Tag Archives: Joe DeSena

SportsBusiness Journal Examines Obstacle Racing

By Pete Williams

Over the years I’ve written frequently for Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, which is a must-read for those who work in the business of sports.

I had not written for SBJ in several years but earlier this month they asked me to write a story taking a look at the booming growth in obstacle racing. The story is not available online, but you can take a look at a PDF of the piece, which appears in this week’s issue.

Front page/start of SportsBusiness Journal story

Inside magazine/remainder of SportsBusiness Journal story

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A Death Race Sweep

By Pete Williams

Death Race team building

Olof Dallner was just 16 months removed from a major alpine climbing accident when he entered last weekend’s Spartan Death Race in Pittsfield, Vermont.

The 34-year-old Swedish scientist, who has lived in New York City for the last three years, still feels some lingering effects from the accident in his left arm. But that wasn’t enough to keep him from winning the Spartan Death Race, perhaps the most mentally and physically taxing event in endurance sports.

Dallner, who also won the inaugural winter Death Race in March, was in the lead when the Death Race was called on Monday – 67 hours after it began and with just 51 of 344 athletes proclaimed official finishers.

The obstacle and challenge-driven race required competitors to complete more than a dozen unusual, grueling mental and physical challenges throughout a 50-mile course in the dense Vermont woods.

Some of the challenges included:  a 25 mile/12-hour hike (done as a team challenge) carrying either a kayak, water filled plumbing pipes or a tractor tire above their heads; a 250 question exam with brain twisters; swimming in the Chittenden dam; form work including stacking hay bales; 1,000 Burpees; log chop; a 2-mile body roll through a sheep paddock; carrying a 50-lb bag of cement to the top of a mountain on a 3+ hour trek up and through a steep ravine and waterfall (and if the bag broke they had to head back down to get a new one); plus many more grueling challenges, all the while carrying all required gear, food and water in 40-lb packs.

The theme of the race this year was “Betrayal” which came to life throughout the event.  Organizers planted seeds of doubt and distrust in the competitors by declaring that they was open to mislead or betray other racers, but other competitors were there to potentially do the same to them.

Olof Dallner at a running event in NYC

This format played havoc with the racers psyche.  The ultimate betrayal came after 30 hours when a group of competitors planted by race organizers deliberately began cheating during a challenge.  Once the other competitors saw how easy it was to cheat, many cheated.  But when confronted they understood that cheating was not without consequence.  The penalty for the cheat was 6-hours standing in a 45-degree pond and other comparable tasks.

“I’d see people get betrayed and they’d get angry and quit but that’s part of the game,”  Dallner said.

Dallner said his toughest challenge was something called “The Roll,” where competitors had to roll side-over-side across a quarter-mile field strewn with pine cones, brush, and poison ivy for three hours.

“I’m not sure what kind of plants those were but my arms were stinging pretty bad,” Dallner said. “My arms are all scabbed up from that.”

This is what Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg had in mind in 2005 when they came up with the Death Race as an alternative to triathlons and other endurance races they felt had become predictable and routine. The idea was to create an event athlete couldn’t possibly train or prepare for in advance.

The race has gotten longer each year as it seems organizers like to wait until 80 percent of the field has dropped out before calling time. Last year’s race went on for 45 hours. In 2010, DeSena and the gang launched the Spartan Race, which now features events at three different distances.

Dallner said he got into Spartan Races after being sidelined for nearly three months following an alpine climbing accident in Vermont in February of 2011. An ice pillar he was climbing collapsed, sending him on a 75-foot fall. His ropes held, but he still crashed against the wall, breaking his helmet in two. He spent four days in an ICU in New Hampshire and underwent surgeries to repair nerve damage in his arm.

Dallner, who works in genetics developing a hormone that controls eating behavior, quickly discovered a knack for obstacle racing and won the winter version of the Death Race in just under 32 hours.

Upon arriving at last week’s version of the Death Race, he reported that he did not meet the race requirement of generating media coverage prior to the event. Weinberg said he would have to swim 12 miles afterward, relinquish his title (if he won), or quickly come up with some media coverage.

Dallner already is scheduled for both versions of the 2013 Death Race.

