in: Fitness, Health & Fitness, Podcast

• Last updated: October 1, 2021

Art of Manliness Podcast #63: Spartan Up With Joe DeSena

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In this episode I talk to the founder of the Spartan Race, Joe DeSena, about his new book, Spartan Up! A Take No Prisoner’s Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance In Life.

Show highlights include:

  • How the Spartan Race Started
  • How the Spartan Race has changed lives for the better
  • The future of mud runs
  • How Joe overcame several obstacles to get where he is now
  • How men can start “spartan-ing up” today
  • And much more!

Book cover, spartan up by Joe De Sena.

Listen to the Podcast

Special Offer for AoM Readers

Joe is offering a special 10% discount on pre-orders for his book just for AoM readers. Visit Joe’s site to order the book. When you checkout, enter discount code MANLINESS for your 10% discount. Offer is valid until May 20.

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Now if you haven’t been living under rock, you probably have heard of these mud runs that are sweeping the country. It’s basically where people get together and they do a race but there is obstacles and mud, they jump over fire, they crawl under a barb wire, they climb over giant walls, lot of fun and one of the more popular mud races is the Spartan race. I mean it just has passionate following of people who have traveled around the world just to do a race. And our guest today is the founder of the Spartan Race. His name is Joe de Sena and he lives in lovely Vermont, one of my dream places to go and hopefully live one day. Anyways he has come out with a new book called Spartan Up! A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life, and it’s basically the story of obstacles that he has overcome personally and obstacles he has overcome to start the Spartan race and he sort of lays out a philosophy, Spartan up philosophy that others can follow to overcome obstacles and turn those obstacles into victories. Really good book, we are going to talk about what it means to Spartan up, we are going to talk about mud races, the future of mud racing and we are going to talk about how to overcome challenges. So, stay tuned. Joe de Sena, welcome to the show.

Joe de Sena: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: All right. So, you started the Spartan race, this thing has taken the country by storm.

Joe de Sena: The world.

Brett McKay: But before we get talking about that, the world, yeah, let’s talk a bit about before the Spartan race because that’s really interesting, you did a lot of adventure races and endurance events, in fact you started your book Spartan up! About his grueling endurance event you are doing in the snow and there is just, like it’s horrible, I can’t believe you did this. What drew you to those types of activities? When you were a kid were you like super active and adventurous or was there something that compelled you start doing that sort of thing?

Joe de Sena: It’s funny because I spent a lot of time thinking about that, obviously writing the book and now that we have four children, what drove me or what drives me, I would say you are a product of your environment, so my mom was the ultimate Spartan, meditating, yoga, fasting for 30 days at a clip, which is insane in and of itself. Teaching my sister and I at a young age about long distance running. There was a race, not really a race, more of a run in Flushing, Queens, that a 3000 mile run around a one mile loop, I think it’s called Transcendent run you could imagine how you got to get your mind focused to 3000 miles run in a 1- mile loop. So growing up around her and growing up around my dad, who was the ultimate entrepreneur and was just a maniac 24/7 cared less about his health and wellness and more about printing money and running businesses, you grew up around that, you throw in a couple of masons like guys that actually built rock walls and brick walls and welders, those were people I grew up around and you start to build this character as a person that has to get it done. That’s been my DNA from the start.

Brett McKay: And so you took that and you saw all these adventure races and endurance events and you are like, that’s something I can take the sort of DNA that I have and express it, right?

Joe de Sena: Not to take anything away from out of the top of those endurance races, especially the one that we talk about in the beginning of the book, that was miserable. If you run your business and that business happens to include physical labor, everything that can go wrong will go wrong and it is an endurance race on steroids running a business like that. So, we did construction we had 700 customers. I was a young guy, we had a bunch of trucks, who doesn’t show up for work, when truck breaks down, customers screaming, you name it, we had our share of problems on a daily basis. So, as crazy as it sounds, going and spending 8 or 10 days in 30 below weather from that is a vacation. I mean it’s terrible and it hurts but it’s a vacation.

Brett McKay: I have noticed that in my life, the sort of the grind, every day, it’s not really that hard, but it grinds you down, getting out in the woods and doing a hike or doing an obstacle race for some reason that just energizes me. It’s sort of counterintuitive.

