Joe De Sena, Founder, Spartan Race and Death Race
How Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena set out on a mission to get 100 million people off their couches.
Joe De Sena is obsessed with pushing the envelope in every aspect of his life. That intensity drove him to create a multimillion-dollar pool-cleaning business as a teenager and then work a decade-long stint on Wall Street.
Beyond his career, he was also fascinated by the idea of pushing his physical and mental limits, which led him to countless marathons, Ironman events, and obstacle courses around the world. But even those events weren’t grueling enough for De Sena.
So he embarked on a 20-year journey—filled with failures, mishaps, and money lost—that eventually led to the creation of the now-infamous Death Race and Spartan Race. Both are famously challenging obstacle courses (Death Race claims to be the world’s toughest race) that are hosted in 45 countries and attract 1.3 million participants a year.
Today, De Sena is a respected entrepreneur at the helm of a $60 million business that has revolutionized the world of obstacle racing. And neither the business nor its founder show any signs of slowing down.
Like many successful founders, De Sena had a knack for entrepreneurship from a young age. When he was a teenager, he started a business cleaning pools (including for mob leaders!). He eventually grew and sold this business for millions while he was a student at Cornell University.
After college, De Sena found success on Wall Street, where he launched his own trading firm. While he made good money in that job, his greatest passion was always outside of work, in fitness. But his definition of fitness was a bit different than that of your average gym rat.
De Sena thrived on endurance challenges—this meant everything from marathons to Ironman long-distance triathlons.
“Doing these races all around the world myself, I thought I could do it better. Most businesses start because you don’t like a product or service,” De Sena says.
And that’s how the seeds for the Death Race and Spartan Race were planted.
Following his stint on Wall Street, De Sena and his family moved to a farm in Pittsfield, Vermont. It was here, in 2000, that De Sena decided to start an adventure racing company.
“I wanted to find 50,000 lunatics around the world that would do crazy things like swim the English Channel, climb Everest, row across the Atlantic,” De Sena says.
But not everything went as planned. Not only did his first event cost De Sena half a million dollars, but they actually lost a participant after he drifted away from the rest of the pack. They eventually found him, with the help of the Coast Guard.
That difficult experience informed the multiple future iterations of races he would organize. Eventually, it was the Death Race, which was founded in 2007, that finally started to gain traction. For those who are tempted, this race takes place in the mountainous terrains of Vermont, but participants are given no prior information on when it starts, ends, or what obstacles they’ll face (although races have been known to last over 70 hours). This diabolical brainchild of De Sena’s was a direct result of his frustration with Ironman.
“It had this badass name, and people were supposed to be tough. But people would quit when it was raining or if something happened to their bike. That, to me, wasn’t the ethos it set out to create. So I wanted to make something that was much tougher, grueling, and dirty. The Death Race emulated life—everything that could go wrong, would go wrong,” De Sena says.
Eventually, The New York Times caught whiff of this extreme new obstacle course, published a feature about it, and the event started to pick up some heat. From there, the Spartan Race was born in 2010 to create a more mainstream—but still extremely challenging—version of the Death Race for more people to participate in. And that’s where the mission to rip 100 million people off their couches was born.
The Network Effect
Though his events were growing in popularity, De Sena still wasn’t out of the red. In fact, for the 20 years that he had been running his obstacle race business, he lost money for 15 of them—$8 million to be exact.
“Anyone in their right mind wouldn’t have continued. But I don’t like to quit because I’m a crazy person. I got so buried financially that I didn’t have a choice but to make it work. And that’s the difference between success and failure,” De Sena says.
Fortunately for De Sena, he still had a source of income in the early days of his venture. While he had sold his Wall Street firm in 2004, he remained involved with the company and made passive income on the side. It wasn’t until 2010 that he completely pulled the plug and was 100% in on Spartan Race. De Sena admits there are still days when he wishes he was making that kind of money. As he says, “it’s easier to make money in finance than in barbed wire, blood, and black and blues.”
Over time, both the Death Race and Spartan Race gained solid footing which, according to De Sena, was thanks to the network effect. Due to the presence of the races across many countries and heavy investment in promotions, levels of awareness reached a critical mass and started to generate exponential growth. Today, the races are present in 45 countries, hold 275 events, and attract 1.3 million participants a year.