Florida finishers of the 2012 Spartan Death Race: Andrew Andras (Miami Beach), Joshua Clifford (Fort Walton Beach), Joe Falcone (Boca Raton), and Ricky Weiss (Tallahassee)

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Spartan Race Coming to Fenway Park

By Pete Williams

Guarding the Spartan Race finish line

Spartan Race, the grueling obstacle race series featuring penalties of 30 Burpees for each challenge not completed, is taking its show to Fenway Park, the historic, 100-year-old home of the Boston Red Sox.

Spartan Race typically sets up in remote areas, staging events of between 3 and 12 miles and consisting of 15 to 25 obstacles. The Fenway Park event will be a one-mile time trial taking place entirely within the ballpark on Nov. 17.

Unlike other obstacle events, Spartan Race does not provide course information beforehand. Joe DeSena, the creator of Spartan Race, would say that Fenway’s signature feature, the Green Monster left field wall, will come into play.

DeSena, who is friends with former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, says he was contacted by the Red Sox to put on the race, the team’s latest foray into non-baseball events. For about 30 years beginning in 1973, Fenway Park was used exclusively for baseball. Since 2003, the Sox have staged everything from Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones concerts to the NHL’s Winter Classic.

Though the Fenway version of the Spartan Race is just one mile long, it’s priced like a regular Spartan event – or a Red Sox game. It’s a whopping $110 to register through June 17 and escalates to $150 through Nov. 9. DeSena says the event is likely to sell out by Aug. 1, with 10,000 competitors expected to participate in what likely will end up being extended over two days.

Thirty Burpees – Standard Spartan Race penalty

Even spectator tickets cost a whopping $40.

“You go to Starbucks for breakfast you end up spending forty bucks,” DeSena says.

DeSena, a Queens native who grew up a New York Yankees fan, made a small fortune on Wall Street before moving to Pittsfield, Vermont, where he operates a small resort hotel. An avid endurance athlete who once completed 12 Ironman triathlons in a year, he created the Spartan Death Race in 2005 because he believed Ironman and other ultra-distance events did not present a big enough challenge.

Athletes competing in The Death Race, held annually in Pittsfield in mid-June, do not know how long the event will take place, what it will entail, or even the exact starting time. Last year’s event kicked off with competitors deadlifting rocks for six hours. The event had a religious theme and at one point athletes carried logs on their backs for 24 hours. The Death Race continued for 45 hours before DeSena called it with just 35 of the 155 athletes remaining.

The Spartan Race, launched in 2010, is a scaled-down version of The Death Race consisting of the Spartan Sprint (3-mile), Super Spartan (8-mile), and Spartan Beast (12-mile plus) events. Athletes typically haul heavy objects such as five-gallon buckets of gravel, drag concrete blocks, climb walls, flip tires, and run a race-ending gauntlet of guys dressed as 300 Spartan warriors wielding double-sided mallets.

Athletes also must perform challenges relating to the host property. At a Virginia event last summer at a paintball facility, athletes had to dodge gunfire and successfully hit a target from 10 yards away.

Spartans…Prepare for glory!

Failure to do so earned the athlete 30 Burpees, the standard penalty for not completing challenges. Athletes typically do three or four sets of Burpees, which makes Spartan Race arguably tougher than other events in the category, including Tough Mudder, which do not issue penalties.

Tough Mudder, like Spartan Race, debuted in 2010 and now hosts dozens of events worldwide. Each series is likely to clear $50 million in revenue this year. Unlike Spartan Race, which issues timing chips and awards points in a year-long race series, Tough Mudder does not market its events as competitions but team-building exercises.

Boston’s average high temperature for November is 52 degrees with a low of 38. DeSena said the cold and threat of ice and snow will only add to the Spartan challenge. The Fenway Park race could be the first of several ballpark Spartan Races, though athletes in Central Florida should not get excited about a Tropicana Field event.

“We put on very unique events, the only truly competitive events and fans of the Red Sox are pretty competitive people,” DeSena says. “We want to do more of these – but only in the best of the best stadiums.”

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Spartan Race: Toughest Obstacle Event?

By Pete Williams

Guarding the Spartan Race finish line

MIAMI – If the measure of an obstacle race is how sore you feel afterward, then the Spartan Race is the toughest, most challenging event in the category.

After finishing Muddy Buddy and Warrior Dash, I felt like I could get back in line and do them again. At the end of Tough Mudder, I was tired but not sore.