Joe de Sena: It clears your mind, right? Because what I like to describe to people is all the things that are unimportant, things that you are asking about that makes you upset and stress you out, they all go away and when you get to the place, it might be on day 1, day 2, day 3, at some point I will get to a place where I just want water, food and shelter and when you get there, that’s very refreshing because it’s like nothing lese matters.

Brett McKay: Okay, you did all these endurance events and you are – in your DNA, to e gritty and look for challenges, so how did the idea for the Spartan race come up? Was it something you wanted to do for yourself or was it like, I want to share this with other people?

Joe de Sena: I think it was more of a share, I think we were really interested in can we toughen other people up? Again going back to own ing your business and a lot of this philosophy in the book comes from owning my own business, you get frustrated when you hire people and you hire those people and they don’t show up for work, they don’t work as hard as you would like, but then you find some great ones and for me, especially when we were running business that required physical labor, those were people typically from another country and typically from a country where they had a tough upbringing, and so you see those people versus us Americans, I can’t even keep up with these guys, or women. They outwork me any day of the week and so that’s embarrassing for an American. How do we toughen up our society, our culture and so that’s what was deep rooted in the decision to start Spartan race.

Brett McKay: I mean that’s what you hope people to get out of the – like, they are going to go and they are going to have a good experience, it’s fun, right, to brawl around the mud and do obstacles and things like that, but what is it hat you really, you want people to toughen up or is there something else you want people to get out of your races?

Joe de Sena: Yeah, I mean toughen up is one part of it and the thing we are most interested in is changing people’s frame of reference. So, going back to the example I just gave, of let’s get back to water, food and shelter as the only things we desire when you are out on that race. If you can get to that place, only the kids screaming or the coffee is too cold or the car doesn’t start or any of the things that we deal with on a daily basis that in the proper frame of reference are no big deal but in the wrong frame of reference are disaster that set us off when we start fights in our relationships over them. Your life becomes better, the world becomes a better place if we can get everybody in the right frame of reference and I think in our current world which is awesome right, to have all the abundance we have. I just look at my dog, we are animals just like my dog. My dog got lost, we were 24 hours into it, we live within 30,000 acres of land here, so finding a dog is like finding the plane that we still haven’t found.

Brett McKay: We, my wife and I call Vermont ‘Dog Haven,’ where every dog probably wants to be.

Joe de Sena: Yeah, so my dog is gone, can’t find, she got a leash on it and I call up an expert that’s got tracking bloodhounds and I said, I am concerned the dog is going to get stuck with the leash on a log or something, I will be out there hiking a year from now to find a bag of bones tied to a leash and I am going to lose my stuff. So, this is most interesting to me, the woman on the other end of the phone says, don’t worry, two days into it that dog will go back to being an animal and will chew through the leash. And that’s really interesting to me because she has forgotten – she is behind me right now, you can’t see her, this dog, she has forgotten how to be an animal right? We have forgotten how to be animals and certainly being an animal has some negatives but it has got some massive positives too. You just become more gritty, the term you used, you have got proper frames of reference. You really understand what’s important and what’s not, and so I think we need more of that. I think the whole world has gone through this evolution of faster, easier, better, and Spartan race really is an attempt, maybe that’s not better, maybe faster and easier is not better, maybe delaying gratification is better, maybe making it a little harder on ourselves is better, so that’s what this is about.

Brett McKay: I guess maybe this one of the questions I had, why do you think there is sudden uptake in interest for the Spartan race, I mean through this philosophy through your spouse and your book, there are other obstacle races and tough challenges and people are paying money to be like physically miserable for a couple of hours.

Joe de Sena: Really authentics, I think in our DNA, it comes through, this is not just a business for us. But on the whole why people are participating because it feels really good and it’s addictive and I know because I got addicted to it, you clearly got addicted to it and so you get out there and you do it and you can’t re-create the feeling of being in the woods and sweating and get your heart pounding, you can’t re-create that in a gym. So one, it feels really good, two, I think we are very authentic, and three, let’s not forget social media. Social media has really changed the playing field for something to go viral. In the old days, the horse and carriage had to move that message from town to town, not it moves at the speed of light.