Having It All
While De Sena is optimistic about how far humans can push themselves, he’s not unrealistic.
He believes that most people’s lives can be grouped into three buckets: family, health, and business. If you really lean into one area, like health, you can’t put as much into the other two areas. According to him, true work-life balance is impossible to achieve—even when you’re a pro-multitasker like De Sena, who was doing crunches during his phone interview with Foundr.
“I don’t think anybody gets everything in life. That’s a fallacy. You certainly can be healthy, run a business, and have a family…but some things are going to give. Just be aware that if you want something, you also have to give up something. There are a lot of weddings and funerals I didn’t go to because I was building my businesses. I’m not proud of that, but the reality is that if you want to succeed, some stuff is not going to get your attention.”
De Sena also wants to leave aspiring entrepreneurs with a piece of advice: develop a steel trap for a stomach. He explains that there’s a ton of stress that comes from running a business while trying to balance all the other aspects of your life. Building resilience to this type of stress is a differentiating factor in entrepreneurship because, as he says, everything goes wrong all day long in business.
“I want listeners to understand the realities of starting a business. Forget about all in. You have to be doubly in.”
De Sena’s Advice To Find Your True North
De Sena recently published a book called The Spartan Way, which outlines the 10 principles you must follow to be a warrior. The first and most important principle De Sena discusses in his book is about knowing your True North. Here are a few tips De Sena shares to accomplish this:
- Recognize that there’s no “right” answer
According to De Sena, it doesn’t matter what your True North is. Your calling could be as a business person, parent, or religious leader. The most important thing is to recognize and own the fact that it’s your thing. “If you’re doing something you’re not supposed to be doing, you’re going to be miserable. It’s like rolling a boulder uphill.”
- Be realistic.
De Sena also wants people to know that you can’t just sit around waiting for the “magic” to happen. He recognizes that most people have to put food on the table and don’t have the ability to dedicate all their time to discovering their True North. That’s why the best thing you can do for yourself is to always be open minded to an opportunity when it comes your way—because you never know if it could be what you’re looking for.
- Align your True North with your actions.
Finally, once you find your True North, make sure everything you do moving forward aligns with that vision. That’s why, when De Sena founded Spartan Race, he sacrificed everything—from money to time—to fully pursue his mission of getting 100 million people off the couch.
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Sophia Lee
- De Sena’s decade-long stint on Wall Street, and how it helped fund his next venture
- Why De Sena decided to start his own adventure racing company
- How the very first race De Sena hosted on the British Virgin Islands went terribly wrong for one participant
- The birth of Death Race and Spartan Race
- Why De Sena never gave up on his company, despite losing $8 million in the process over a span of 15 years
- How the network effect eventually helped the obstacle course races gain traction
- The expansion of Death Race and Spartan Race to 45 countries
- De Sena’s honest thoughts on work-life balance and what it takes to be an entrepreneur
- A sneak peek into his latest book, The Spartan Way
Full Transcript of Podcast with Joe De Sena
Nathan: The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is, how’d you get your job?
Joe: How did I get my job? The job of running a running sport?
Joe: Was by accident. I wanted to start a adventure racing business. I wanted to find 50,000 lunatics around the world that would do crazy things like swim the English channel, climb Everest, row across the Atlantic. I thought maybe there were 50,000 of them out there and that led me on a journey where I spent an enormous amount of money trying to make this business work. When I reflect back as to why it was so hard, it’s because I’m asking people to do uncomfortable things and that’s not natural, right. It’s natural to sell people sugar it’s natural to sell people things that on the surface make them feel good, but it’s not natural to get them to wake up early, go to bed early, do pushups, pull ups, run and so I struggled for a long time at this job and then eventually we got it to work and here I am as CEO but it was really by accident.
Nathan: Yeah. Interesting. You conceived the idea. Yeah. You got … The original race was held on your farm in 2007.
Joe: Original race was held on the farm. God, probably 2002, 2003. This is 20 … As of 2020, it’s 20 years old in the making. The race in ’07 was a Death Race but there were many iterations before that. The first race I ever put on was the Expedition BVI it was called. Expedition British Virgin islands and we literally lost a human being for eight plus days. Thought he was dead, found him with the coast guard’s help 150 miles away. He had drifted and bought them dinner and all was good.