After completing the eight-mile Super Spartan Race at Oleta River State Park here Saturday morning, I’m sore all over. My legs are scraped, feet blistered, ribs bruised, head pounding. During the course of the race, which included running through woods and brush, pretty much everything but my shorts was ripped from my body: race number, timing chip (which I carried the rest of the way) and even my RoadID.

Does that make Spartan Race the best event in the category? Perhaps. But it definitely could be with a few tweaks.

There are things Spartan does better than anyone, starting with adapting to the venue. At a Spartan Race I did last June at a paintball facility in Virginia, snipers fired paintballs at competitors. At another point, we were given guns and given one chance to hit a target. Failure to do so earned you a 30-Burpee penalty.

Navigate this or face 30 Burpees

Perhaps the coolest challenge here at Oleta River was rappelling down an overpass ramp. At the bottom, athletes were given a six-foot rope attached to a five-gallon bucket, which they had to drop about eight feet into the water below. The idea was to get as much water into the bucket as possible – it was tough to fill it more than half way – and hoist it back up, where it was poured into a 30-gallon trash can. Once the trash can was full, it was dumped and the athlete climbed the rope back up the ramp.

It was a terrific mental and physical challenge – I almost fell with the bucket into the drink – one of many at Spartan Race. Tough Mudder is perhaps more effective at making the athlete uncomfortable, whether it’s with claustrophobic dark underground tunnels or the Chernobyl Jacuzzi ice plunge. But Spartan Race does a better job breaking athletes mentally and physically. I’ve done a dozen of these races and the two Spartans were the only ones I considered quitting because of the challenges.

There was the 100-yard tire carry, a 100-yard rock pull, heavy tire flipping, a pulley requiring the athlete to raise a 5-gallon bucket of cement 15 feet, and an endless (3 mile?) twisting run through the woods where it seemed you had to turn every 15 yards, all the while making sure you didn’t go the wrong way. There were just enough pieces of red tape hung to keep athletes on course. (Jon Watson did a terrific video on the event.)

Burpees and more Burpees

But what makes Spartan Race more challenging than any other race, including Tough Mudder, is that it issues 30-Burpee penalties. If an athlete fails a challenge at Tough Mudder or other races, he simply moves on. At Spartan Race, she must do 30 Burpees, the jumping, thrusting, push-up like move that’s tough under any circumstances, especially in muddy clothes after running several miles in Miami heat.

There were five challenges with Burpee penalties: monkey bars, balance beam, climbing 8-foot walls, scaling a knotted rope about 15 feet, and moving across a peg wall. Screw up any of them and do 30 Burpees, though the monkey bar penalty was only 10. (Women could jump onto a board nailed on the 8-foot wall about 18 inches up.)

So that’s potentially 130 Burpees. I did 90, having fallen off the balance beam and peg wall and given up on the knotted rope.

But here’s where Spartan Race was disappointing. It featured two swimming challenges, neither of which involved Burpees, for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t swim. The first was 150 yards and everyone could – and did – walk across. The second was only 30 yards or so, too deep to walk across, and for this Spartan Race provided ropes equivalent to lane lines to hang onto. Life jackets also were available.

Life jackets? Really? Give 30 Burpees to athletes who fall off a balance beam but give floaties to those who won’t swim?

Somewhere King Leonidas is shaking his head.

Rowing 200 meters, one of the easier challenges

Obviously there are safety issues. But if you’re not going to swim, you should face a Burpee penalty and your finish time should reflect it. At the Savage Race, the popular Central Florida event coming up in Clermont in two weeks, there’s a 150-yard swim in deep water. Athletes who can’t or won’t do it must perform 30 Burpees and take a 10-minute penalty. When the race debuted last August, there was a 5-minute penalty (plus the Burpees) but race organizers didn’t feel that was enough of a handicap since, after all, it could take five minutes to swim that distance in shoes – or take five minutes to remove shoes, swim, and put shoes back on.

But at Spartan Race, some of the top finishers didn’t swim. Sort of runs contrary to the tough-as-nails, ultimate athlete vibe Spartan likes to promote, doesn’t it?

