle course racing “is how they prove they are hard to kill.”
What De Sena really sells isn’t obstacle courses, but Nietzschean system shock — Spartan racing makes you stronger by forcing you through tests you think could actually kill you. Some participants have in fact died as a result of OCR events, both locally organized ones and those run by the sport’s big names, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and, at least once, Spartan. A Spartan racer was paralyzed in 2015 after a fall during a monkey bar obstacle, resulting in an ongoing lawsuit. And there have been many ER visits in the world of OCR — bloody diarrhea has been said to be the sport’s version of shin splints.
Now, with the bell practically in reach, De Sena is going to play one more awful trick on the competitors.
De Sena’s path to becoming the P. T. Barnum of OCR starts in Howard Beach, Queens, a place where some of New York’s Italian mobsters raised their families. As a teenager he started a pool-cleaning business — he says John Gotti was a favorite client. Before he finished high school, he had dozens of employees and hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. He moved with his mother and sister to Ithaca, New York, home to an Ivy League university, Cornell, and vowed he was going to go there, even if it took him forever to get in. (It took him four tries over four years.) From there he went to Wall Street and hustled his way into a small pile of money. But as his money expanded, so did his gut. He started running stairs in his apartment building to get in shape. Soon he became obsessed with extreme endurance events. In one seven-day period, he ran two 100-mile-plus ultramarathons, with an Ironman in between. He did the 350-mile Iditarod on foot. He’d leave his house for a bike ride and end up 300 miles away. He was, and still is, relentlessly chasing something.
Fifteen years ago, he and his wife, Courtney, a former college soccer player whom he met at a triathlon on Nantucket, left New York for Pittsfield and bought Riverside Farm, located on Vermont Route 100, one of those scenic roads popular with leaf peepers. They own the country store and several other properties, and some saw his arrival in this quiet town just north of the Killington ski area as the invasion of a Wall Street hotshot. “Go Home Joe” read one famous lawn sign.
He began hosting adventure races, including the infamous Death Race, at The Farm. Cofounded with a former business partner, the Death Race was a brutal multiday, don’t-know-what’s-coming-next-or-when-it-ends test of endurance, willpower, and willingness to put up with De Sena’s mind games. One year, the competitors nearly mutinied against him.
In 2010, seeing a growing appetite for obstacle course races but realizing the Death Race was more than most people wanted, De Sena scaled it way back and hosted his first Spartan race. The idea caught on: There are now 170 races in more than 25 countries, all sponsored by Reebok, drawing more than 1 million participants annually. The sponsorship deal is up for renewal at the end of this year, at an expected price tag of $15 million.
But Spartan is not the only brand in the game. A growing number of options, including large brands like Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder, provide stiff competition. De Sena has designed all Spartan events, except for the Agoge challenges, as races; he wants his athletes timed and ranked so they can be judged — by others and, most importantly, themselves. Ultimately, he’d like to see Spartan racing become an Olympic sport.
Earlier that day, while waiting for the Agoge competitors to emerge from the woods, the De Sena family went for a walk, Joe-style.
“Pick up a rock. Pick up something to carry up the mountain,” he said to his 8-year-old, Katherine.
As the parents and their four kids make their way up — Courtney carries the youngest, 5-year-old Alexandra, piggyback — they climb a series of steps made of huge stones. The rocky staircase was built by competitors as a challenge during a previous Agoge, and Joe De Sena beams as he shows it off, a permanent memory of an earned experience.
“His enthusiasm is contagious,” Courtney says as Joe hustles off ahead, talking with their oldest, 11-year-old Jack. “It’s not an empty brand. If he could design a life for himself, this would be it. He’s not a warm and fuzzy guy. He won’t sit and listen to your problem. But he gets results.”
Thousands of participants agree, claiming Spartan changed their life; many of them have the Spartan helmet tattooed on their body. Struggle plus endorphins plus accomplishment is a potent chemical cocktail for the brain. It’s the feeling of triumph. Seeking it, and finding it, becomes habit-forming.
“You want to earn bragging rights within yourself, to be proud of what you accomplished when you cross that finish line,” says Mark Horgan, a recent Salem State grad who along with three friends signed up for a trifecta of Spartan Races, including a 15-miler called simply “Beast.”
De Sena projects a binary view of the world — if you’re not putting yourself through physical and mental challenges, you’re not really living. Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge, an NBC show that aired right after the wildly popular obstacle course competition American Ninja Warrior, always started with a competitor saying: “You learn more about yourself in one Spartan Race than most people learn in their whole lives.”
It’s all extreme. It’s all very Joe. But for him, it’s simple. He’s giving himself, his children, and his Spartan competitors the thing he has always craved, something at least as ancient as Sparta.
“You ever see Kill Bill?” he asks as he begins hustling down the mountain, referring to the Quentin Tarantino films in which a former assassin, played by Uma Thurman, seeks revenge on those who massacred her wedding party. “I always wanted a trainer like Uma Thurman had, making me carry buckets up a hill. I always wanted someone to force me to keep going.”