Nathan: Wow. That’s crazy and the first one, did you charge people?
Joe: We charged people but we lost a lot of money. Couldn’t get it to work. I was the one down in the British Virgin islands. We only had a hundred people show up. Lost a half a million dollars on that one.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow and when you started … When you came up with the idea, what sparked it? Where did it all start?
Joe: Basically, I was doing these races all around the world myself and I don’t know … I just thought I could do it better. I think most businesses start simply because you don’t like a product or service. You talked to Richard Branson, right. And he tells you he started an airline because he was unhappy with the service he was getting with the airline he was trying to fly on.
Nathan: Where’d you get the money to do the first one?
Joe: I had a job. I owned a business on Wall Street and so we were making a lot of money and I was able to burn a bunch of money doing it and in retrospect it was irresponsible but I just loved it. I loved that I was passionate about it.
Nathan: And those first hundred people, how did you find them? How’d you get those first hundred customers?
Joe: Those first hundred people I found by lying to them and telling them that we were going to have some fun down in the British Virgin Islands. I roped a lot of people in that didn’t know they were going to actually race. I was lying to people in the early days. I would tell them they were going to a barbecue or they’re going to have some fun down in the Islands but the reality was they were the ones being barbecued.
Nathan: That’s crazy. You charged a hundred people to come to the British Virgin islands and you didn’t sound like a good time and then how’d you force them to go through this crazy winter adventure race?
Joe: Well, I’m pretty motivating person. I’m able. If I have one gift, it’s the ability to convince people to do things they don’t want to do. Once you’re there, then you’d throw them in a kayak and I start paddling and then they’re in and then the competitive spirit takes over but I lost … Yeah, it was crazy because a lot of people didn’t know what they were getting into.
Nathan: Yeah. And that’s when … That was the first Spartan but then you did the Death Race. Why did you do the Death Race as well?
Joe: Well, the Death Race I put on because I was frustrated with Ironman. Ironman had this really badass name. These people were supposed to be tough and I was doing a bunch of them but I was annoyed. People would quit when it was raining or something happened to their bike or their wetsuit and it just seemed like it became very clinical. Here you were supposed to be a tough guy or girl and you were chasing to remove four grammes from your bike seat and that to me wasn’t the ethos it set out to create. Yeah, I wanted to make something that was much, much, much tougher and gruelling and dirty and saving four ounces on your shoes wouldn’t change the game. I don’t know if I answered the question well. I forgot what the question was but it sent me down the road on Ironman. Sorry about that.
Nathan: Yeah, yeah. I guess what … Why’d you start the Death Race? Because you were in Spartan, yeah.
Joe: The Death Race was exactly that. It would punch you in the face. What would happen if you were doing an Ironman and you got out of the swim and your bike seat was missing? That was the Death Race. Everything that could go wrong, would go wrong. It emulated life and it worked. Worked and worked in a big way and the New York Times picked it up and we had a spot in the New York Times and all of a sudden it became this big thing. Everybody around the world wanted to come see if they can handle the Death Race.
Nathan: Yeah. You’ve gone to build up a reputation of creating these incredible challenges that people will really push their limits, physically, mentally, emotionally and this has turned into a really big business. People listening right now, can you give people context? How many people will contribute and how large a scale … How many events across the world. How many participants? Like this year we’ll have gone through all of your events.
Joe: Yeah. 45 countries, 275 events. 1.3 million participants a year. As you say, it’s become a pretty overwhelming operation.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow and you kept going at it, why? You said you wasted a lot of money. For a long time it didn’t work. When did things really kick off? How long did that take?
Joe: Well, I lost money for 15 out of the 20 years. It was a loser and anybody in their right mind would not have continued. I don’t like to quit. I’m a crazy person and I got so buried financially, I had invested so much that I had no choice but to make it work, which I think is a difference between success and failure in many cases. I think … Thomas Edison’s reputation’s on the line. Elon Musk’s reputations on the line. Invested all your money, sold your kids, did everything you had to do to try to make this thing work and you have no choice.