Climb rope, ring bell

Here’s another beef with Spartan Race. The final obstacle involves getting past five meatheads wielding these double sided mallets. These guys take their gig way too seriously. Yes, I know I’m going to take some shots going one-on-five toward the finish line. It’s part of the race. But it must be embarrassing to fall for a head fake delivered by an exhausted guy 15 years older than you. Why else would you deliver cheap shots to the back of my head after I’ve blown by?

Might want to work some speed and agility training into your next WOD, fellas.

Spartan Race also takes the spartan theme a little too far. I counted three water stops, which isn’t nearly enough for a race in 80-degree temperatures that takes most more than two hours. As for free post-race refreshment? Even by obstacle race standards, a bottle of water and a banana is pretty chintzy. Keep the free beer. My kingdom for a Mix1 or Muscle Milk.

Spartan Race continues to issue black beefy cotton T-shirts with the year’s schedule of events on the back, a concert shirt look that went out in 1989. (Tough Mudder is just as guilty, though their shirts are gray). This year Warrior Dash has followed the lead of several of our popular Florida obstacle races (Highlander, Savage Race) and switched to the softer, fitted T-shirts.

Obviously it’s about the race not the shirt. I have more race shirts than I could ever wear and, besides, I aged out of the coveted 18-to-34 demographic that makes up most of these events some time ago. You don’t want me wearing your shirt. But judging from the lines of twenty-somethings waiting to get on race shuttle buses from the designated parking lot at Florida International University, you do want those kids serving as walking billboards for your brand, especially when it’s the coolest brand in the category. Print some fitted red Tultex shirts with the Spartan logo that they’ll actually wear.

All of the above are easy tweaks. I’ve gotten up twice while writing this story and feel it more than after any obstacle mud run, running race, triathlon, or paddleboard event. Spartan Race seems to have succeeded in becoming the toughest event.

Postrace cleanup

Joe DeSena modeled the Spartan Race after the Death Race, the brutal no-set-time challenge he stages in Vermont each June. When I had him on the Fitness Buff Show earlier this month, he bristled at my use of “mud run,” stressing that Spartan is an obstacle race.

That’s a good point and perhaps a distinction that could give Spartan an edge over Tough Mudder in the long term, even though TM is drawing bigger numbers at the moment. Tough Mudder is an untimed event with no results posted, with the goal of finishing together with your teammates, helping them over obstacles. Spartan bills itself as a race, a new endurance sports category, where athletes must get through on their own or do 30 Burpees along the way.

At the moment, Tough Mudder has an edge in popularity and sponsorships, which include Under Armour and EAS. Tough Mudder provides all-you-can-consume EAS protein drinks and energy bars at the end of its races. Spartan Race’s Miami event was sponsored by “Dial for Men.” The soap came in handy at the post-race showers, but the “Dial for Men” banners everywhere gave the event a bit of a “Meet the Spartans” feel. Seems like sports marketers are missing a great opportunity with Spartan Race.

I hesitate to lob constructive criticism at DeSena, though not because he comped me into his race as a member of the media. DeSena has a track record of taking suggestions and making his events harder. Several athletes I spoke to in Miami who did last year’s race said this year’s edition was much tougher. One guy said he finished in 1 hour, four minutes last year but took nearly two hours this time. “And I was much better prepared,” he said.

DeSena has a Wall Street background and knows a thing or two about building businesses for the long haul. If Tough Mudder and Spartan Race were stocks, I’d be bullish on both, but it seems Spartan Race could be the better long-term play.

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An Interview with Joe DeSena, Spartan Race Founder

By Pete Williams

Death Race competitor Joe Decker

We spoke this morning with Joe DeSena, founder of the infamous Spartan Death Race and the Spartan Race series, which quickly have become recognized as the toughest races in endurance sports – perhaps even more so than Tough Mudder.

You can listen to that Fitness Buff Show interview HERE. Some highlights:

— DeSena does not like the term mud runs, preferring “obstacle racing,” believing the competition is more about overcoming obstacles than dealing with mud.

— Though his company plans to attract more than 350,000 competitors to 41 events this year, including several overseas, he bristles at the idea of people entering huge teams of athletes, some of which are not prepared for the rigors of the race.

— More than 10,000 people applied to be on “Unbreakable,” the upcoming reality show that will pit 100 athletes in seven days of Death Race-like competition in Vermont this spring.

 

 

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Committed to The Death Race

By Pete Williams

Last year's Spartan Death Race

For all the talk about Tough Mudder and the Spartan Race, there is one event that remains far above the rest when it comes to crazy, hardcore, physical challenges.

