February 22, 2014
[01:35] Introduction to Joe De Sena
[03:25] Most Grueling Experience Joe De Sena has Experienced
[10:10] Starting the Death Race
[1`6:01] Obstacle Immunity and Taking the Cookie
[16:57] Controversial Way De Sena Raises his Kids
[20:51] Training like a Spartan in your Own Home
[23:35] End of Podcast
Ben: Hey folks, Ben Greenfield here. You’re about to hear an interview with Spartan Race founder Joseph De Sena and Joe had to go about 20 minutes into this call, but he promised he’d come back for a part 2. So, I’m going to hold him to it, but here’s the deal. I want you to steer the direction of part 2 of this interview. So over in the comments for this particular podcast which you can get to at BenGreenfieldFitness.com/Joe, that’s BenGreenfieldFitness.com/Joe, you can leave your questions for Joe like how to make yourself more tough, how to live a Spartan lifestyle, why Joe raises his kids in a slightly controversial way that he does, and anything else that is kind of on your mind after you listen in to these 20 minutes of intense talk with Spartan Race founder, Joe De Sena. Enjoy.
Hey folks, it’s Ben Greenfield here and the guy who I have on the line is really the stuff of legends when it comes to his racing resume. He’s done over 50 ultra-endurance events; he’s done 14 Ironman events and that’s in one year alone, and he once said that 26.2 mile marathon was “adorable.” To put things into perspective, this guy raced the Vermont 100, which a brutal 100-ultra distance event, the Lake Placid Ironman, and the BadWater Ultra all in one week. He’s raced in Death Valley; he’s raced the Furnace Creek 508 Bike Race, one of the toughest 48 hours in the sports, and his resume goes on and on. You might be familiar with his brand as well. This guys is the CEO and co-founder of the Spartan Race series and also the author of the brand new book “Spartan Up: A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life”. His name is Joe De Sena and he’s right here with us today. Joe, thanks for coming on the call, man.
Joe: Thanks for having me. Hey, by the way, breaking news, and this is an exclusive for you… I never said running a marathon was adorable, that was… I don’t know where that came from, but I’ve basically been running with it and people say it. So, you’re the only one that knows that I never said that.
Ben: Well, you didn’t coin the phrase?
Joe: I didn’t.
Ben: But have you said it before?
Joe: I’ve never said it. It’s been written everywhere and I just… I’m embarrassed to say I never said that. But that’s okay.
Ben: That’s fine. I’ll take it. I’ll start saying it. So let’s start because you’re just full of excellent stories. Let’s start with a story about the most grueling trial of endurance that you’ve experienced before, because you’ve done so many things, you know, it’s kind of like which one’s the hardest? So, do you have a story that you can pull out that really gets into the nitty-gritty of just one of the hardest things you’ve done?
Joe: You’ve got to read the book. First chapter gets into my most brutal experience out there. It was terrible, but I did the… a good chunk, I think it was a little over a third of the Iditarod, the dog sled race by foot, and it was 30 below for about 8 ½ days and that was pretty terrible. That was…
Ben: Hold on, so you did… meaning that the… what the dogs do pulling the sled with the guy on it, you just ran that?
Joe: Yeah, we went out there. I forget the year. Early 2000s. There was so much snow and it was terrible, absolutely terrible. I won’t even fly over Alaska now. I just don’t want to ever see Alaska or talk about it again.
Ben: Wow. What was one of the gnarliest things that happened to you during that event?
Joe: It was just ice cold. We were completely self-supported. Nowhere to get out of the weather. I had a buddy of mine who was a top five triathlete who was with me and we were 50 miles from our destination, not knowing we were 50 miles, and we would see an Eskimo go by in a snowmobile and I would ask how far is such and such and it didn’t matter who you asked, it was five miles away. It could be 50, 500 miles, didn’t matter. It was five miles to them. And it was absolutely miserable and this guy, Ben, collapsed and he just fell face first into the snow. He was done, leave him there, he just wanted to be buried. I picked him up, and I tied him to my back, and didn’t carry him, I pulled him with a rope and just had him take one step at a time so he wouldn’t… and sure enough he would untie the rope and fall back on his face. And this went on for at least a dozen hours.