Brett McKay: I think, we are getting little ahead of ourselves, there might be some people for some reason who have been living under a rock, who don’t know what a Spartan race is or what a mud run is, can you walk us through what you put people through in your obstacle courses?

Joe de Sena: Yeah, it’s a military inspired event, you are going to crawl under barb wire, preferably for a long time, that’s my signature obstacle. You are going to climb over a wall because most of us have stronger lower bodies than we do upper bodies, so that’s going to be miserable getting up and over walls over and over. You are going to climb rope again, another nightmare for many people, climbing up 15-20 foot ropes. You are going to go over cargo nets and deal with your fear of heights, you are going to jump over fire, sounds silly but lots of people have to choose with getting too close to fire. You are certainly going to deal with the elements of earth, mud, water, and have to get dirty which it has been instilled in us since we were kids, not to get dirty not to soil our clothes, but those obstacles in succession and you competing with 9900 other people to your left and right transforms you.

Remember we took in investors I think 3 or 4 year into this business and I remember sitting down with the investors and we were talking about the brand, what is the brand, what is the message? I said we transform lives. And the investors said, well, I don’t know if that’s really a message you want to go out with because I don’t think people want their lives transformed. I don’t know about that because I get an email every single day if not 20 of them that say, hey, you changed my life, I lost 145 pounds and I am eating healthy or I have new friends I am going to bed early, I am waking up early. So this idea, this platform we have created changed lives.

Brett McKay: That’s one of the things I loved about reading these stories in your book about people who have started doing Spartan races and yeah, the Spartan race is not just a race it’s a lifestyle, and you just mentioned a few examples of people who lost weight but was there a story in particular of someone whose life just completely transformed for the better because of Spartan race?

Joe de Sena: I will give you two, I will give you one of my craziest ones and both are crazy but this first one, I am at a race in New York, Tuxedo Ridge, it’s a ski resort and a guy missing his teeth looking very scruffy, and beaten up comes up to me and says, I want you to know that you changed my life. That part is not weird, because I get that all the time. This is where it gets weird. He says, driving my pickup truck and I hear and advertisement on the radio for Spartan race and for whatever reason it strikes a cord, at this moment in time he says I am addicted to drugs and alcohol and I have been addicted to them for a long time. I stop the truck, I go into the woods and I don’t come out of the woods for 30 days, he said. I live in the woods and he was–who knows if he was just drunk or high but he is in the woods for 30 days according to him, he catches and eats his own fish, cleans himself up and he had just gotten out of the wood and was doing the race and so that was extreme example of a great piece of information. Chris Davis got roped into doing a Spartan sprint I believe in Georgia, someone roped him into it saying it was just a 5K, he had no idea it included obstacles. It took him 7 hours to complete 3.5 miles, he was 696 pounds.

Brett McKay: Whoa!

Joe de Sena: He has been drinking two 2L Sprites, eating 8 egg muffins every day just for breakfast, I got a hole of him, we talked to his company that he worked, for Comcast, they allowed him to take a leave of absence, he moved to Vermont and when he left Vermont he weighed 268 pounds or something like that. So, there is another extreme example of a transformation.

Brett McKay: That’s amazing. I am impressed that he was able to finish that 5K.

Joe de Sena: Yeah, unbelievable.

Brett McKay: He had the mental resilience, the mental fortitude just needed to –

Joe de Sena: I think he was afraid that he was going to die on the course and he just had to get home.

Brett McKay: So your book, it’s called Spartan Up! What do you mean when you tell people like you need to Spartan up, I hear Man up, cowboy up, what does Spartan up! Mean?

Joe de Sena: You have been to the airport where somebody is completely losing their cool on the check in woman for the airline for an extra $20 fee, having going nuts in their family or for me, I like the road cycle where a pickup truck drives by and honks and throws something at you because you are 3 inches on the road further than you should be on your bike and that caused this person a massive inconvenience, that’s unacceptable behavior in our society and that stems from this bubble-wrap life we all live in and so Spartaning up to me, to us means get over the BS, stop complaining about the small stuff and focus on what really matters, right, add a little grip to your life, it’s not so bad. One of the things I like to do for myself when I tell people is when things are bad because things are going to be bad every day, you are going to have some problem, you just got to say, well, it could be, it could be snowing, I could have got struck by lightning, I could be God forbid, missing a leg. The other day I ran out of it could be and I just said, well, I could be dead because I had already reached the level of could be.