Nathan: At what point did you leave the brokerage firm? You said you made a lot of money on Wall Street and go all in on this.
Joe: Well, so 2001 I start. I sold my firm, my Wall Street firm in 2000, the end of 2004 but I kept a toe in with the new buyer of the company and I continued to make money, thank God because I was basically burning all that money I was making after selling the firm and then in 2010 after 10 years I just pulled the ripcord and completely got out of that business. And the last 10 years has been a hundred percent Spartan, which there are days where I wish I was still making that kind of money.
Joe: Yeah, it was … It’s a lot easier to make money in finance than it is in barbed wire and barbed wire and blood and black and blues.
Nathan: Yeah but events business can be very profitable once you get it dialled in, right.
Joe: Not …finance. On average, we’d only charge a hundred, $125 if you calculated USD and so it’s a big … certainly a big business but for the service we provide, building a bunch of obstacles on the side of a mountain in a rainstorm, it’s pretty inexpensive for the consumer.
Nathan: Interesting. Would you be able to share … You said you burnt a lot of money. You don’t have to give exact numbers but maybe ballpark just for people can understand the scale or … If you feel comfortable.
Joe: Oh yeah.
Nathan: If you don’t, that’s fine.
Joe: I probably blew through $8 million.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow but things are going well now with the business right now, right.
Joe: Oh yeah. No, the business is solid. Sustains itself. Growing. That’s good and I don’t mean to sound negative in any way but I want the listeners to understand the reality of starting a business.
Nathan: Yeah, no.
Joe: Forget about all in. You got to be doubly in.
Nathan: Yeah, no. I love the rawness and the realness because it is so ridiculously hard. I’m curious, you said it took 15 years before things really start to kick in. You see online these Instagram millionaires and all this overnight success rubbish and stuff like that. I’m curious, what was the turning point? What do you think was the click? Was it a switch in the business model? Was it you guys hit market saturation to a point where there was a referral mechanism? What was it?
Joe: The thing that finally got it to work? I think it was just the network effect. I think we finally had reached some level of awareness because we were in so many countries. I was relentless and continuing to announce races, knocking on doors, seeing people that are going over a barbecue. I just left no stone unturned and eventually it created a network effect that worked.
Nathan: Yeah and I’m curious around … You recently launched a book, The Spartan Way. You’ve wrote a couple of books actually, The Spartan Way, Spartan Feared, Spartan Up. Your most recent book, what compelled you to write it?
Joe: I met a Spartan professor, the preeminent professor at Cambridge and we started talking about ancient principles and I’m a student of history and I have sought out monks and samurai and kung fu masters throughout my life and even organised crime bosses were my friends and basically, tough people with their own set of warrior principles. And I built a bunch of businesses and I started to realise that it comes down to about 10 principles if you want to be successful, no matter how you define success. They’re not my principles by any means. They’re just organised but if you can master these 10 principles, you’re going to master life.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow. Are you able to share some of them?
Joe: Yeah. The first principle, the most important and the most difficult, is knowing your true north or your purpose. If you’re a warrior, a religious leader, whatever it is, right. A business person, a mom or dad, you got to really know that that is your thing. And if you love it and it’s your passion, it’s the reason you’re on earth, it’s going to make life so much easier because if you’re doing something that you’re just not supposed to be doing, it does not fit your ethos, you’re miserable every day. It’s like rolling a boulder uphill.
Now, the reality is, most people have to put food on the table. You’ve got to do what you got to do and I’m not suggesting you sit around and wait for a shining star to hit you in the head and tell you, “Oh … ”
Magically, there’s … No, you got to what you have to do but you got to be open minded and looking for and sensing what that thing is or what those things are and it can change throughout your life but super, super important that you find that and you match why you’re here to what you’re doing and I found it. I found it in Spartan.
Nathan: Yeah. Amazing. I’m curious, when it comes to … I guess, you’re in the business of helping people overcome obstacles and and really train their mental toughness and strength and endurance. When it comes to obstacles and peak performance, can you have at all?