Ben: Oh my gosh.
Joe: And I had no… and I didn’t have the energy to pull him, but I wasn’t going to leave him. And so, that was an awful experience.
Ben: Wow, and I know you devote multiple pages in your book to that particular experience, but you actually went on to start something that you call the Death Race and I’ve seen some videos of that online and maybe I’ll put a video of that in the show notes for folks of some of the toughest folks in the world looking like death wormed over doing that Death Race. But, tell me about this Death Race and kind of why you created that?
Joe: So, life is awesome when you’re around awesome people and what I mean by that is that those people you see in the movies, whether it’s Russel Crow in Gladiator or Mel Gibson in Braveheart, as example, that just have… they’re on a mission and they’re gonna get it done no matter what goes on around them against all odds and that’s why we love those characters in the movies and that’s why we love those movies. Rocky Balboa, right, comes up from the depth of Philly and somehow becomes this giant success and so we wanted… Andy and I wanted to find those people. Is there a correlation? Do those people come from a certain walk of life? Did they have a certain upbringing? But selfishly, we just wanted to be around those people and so, the plan worked famously, the race has gone on now for a decade and we’ve got a bunch of our closest friends that are all “Death Racers.”
Just like Google, Death Race has become this verb that you’re being death raced if you’re working at Spartan Race or working for us, we torture you. You’re going to work 24 hours a day and these are the kind of people, the people that actually sign up for the race, that get through it, that win it or just complete it are those amazing one percentages in life you wouldn’t might being in a foxhole with. You’d leave your kids to them to watch.
Ben: Now you talk in the book quite a bit about obstacles and the parallel between obstacles and life and I want to ask you that in a second, but can you just outline maybe a couple of the type of obstacles someone would experience in something like a Death Race. I’m sure folks have seen people climbing over walls or wading through mud like a Spartan Race, but where does the Death Race get kind of different?
Joe: Death Race, you don’t know when it starts, just like life. You don’t know when it ends. It typically has a life theme so it could be year of the gambler, year of the religion, and we’re trying to get some message across. People are most in tune to receiving a message and really learning when they’re at a peak state. And they’re certainly at a peak state while they’re sleep-deprived and doing the Death Race. And so it’s chopping wood, it’s starting a fire, it’s building a stone staircase with the stones weighing 500 pounds each up a mountain, it’s hiking 70-80 miles, it’s running in a river for 10, 12 miles carrying a stump and a bicycle, it’s memorization, it’s shooting a gun, it’s standing and chain sawing a hole in the ice of a pond and getting in the pond for an hour. It’s whatever comes to mind with one intention from the race organizers, you know, us, to break the people. Not unlike military training, we want to find the best of the best, and we want to help the participants find their own breaking point and learn a lot about themselves. You know, 95% of those participants get in touch with us years later, days later and just say “you’ve changed my life.”
Ben: Wow. So, if you don’t know when it ends. Is it like the Hunger Games where an air horn or whistle goes off and it’s just over or what happens?
Joe: Very much so. It just goes on and on until we feel that enough people have reached their breaking point. So not only are the participants dealing with their own competitors and dealing with us, but they’re also looking to their left and their right saying this will go on forever if this guy doesn’t quit. So, now they’re turning on each other. So, it’s very much like the Hunger Games.
Ben: Wow, that’s amazing. So, you also have this extremely popular Spartan Race series and this whole concept of living the Spartan lifestyle and I know that was kind of like the reasoning behind why you started the race series in the first place. I mean, you talk about doing the Death Race so you could kind of like meet and hang out with cool people, but when it comes to the Spartan Racers, it seems like your reasoning that you talk about in the book went a little deeper than that. So, did you have a real reason that you started the Spartan Race series as far as the lifestyle that you wanted to create?