That’s the Death Race, held since 2005 and rebranded last year as The Spartan Death Race.

Death Race participants don’t know how long the race will last. They’re not even given a start time, just told to be at a farm in Pittsfield, Vermont on a certain day in June ready to go.

As for the challenges, they’re like no weekend mud run, including Spartan Race and Tough Mudder. Last year’s Death Race began late on a Friday night with athletes squatting 10-to-30 pound rocks…for six hours.

They spent the next 39 hours navigating a series of grueling mental and physical challenges throughout a 40-mile course that runs through the woods. Competitors had to wade through icy water, haul 20-pound stumps up and down mountains for hours, memorize Biblical verses, and carry a 10-gallon bucket of water for 2.5 miles.

The Biblical verse challenge came after 15 hours of racing and required the athletes to memorize the scripture, climb the top of a mountain and recite. Get it wrong? Go back to the bottom and do it again.

Rebecca Hansen, shown competing in triathlon, will attempt to complete a second Death Race in 2012

Last year, 185 started the race and only 35 remained when it was called after 45 hours. Remarkably, some of them are among the 200 committed for this year’s event (June 15), including several who finished the race. Rebecca Hansen (left) was one of two Floridians to finish last year’s event. The 50-year-old ultramarathoner from Naples committed for 2012 shortly before embarking on last year’s race.

Paul Roarke,the 51-year-old former U.S. Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sergeant from Pensacola who dropped out after suffering a leg injury 26 hours into the race, also is back. Megan Mays, 28, of Tallahassee, the only other Florida finisher last year, plans to return to Vermont, but only as part of a support team for other athletes.

Joe Decker, the two-time defending champion from San Diego, apparently is not returning. After all, it’s not like he has anything left to prove.

Other Floridians among the registered: Joe Falcone, 35, of Boca Raton; Doug Bush, 32, of Davenport; Joshua Clifford, 26, and Abraham Lara, 27, both of Fort Walton Beach; Andrew Andras, 35, of Miami; Bruce Harris, 48, of Milton; and Ricky Weiss, 28, of Tallahassee.

Unlike other endurance races that offer a detailed map, Death Racers have no idea what to expect next as the course map and list of challenges are kept secret.  This provides competitors with one of their biggest challenges as the length of the race can range from 24 to 48 hours. For an endurance athlete, not knowing where the light is at the end of the tunnel can be sheer torture.

Race founders Joe DeSena and Andy Weinberg created the Death Race after becoming bored with marathons, Ironman triathlons, and eco-challenes. Though it’s not an official policy, it seems they let the race last until about 80 percent of the field drops out. Thus, the event gets longer each year. Last June, they called it after 45 hours with 35 athletes remaining.

“We commend the brave athletes for taking on this challenge and taking the ultimate test,” Desena says. “We are creating a course that offers no mercy and breaks the will of at least 80 percent of the entrants.  We have never had more than 20 percent of the participants complete the course.  We don’t expect that to be challenged this year.”

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Spartan Race Town, HQ Devastated by Irene

By Pete Williams

Road damage in Pittsfield, Vermont

The town of Pittsfield, Vermont, best known in the endurance sports world as the site of the Spartan Death Race, is recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Irene that took out bridges, rendering the town an island and making helicopter travel necessary.

According to the Spartan Race blog, the lodge at K1, where a thousand athletes earned medals during a Spartan Beast Race event last month, collapsed due to the effects of Hurricane Irene. The Pickel Barrel, where hundreds of athletes gathered with their turkey legs and celebrated their completion of the Beast, has suffered flooding. The bridges up and down Route 100 have collapsed, making it impossible to travel through the heart of the Green Mountains, by car or by foot.

The Spartan Race is headquartered in Pittsfield, where race organizer Joe DeSena makes his home. DeSena launched the Spartan Race this year, expanding upon the Spartan Death Race he created in 2005.

Having visited the beautiful Pittsfield community during the Death Race in June, we’re stunned and saddened to see photos of the damage. Here in Florida, we always keep the possibility of a hurricane in the back of our minds, but it’s not something Vermonters have had to consider.

There are a number of ways to contribute to the rebuilding and recovery efforts listed on the Spartan Race blog.

 

 

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