Some people think Joe De Sena is nuts. Others think he's a genius. The truth is, he's a little bit of both.
De Sena, who founded Spartan Race in 2007 and has been the company's CEO ever since, is truly one of a kind. Sure, you hear people say that all the time. But in Joe's case, it's actually true. There's nobody quite like this dude. He's a tireless worker, a serial entrepreneur, a legendary adventure racer, a working-class kid from a Mafia neighborhood turned motivational speaker and self-help guru, a parenting authority, a farmer, and a general store owner. Ever known of anyone, or heard of anyone, with a background quite like that? We didn't think so. Joe just doesn't talk the talk when he tells racers to give it everything they have in pursuit of a goal. He actually walks the walk. He's the real deal.
Joe's ideas are grandiose. His effort is unmatched. And though he's come up short more times than he'd like to remember — as is the case with every successful person — when he reaches his goal, pretty spectacular things tend to happen.
De Sena's mission at Spartan has always been, and continues to be, changing 10 million lives. Here are some of the pretty incredible things he's achieved along the way, and why he's one of the most unique characters you'll ever hope to meet.
5 Badass Facts About Spartan CEO Joe De Sena
1. He Was an Entrepreneur Before He Could Spell the Word
For as long as he can remember, Joe De Sena has been a budding entrepreneur (and somewhat of a troublemaker). After his black-market fireworks business was shut down by school administrators when he was 8 years old, young Joe sold T-shirts. Then came his most lucrative and promising job: cleaning his neighbor's swimming pool. That neighbor, who also happened to be the head of an organized crime family, helped Joe build his little side gig into a booming business. (More on that below...)
His entire youth wasn't spent building businesses, however. In a foreshadowing of what was to come, Joe liked to test his physical limits, mostly in extreme fashions. He became obsessed with BMX racing at age 15, riding 35 miles to an event one afternoon. Even after winning three races in one day, he wouldn't accept a car ride home. He loved riding that much. In retrospect, he should have taken the car ride. A friend's mother later found Joe sleeping on the side of the road. Thankfully he was OK — just dead tired. It wouldn't be the last time he'd go until he literally couldn't go any more.
2. He Transformed From a Wall Street Trader to a Fitness Fiend
After three rejections, Joe finally was accepted into Cornell University, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in Textiles and Apparel. After graduation, he ditched Upstate New York to return to Howard Beach, Queens, his hometown. Back in New York City, Joe restarted his pool-cleaning business. He cleaned the pools of more than 700 families, earning $200,000 in one year. Joe ultimately decided to sell the business for $500,000 and embark on a career on Wall Street. During his career as a trader, Joe became a slave to long hours behind a desk, little sleep, and nightly client dinners filled with rich, heavy food. He had traded his physical health and mental well-being for money.
Not willing to accept this unhealthy lifestyle, but also not wanting to give up his prospering financial career, Joe found efficient, inventive ways to stay in shape. He learned that you didn't need a gym or a track to get a solid workout in. De Sena injected intense physical activity into every aspect of his life, no matter how mundane or monotonous it would appear to be. He ran the stairwells of Manhattan high-rises and busted out burpees at crowded bus stops. He also became obsessed with getting eight hours of sleep every night, an obsession he maintains to this day.
As time wore on, Joe decided that it was time to leave his financial life behind and get into the business of health. That's when his career, and his mission, changed forever.
3. He Did The Iditarod ... on Foot
Tired of the corporate slog and wanting to dedicate his life to fitness, De Sena discovered adventure racing. And as is the De Sena way, he found, and promptly signed up for, the hardest event he could find. Then he proceeded to make it harder.
He decided to sign up for The Iditarod, an annual 1,500 km dog sled race across barren Alaskan tundra in subzero conditions. The majority of participants take on the race with a team of 12-16 dogs, and it often takes more than two weeks to cover the distance due to whiteout conditions and gale-force winds that can cause the temperature to dip as low as -100 degrees Fahrenheit. De Sena made the bold decision to ditch the dogs and do it alone. The experience was so traumatic that De Sena has vowed never to return to Alaska, and he shivers at the idea of even flying over it. In braving the icy conditions and the relentless course, De Sena learned what it meant to truly be tough and resourceful. Seeking refuge in a hole he had dug in the snow, shivering uncontrollably and fearing for his life, he philosophized that toughness is about making the most of what you have. It's a mindset that allows you to transform "something basic into something badass."
4. He Founded the One and Only Death Race, the Hardest Race on Earth
With a newfound determination to push his body and mind to the absolute limit, De Sena embarked on a relentless calendar of endurance events, completing 50 ultra events and 14 Ironman events over a 12-month span. Fresh off of his year-long racing high, Joe decided to create an ultra-endurance event of his own. That's how the famed Death Race was born.
The inaugural Death Race, widely regarded as the hardest race on Earth, was held in 2004, and has been held on Joe's farm in Pittsfield, Vermont ever since. Described as "72 hours of hell," there is no start line or finish line. The race is as much a psychological challenge as a physical one. But make no mistake: Your body will be put through the wringer. Some of the grueling tasks have included completing 3,000 burpees, crawling a marathon under barbed wire, chopping wood for an undetermined number of hours, and pushing a 23 kg sled up a hill. The slogan of the race infamously says it all: "You may die."
5. He's a New York Times Bestselling Author
Now 53, De Sena continues to bust out 300 burpees every morning before beginning his day, regardless of where he is in the world. And as Spartan's profile continues to grow, he finds himself waking up in an increasingly diverse array of cities and countries, from Chicago to Singapore to South Korea to the Emirates. Spartan now holds events in more than 45 countries, which has helped establish De Sena as a bona fide guru. He's been featured on hundreds of top podcasts, including The Joe Rogan Experience and The Tim Ferriss Show, and is the New York Times bestselling author of three books: Spartan Up! A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life; The Spartan Way: Eat Better. Train Better. Think Better. Be Better.; and 10 Rules for Resilience: Mental Toughness for Families.