Joe: Well, the Spartan Race was really… we needed something to rip people off the couch and Death Race was just way too extreme. Not everybody is looking for that Navy Seal moment.
Ben: So, you started the Spartan series after you started the Death Race?
Joe: We did, we did. We realized that we wanted to reach the general public and the Spartan Race at its core, the DNA, would come from the Death Race, it’s going to be brutal, it’s going to be the toughest obstacle race out there, everything is going to be athletic in nature, we are going to turn this into an Olympic sport, but it’s going to test your resolve.
Ben: An Olympic sport like a sport at the Olympics?
Joe: That’s our plan.
Joe: It is going to test your resolve. It’s going to help you build obstacle immunity, a term we coined where you can get through your day a lot easier because you dealt with such tough things with us, etcetera. So, that was the goal with Spartan Race.
Ben: Wow. So, when you’re talking about something like obstacle immunity, can you explain a little bit more about deeply what you mean about that?
Joe: So, in the morning we wake up and we go for coffee and the coffee is not the perfect temperature, we get upset. We go to the airport and the airline representative tells us we have to pay for extra baggage, we get upset. We might even start screaming. We’re driving on the road and there’s a couple of cyclists on the road that are in our way, we get upset. Those are ridiculous reasons to get upset. Reasons to get upset are like when a lion is chasing you.
So, the reason we get upset is because we don’t really have difficult lives. We live, essentially in a zoo, food shows up when it’s supposed to show up everyday, people take care of us, we’ve got nice cushioned beds, we’ve got perfectly climate controlled houses, and so we live in a zoo. And an animal that lives in the zoo can’t handle the wild. So anything that’s remotely difficult, freaks us out. And we’re trying to get people out of the zoo, let them experience life, and in doing so, they then don’t get upset with the airline representative, or the cyclist on the road, or the cold coffee.
Ben: So, is that kind of like the road to creating this Spartan lifestyle that you talk about?
Joe: That is. We believe in life adversity is the road to success. So, you need to feel some pain and go through these things to feel successful and that’s why so many people have taken on this Spartan concept as a piece of themselves. They feel like Spartans. And they are! And so that means they love the clothing, they define themselves this way, they follow our nutrition plans, they love to train using our system, so it’s really much more than a race.
Ben: Yeah, and I certainly felt that when I did my first two Spartan events a couple of weeks ago. It’s kind of a weird feeling. It’s a little less clean and pristine like something like a triathlon or a tennis match or something like that. Now, as far as the lifestyle goes, I mean, can’t you take this concept of stress to too far of a level? I mean, if you’re always living hard, isn’t that hard on your body? Can’t you kind of like over-trained or burn out your adrenals or something like that?
Joe: I disagree with the whole concept. I’ve done 20 miles a day for many, many weeks and very long distance runs and very long distance bike rides and I don’t believe we come anywhere near using up the capabilities our bodies are capable of. If you think about it, years ago, we probably hiked 6-12 miles a day just getting food and living.
Joe: Now we don’t come anywhere close to that.
Ben: But did you grow up that way when you were a kid? Have you kind of just lived this way your whole life so your body is used to it or is it something you discovered later in life?
Joe: I was always a workaholic. I had a swimming pool and construction business for a better part of my younger years and worked nonstop. The kind of work your grandparents would talk about walking both ways to school uphill in the snow and so I’ve always worked hard. I got into endurance racing later ______[15:14] to 30 years old and I don’t know, I feel great. But, I do yoga and a lot of people don’t do yoga. So, I personally think people have issues because they don’t stretch and they don’t take care of themselves. I don’t think these issues come about because you’re using your body the way it was meant to be used. Certainly typing on a computer like I do now and sitting on a chair, we were not designed to do.
Ben: Yeah, I would have expected you to like, have some kind of treadmill work station with spikes on the bottom of it or something.
Joe: I did. I actually did for about 5 or 6 years I did trading. I had a firm on Wall Street. I worked from a spin bike. So, yeah, it was very healthy.