Joe: I don’t think anybody gets everything. And I think that’s a fallacy, right. I don’t think you can get everything. What I mean by that is you certainly can be healthy and if you’re running a business, or you’re running a family, you should be treating it like you’re on an Olympic team and taking care of yourself the way an Olympian would but something’s going to give, right. Something is not going to get the attention it should get. Just be aware that if you want something, you’re giving up something. There’s a lot of weddings and funerals I didn’t go to because I was busy building businesses and I’m not saying I’m proud of that or I did the right thing but the reality is, if you want to succeed at something and you’re going to put that kind of focus in it, some stuff is not going to get the attention it needs.
Nathan: Yeah. You have to make sacrifices.
Joe: Got to make sacrifices.
Nathan: And when it comes to fitness, how family, relationships, business … Do you think you can excel and have peak performance in all those areas of life, that is possible?
Joe: Well let’s go through it, right. Family, health and business. Let’s say those are three sides of the triangle. I think if you really lean in on health and wellness, you’re not going to be able to put as much time in the other two areas. If you really lean into business, you’re not going to put … It’s really your choice and it’s ridiculous, right. If any of us don’t put 100% of our time into our health and wellness, like on an aeroplane when they say you take oxygen first before you help anybody else. Health and wellness really has to come first but the reality is, even with me, I probably don’t give it as much attention as I should because family’s taking some and business is taking some. This work life balance I think is almost impossible to achieve.
Now, if you’re a nine to fiver and you’re happy in your job and you just mosey on through it and you’re a part time dad or mom, then you can spend a lot of time on how … It’s really a balance between the three but none of them are probably getting all the attention and achieving all the success they could if you’re 100% focused on that one and I think most of us are probably more out of balance than we should be.
Nathan: Interesting. I find that super interesting coming from … You’re definitely optimising your time man, doing crunches while we’re doing the interview. You’re definitely trying, right. It’s interesting to hear your perspective.
Joe: I’m trying. I’m trying. I didn’t get as many crunches, not as I’d like.
Nathan: Well look, we have to work towards wrapping up because I’m mindful of your time but one thing that I’ve learned and I’m convinced of is, the amount of success that somebody has in life or business … From my perspective, one key component is the ability to handle stress or the ability to be able to handle the amount of things that you have to have on your plate to take things to the next level. What would you say to people experiencing … Yeah, any obstacles in life and want to increase their mental toughness to be able to handle stress and the ability to handle the sheer volume of things that a lot of successful people go through.
Joe: Yeah. No, it’s funny you’re asking because my dad used to say, you’ve got to have the stomach for it to be an entrepreneur and I didn’t really understand what it means … What he meant and there’s no doubt about it. You’ve got to be able to deal with the stress. And I think that is a differentiating factor.
I’m really lucky I have ADD. If I got bad news, which an entrepreneur gets all day, every day, my mind after five or 10 seconds forgets the bad news and I’m onto something else. I have a gift in that respect. I think if you dwell on those things, you’re finished and it makes it exponentially harder. Yeah, I just happen to have a gift that’s more able to deal with the payroll and the rent and the bullshit, right because it’s not if it’ll go wrong, it’s when. Everything goes wrong all day long, every day in business and you got to have a steel trap for a stomach.
Nathan: Yeah. I agree. Well look, last question just around what’s next and what’s exciting for you right now and where can people go to find out more about yourself and your work?
Joe: What’s next? One of my dreams is to make a full featured movie about Sparta. I’m working on that and anybody can email me [email protected] If there’s folks out there listening to you that don’t have the money or whatever, feel free to ask for … They should actually talk to you. Maybe we should get you a hundred entries and you could start a team. The Nathan team. They go do a race together with your audience.
Nathan: Wow man, you scare me dude.
Joe: You got to do it now. You want a team out there and then don’t forget, the mission’s to change 100 million lives and then we got the book. We got the podcast. Check out Spartanup podcast. You’d get a kick out of it. And then every day, even this morning, believe it or not, I try to do videos and put them out on Instagram and just give people a kick in the ass and that’s realjoedesena if you wanted to follow me on Instagram and tell me if that gets you going but basically I haven’t changed in 20 years. I just love getting people motivated and going. Even if I’ve got to lie to them.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Joe De Sena
- Visit the Spartan Race website
- Check out the Spartan Up! podcast
- Get a copy of The Spartan Way
- Follow De Sena on Instagram for daily inspiration