On The Farm, De Sena has just deprived his haggard horde of their finish line, telling them they have one more task: standing in a nearby pond. Nobody rebels, or even complains. But one of the staff who has been out in the field with the competitors approaches De Sena. It’s late spring and the pond is still frigid. She tells De Sena the two teenagers in the group — a boy and girl who are the youngest ever to attempt the Agoge — are in such a bad way they might drown. (A parent or guardian must sign off for a teenager to compete.)
De Sena half nods and tells her to send the kids to him. He pulls the girl aside and asks her if she wants to quit. “No,” she says. De Sena tells the teens to stay with him. He instructs the others to crawl a few hundred yards through tall grass to the pond, dragging their heavy packs. They creep along, huffing words of encouragement to one another. Some power through with a show of grunting tenacity dug from a previously unknown reservoir. Others stop every few feet to gulp air. As they crawl, De Sena calls Jack away from the rest of the family, points at the teenagers and says, “They’re 13 and 15 and they’re not complaining.”
When the rest of the participants reach the icy pond, they slide in one by one. Shivering violently, they link arms to keep from sinking below the chest-high water. When they are all in, De Sena turns to the teens, who are wobbly. “Take off your packs,” he says. “They’re not getting out of the water until you guys are done with 150 burpees.”
The pair drop to their stomachs, struggle back to their feet, and give a halfhearted jump into the air, over and over, faces flushed with fatigue.
De Sena tells Jack to join them doing burpees. Just watching is painful. It looks like it’s too much. But it’s exactly what people come here for.
Spartan World Headquarters sits above a furniture store on the corner of Congress and Purchase streets, in a loft office overlooking Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. It has the feel of a startup, with a mostly millennial staff of 80 and standard cubicles and conference rooms, but with a few De Sena disruptions mixed in, like weights the staff must carry when going up and down the stairs. De Sena is famous for making everything more challenging: He once carried a 44-pound kettle bell with him everywhere he went for eight months.
Not an office guy, De Sena in recent years has spent most of his time living with his family in various spots in Asia, where he’s trying to grow the brand. When he does appear at headquarters, he sets up shop at a standing desk in the center of the room, looking up from his laptop to bark out orders at a staff that stages, on average, more than three Spartan events a week around the United States and the world (including an Agoge at the Great Wall of China). The tests range in distance and complexity, from 3-mile Sprints containing about 20 obstacles to the marathon-length Ultra Beast, which can include more than 60 obstacles.
His staff and his legion of admirers believe in his methodical madness. It’s how they justify putting careers or race-entry dollars into the hands of someone who sells punishment for a living. For the most part, De Sena is confident that betting on him is the right decision. “I’m just a regular guy. Why the hell do they listen to me? Because they allow me to introduce themselves to themselves,” he says.
But there are moments, like on the drive to the office a few days after the Agoge, when De Sena wonders whether he’s gone too far. He woke up that day on The Farm at 1:30 a.m. By 4:30, he had turned on all the lights in the house, having decided it was good for everyone to get up early. He’s been putting his sons, Jack and 9-year-old Charlie, through predawn physical training and martial arts since they were little more than toddlers (a fact that, as you might guess, has opened him up to considerable criticism).
He says the boys no longer give him pushback about the early morning workouts because they see the results. As evidence, he pulls up a photo on his phone of Jack jumping a pile of burning logs in a Spartan race. “Look at him. He’s 9½ in this photo, and he’s shredded.”
But on this morning, he says his wife was furious at him for turning on the lights and then hassling her to make sure she took the boys to wrestling practice later in the day. “I was asking myself on the ride in, Why do I push these things?Yes, it’s not a big deal if they don’t go to wrestling practice or get up for the workouts, but these things add up, eventually,” he says. “I’m not just a jerk to be a jerk.”
Courtney, herself an accomplished endurance athlete from Pembroke, remembers the first time she saw her future husband, as he ran barefoot in a field of sneakers and cleats. She thought there was something about him.
I once overheard someone describe De Sena as primitive looking, fitting for a guy who says what he’s selling is a reconnection to primal urges.
“The human mind was meant to deal with adversity by having a physical reaction to it. You see the lion, you run,” he says. “The reason Spartan is so popular is because we’re looking for that physical excitement because we don’t have lions and tigers chasing us. The First World has become too easy. It’s hard to be happy when you have it in abundance. You appreciate nothing.”
He waves his hand around the office.
“This is an adversity manufacturing plant.”
When the teens have finished their brutal burpees, the Agoge competitors gather at the finish line. They get a short speech from the Spartan employees who have spent the weekend with them. Then they line up to ring the bell inside the Spartan helmet one at a time. Sometimes it’s an emphatic ring; sometimes, when hit by someone who can barely lift an arm, it is more of a ding. But it is over, finally over, and, still shivering, they embrace one another wearily.
De Sena has a satisfied look on his face as he watches them celebrate. Courtney De Sena, standing next to him, says she feels bad watching them. “They’re guests in my house, I feel like I should bake them cookies.”
Joe grins and walks off to chat with some of the staff and competitors. Others are at their cars, wrestling into clean, dry clothes. No one is saying all that much. He’s the only one who seems to have a post-race glow.
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