Ben: That doesn’t surprise me. Now, you also, in addition to using this term called obstacle immunity in your book, you use a term called taking the cookie. What do you mean by that?
Joe: Well, people tend to prefer instant gratification rather than delaying gratification. So, I was lucky, I was always willing to sit it out and wait for the rewards later in life. Most people want their rewards now. So many young people we hire in our business that two or three months into it want raises, they want promotions, they want this they want that… My first business, I wonder for 10 years before I made a profit. So, you’ve got to be willing to put time in to get any kind of positive result and more people can’t do it. In the book, I get into the exact scientific evidence that proves that if you can delay gratification in life, you will be more successful.
Ben: Now, I know that you have kind of a special way of raising your own kids and maybe kind of thinking outside the norm when it comes to that. I think I saw a New York Times article actually about you and your children. Tell me a little bit about how you incorporate these concepts of obstacle immunity and taking the cookie with your kids in your life.
Joe: So, our kids, we only let them watch TV if it’s in Mandarin and the reason we do that…
Ben: Hold on. You mean like Mandarin Chinese?
Joe: Correct. Mandarin Chinese. So, we get DVDs and so forth and shows and things that they have in the US but the language is in Mandarin and many Europeans, many foreigners have learned English that way, by watching English TV. So, we said, we’re never going to be able to get our kids to now watch TV unless we throw the TVs away. So, let’s just have them watch Mandarin and they’ll learn Mandarin that way.
The other thing we do is we’re very fortunate right near us is a kung fu instructor within 100 yards of our house. So, he comes every morning at 5:30 AM and then again at 5:30 PM and the kids do two a day. They’re doing an hour in the morning, an hour at night of kung fu and wrestling.
Now, some folks might say, boy that’s really extreme. I disagree. I see, again, so many kids that are overweight, obese, just look at the statistics. Playing video games, that is ridiculous. Kids doing some training, morning and night… they don’t even know… they don’t understand this planet yet. My kids are very young, they’re 8 years old and under, by the time they figure everything out, they’re already going to have a skill set that they don’t even know how they acquired it.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. Now, do your kids also do these races like these Spartan Races? Like the kids version I would imagine. Like, do your kids do the full thing?
Joe: They do the full thing. My 6-year old, when he was 5, ran a half marathon and people say I’m crazy.
Ben: When he was 5?
Joe: When he was 5, he did a half marathon and he swam a mile with a life jacket on. An open water swim. So, human beings are amazing creatures. Our bodies are fantastic machines that we don’t know. We spend all this time saying what’s not healthy and this is too extreme, it’s all BS. I’ve pushed my body to its limits and, again, not to sound like a crazy person, just think about what we do each day. Sit in the car, sit on the phone, sit in front of a computer… We were not designed to do that!
Ben: Yeah, interesting. So, you know, as far as your book goes, one of the things you talk about are adventurers and athletes and kind of some folks. You tell a lot of stories in the book, but who are some of the people you admire, that you look up to that inspire you? Why?
Joe: Yeah, David Breashears, climber. Ed Webster, guys, again, people that are out there, pushing limits. Richard Branson, businessman. I went sailing with him recently and the guy’s an animal for his age. He’s an explorer. And so, it’s people who are just getting stuff done. They have fire in their bellies. Even Tony Robbins. Not so much because… I do love his message, but just look at the way he lives his life. Just people that get stuff done and have fire in their bellies.
Ben: So, if people listening in, and I know you’re pushed for time and you’ve got to roll pretty soon, let’s say people listening in want to start to kind of be hard on themselves, like they want to turn themselves into Spartans, and obviously going out doing a Spartan Race is a pretty good step but as far as in your own home, like little hacks, little tweaks. What are a couple things you can do to start to make yourself hard right away?
