These Are the 5 Toughest Things That Spartan CEO Joe De Sena Has Done
It’s interesting how my own experience of toughness has changed in the last few decades. I used to think that being tough was just about being the last one standing. If you could beat your opponent (whoever or whatever you were facing), if you walked away the winner and they walked away the loser, or if you made a shit ton more money than the guy next to you, you were tough. But in talking to some of the toughest people on the planet and living through some wild adventures, my concept has completely transformed.
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Toughness isn’t about winning, being rich, or crossing the finish line first. It's about fortitude. It’s about courage, commitment, and conviction. The toughest things that I’ve done may not be what you expect. Building a brand that encourages suffering in a society obsessed with comfort was gritty, losing both of my parents was difficult, and being flown out of my car in a horrific accident was terrifying. But the following is a list of the absolute toughest things that I’ve ever done.
Spartan CEO Joe De Sena's Five Toughest Feats
Getting into Cornell University
Growing up in a transactional neighborhood, I thought the “it’s all about who you know” credo could get me pretty far. So when I applied to Cornell University (because a buddy’s father was a professor), I thought an acceptance letter was an easy ticket to acquire. Wrong. I was flat out rejected. My grades were awful and I had no business being there, but the rejection still stung. So I tuned into that spark in my belly and started taking courses to prove that I could do it.
The classes weren’t easy and I had to train myself to be a diligent student. I applied again in the spring, rejected. I took even more classes after the second rejection letter while also juggling my business. It was non-stop work and study and work and study, but I was determined. I applied again, rejected. It wasn’t until the fourth attempt that I was finally accepted.
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The whole endeavor was hard as hell. It was my first real taste of something excruciatingly tough because, with each rejection, I had to fight the nasty critic on my shoulder that said, “Just quit and focus on your pool business.” I’m proud of myself for not throwing in the towel. The experience taught me the importance of committing to a goal and became the inspiration behind our Spartan Kids finisher tee’s Earned, Not Given slogan.
Convincing My Wife to Marry Me
I met my wife, Courtney, during an endurance race in Nantucket. She was a very enthusiastic spectator and noticed right away that I wasn’t wearing shoes when all of the other races were laced up. Her infectious smile and solid encouragement of the crazy man who didn’t have sneakers was instantly appealing. I sought her out after the race, cold calling her and hoping that she’d be interested in a date. She wasn’t. So I called again, and again, and — after a few attempts — she finally agreed to go out with me.
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We were together for some time and it was pretty clear that she was the one that I wanted to live out my years with. Courtney, however, wasn’t quite as certain. She wanted a family, stability, and security, and I was lured into the world of ultra endurance events and wild adventures. I had to take a hard look at my own value system and show her that, at my core, I could create and produce all of those things. It was tough to navigate my own needs and also consider hers, but at the end of the day I wanted her by my side more than anything else. Pursuing her and getting her to cross that finish line with me was a massive exercise in self-reflection and exploration — something that I’d rather leave to the shrinks of the world. But in the end, the perseverance has paid off tenfold.
Completing the Iditarod on Foot
I’m unconventional. I like to zig when others zag. I caught the bug for adventure races in the late 90s and somehow my wild antics landed me at the Iditarod, participating on foot. Most participate with a team of 12 to 16 dogs, but I chose no dogs — two feet. Temperatures would reach 30 below zero. It was cold and miserable. I don’t have good memories and it’s not a place that I’d ever go back to. But the grueling weather, icy conditions, and relentless course taught me a thing or two about being tough.
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It was here that I had the epiphany that our “needs” in life can be so vapid. We think we need things — huge sectionals to spread out our legs; fuzzy, massively overpriced blankets; and wireless devices so that we don’t have to get up and plug them in. It’s all bullshit. Those are wants, not needs. Shivering uncontrollably in the wilds of Alaska, I began to understand that being tough is about making the most of what you have, not about being able to accumulate more and more and more. I recognize now that some of the toughest people I know aren’t drowning in abundance. They separate out needs from wants. Toughness is a mindset that allows you to transform something basic into something badass.
Staying Afloat During the Pandemic
When 2020 started, I would have bet my salary that it would be our best year. We had just bought Tough Mudder, secured one of the most incredible locations on the planet for our World Championship (Abu Dhabi), and inked a book deal with one of the biggest publishing houses out there. Little did I know that in the months ahead I would be fighting for the company’s survival, furloughing over 70% of our staff, and laying to rest members of our team. Quitting was never an option for me, but the constant barrage of angry customers wanting their money back, disgruntled racers wanting their races back, and concerned fans weighing in on safety was overwhelming.
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Navigating our ship through those uncharted waters was precarious, but our commitment to the mission never wavered. I created Spartan to transform lives and — even during the pandemic when lives were being organically transformed, many in the worst ways — we held onto our mission as the beacon of hope. Clinging to your values when shit hits the fan is what separates the truly tough from the fair-weathered strongmen.
I take each day as a blessing. I’m grateful that I get to lead an incredible team, raise badass kids with my awesome wife, and have conversations with outstanding warriors. But I get shit tossed my way every single day. There is always a fire that has to be put out, complaints that need attention, and barriers that require navigating. Getting up every single day and maintaining momentum is tough — probably the toughest of all five feats. If it weren’t for the enthusiasm of each Spartan racer, I’m not sure that I’d still be standing.
Running this business is not for the faint of heart, especially when the comforts of life keep increasing and the availability of “pain-free” becomes more abundant. When I see racers show up to the starting line with that let’s get after it face, I am refueled every time. The toughness and tenacity of our community is contagious, and I’ll keep absorbing it whenever I can.