Brett McKay: Was there something from your past that drew you to the Spartans, because on the Art of Manliness we write a lot about Roman and Greek history, so I am interested in what drew you to Sparta?

Joe de Sena: This is not my favorite reason behind some of it but I grew up in Queens and the neighborhood I grew up in was organized crime capital of the world. So, as a kid the people we aspire to be as kids were the guys with all the money and the guys that had all the money were these organized crime figures and the conversations about those people were could you do the time, you can’t be a rat, had all this discipline associated with it and obviously you grow up a little more, you learn a little more, you look to the military, they have enormous amount of discipline associated with them but when you really look at history, there is nobody like the Spartans when it comes to discipline, making a commitment and sticking to it, so yeah, whether it’s a movie that inspires us or a book or just some fictitious character or an organized crime figure, it’s usually around that unwavering discipline that that individual, that character has and there is nothing like Spartans when it comes to that.

Brett McKay: Definitely. I am curious, what do you think is the future of Spartan race and obstacle races in general, because I have been reading that insurance companies are getting leery of them, states are talking about regulating them, I mean is that something you guys are worried about or is just the future bright?

Joe de Sena: We take this sport pretty seriously unlike many of our competitors, we don’t add obstacles that don’t have an athletic or mental, they have to be athletic in nature, we test them over and over, we have got judges on the course, we started our own federation, we will be launching it probably in the next two plus months that will regulate all our races around the globe. So, I think state’s insurance companies have very little issue with the way that we run events. Well, people get hurt of course they will but they get running marathons, 5ks, walking across the street. As long as we take the measures we are taking and treat it seriously, plus it’s not a mud party, we are not looking at getting everybody drunk. It’s not just our theme. There are very good economics associated with throwing a lot of mud and beer at people, that’s just not us.

Brett McKay: Good, I think I read somewhere this could possibly be an Olympic event, is that something you guys are shooing for?

Joe de Sena: That’s our plan, we have already had some preliminary talks with the IOC and getting process in place, who knows how long it will take but if Curling and Ping Pong aren’t tere, we can get in there.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome, I would love to see that, that would be a lot of fun to watch the mud race or Spartan race on the Olympics. One thing I would like to do in this podcast is ask the person who I am interviewing just like a practical take away, people who are listening to this right now can do to apply the principle that they are preaching or advocating in their book or whatever, so men who are listening right now what can they do today to start like Spartaning up their own life?

Joe de Sena: So you heard of the cookie test, right in the 1960s, so that’s delaying gratification, not taking the cookie now and waiting for two cookies later. So, I would say the first thing you could do whoever is listening out there is start by waking up early in the morning, not taking the cookie, not hitting the snooze button. Step one is commit, I am going to work out and sweat, working out could mean a lot of things. They are going to sweat every morning for at least 30 minutes. For different people that means different things, that could be a walk up the hill, that could be taking the garbage out, whatever it is, you are going to commit to 30 minutes every morning before work, that one little thing will start to change your life because what it will do is it will put you to bed earlier because you know you got to wake up early, you will probably drink a little less, everybody who sips a little wine, has a little beer, You know what? I got to wake up early and do my work out, I am not going to do that, you will start watching what you eat, you might even start hanging out with new friends that are waking up early. So, one little thing that has a massive domino effect that I would say is wake up early and work out.

Brett McKay: Awesome, Joe, where can people find more about your book?

Joe de Sena: So

Brett McKay: Awesome, so everyone go check that out, it’s a great read, very inspirational, I got a lot of out of it. Well, Joe de Sena, thank you so much for your time, it has been a pleasure.

Joe de Sena: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: Our guest today was Joe de Sena. Joe is the founder of the Spartan race and author of the book Spartan Up! And you can find Joe’s book on For preorder, he has also created a special discount for AOM podcast listeners, if you go to, go through the order process and enter into the discount code in Manliness you will get a 10% discount off of your preorder, so go ahead and pick it up. Until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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