Joe: I would get a chin up bar in one of the rooms, maybe going into your bedroom and I would mandate every day on your way into the kitchen, you’ve got to do 30 burpees and every night on your way to the bedroom, you’ve got to do 30 pull ups. Even if you have to do jump ups. If you did those two simple things, you would not only change your body, you would change your whole life because 30 burpees in the morning they suck. They never get better, you never get better at them. They always suck and that’s like… a little similarity to being chased by a lion early in the morning, right. You’re barely awake, you haven’t had your coffee yet, knock out 30 burpees, it’s going to get blood flowing because at the end of the day, that’s what keeps us healthy. You’ve got to keep your blood flowing, you’ve got to keep things moving and that simple little thing will change your life.
Ben: Are you like a cold shower guy too? Do you do the ice cold shower thing?
Joe: I do. I do the cold shower, I do 300 burpees every morning and at night I try to do some squats and things while I’m watching TV, some crunches, and I’m just trying to keep…. I view, and I’ll get into it in the book, but I view the body as this machine that needs fluid moving around and so if you’ve ever been around people that have died in front of you, you see it’s just stagnation. It’s just things aren’t moving.
Ben: Yeah, it’s amazing. Well, I know that you’re running short on time, so what I’m going to do for folks listening in is put a picture of Joe in the show notes racing a Spartan I believe as well as a link to his brand new book “Spartan Up: A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life”. He delves into a ton of detail on a lot of this stuff that he kind of just hinted at in this interview and I’ll also put a link to some of the other episodes that we’ve done on kind of looking, feeling, and performing like an ancient Spartan warrior and living that Spartan lifestyle. So, Joe, thank you so much for your time today.
Joe: Thanks for having me! I’ll see yah. If you need me again, feel free to call.
Ben: All right, sounds good, man. All right folks, Ben Greenfield back here. Don’t forget to go to BenGreenfieldFitness.com/Joe, leave your comments and your questions for Joe and we’ll get back to them in part 2 of this interview series.
Joseph De Sena (pictured above) is 44 years old.
His racing resume is the stuff of legends – over 50 ultra-endurance events overall and 14 Ironman events (in one year alone). Most of his races are 100 miles or more with a few traditional marathons in the mix. (He once said that running a 26.2 marathon distance was “adorable.”)
To put things in perspective, Joe raced the Vermont 100, the Lake Placid Ironman and the Badwater Ultra… all in one week. The elevation climb for the 135-mile Badwater race, which starts hundreds of feet below sea level in Death Valley, is over 8,500 feet up to Mt. Whitney and temperatures soar into the 120’s. Joe also biked cross-country in the Furnace Creek 508 which has been coined “The Toughest 48 Hours in Sport.”
Joe’s other athletic achievements include:
– Raid International Ukatak: Canada, January 2001
– IditaSport: Alaska February, 2001 (1st place)
– Odyssey Adventure Race: Big Island, Va., March 2001
– OAR Beast of the East: Clayton Lakes, Va., April 2001 (1st place)
– Raid The North Extreme: Newfoundland, June 2001 (13th place out of 42)
– Adrenaline Rush: Dublin, Ireland, July 2001
– Discovery World Championships: St. Moritz, Switzerland August, 2001
And Joe is CEO and Co-founder of the popular Spartan Race series.With over 80 events planned for 2014, Reebok Spartan Race is making obstacle racing one of the fastest growing sports in the world. This international, timed event series features races at three distances (Sprint, Super and Beast), culminating each year in World Championship finals – $300,000 in cash and prizes were awarded in 2013 alone. While featuring competitive elite heats, Reebok Spartan Races are for athletes of all levels and abilities and are geared toward ripping people off their couches and getting them into the outdoors, living a fitter life.
Joe just wrote a new book entitled “Spartan Up!: A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life” and in this audio episode, we're going to delve into Joe's book, and how you can live a Spartan lifestyle while achieving peak performance in your own life.
This is just Part 1. Part 2 is going to be YOUR questions for Joe. So leave your questions in the comments section under this show, and we'll get to them in Part 2!
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Questions, comments or feedback about Joe DeSana and the Spartan lifestyle? Do you like Joe's take-no-prisoners approach or do you think he's too extreme? Do you have questions for Joe or Ben? Leave your thoughts below, along with your questions for Joe!