Boil down the ethos of Spartan Race and it’s fundamentally a total-mind, total-body challenge. Every time a racer steps foot on a Spartan Race course, they can expect an arduous adventure where expectations are crushed or exceeded (or both), and nothing is guaranteed. But Spartan Race (as you know it today) actually derived from Joe De Sena's DIY ultra series in the rural Vermont called Peak Races. This is that story.
First, it’s important to identify a few key players that made it happen: Peter Borden, event manager and race orchestrator; Marion Abrams, media maven and marketer extraordinaire; Matt Baatz, trail architect and pizzaiolo; and at the center of it all, Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena.
How Peak Races Formed the Foundation for Spartan
“There’s nothing like this on the face of the earth,” said Borden. What he was talking about was Peak Races, four events that formed the genesis of the Spartan brand. They were all the toughest, most extreme endurance events possible, and they were all located in Pittsfield, Vermont: literally Joe De Sena’s backyard.
Going beyond the global, multi-billion dollar OCR industry that Spartan is at the center of, Peak Races is 100% small-town and grassroots. It has a local community atmosphere with authentic landmarks: Riverside and Amee Farm, the Original General Store, and Trailside Inn. It has a hand-built pizza bar in the middle of the woods (we’ll get to that in a bit), and 50 miles of singletrack terrain that challenges the most hardened athletes getting them to redefine the limits of what we humans can do.
What Are the Peak Races?
The four races within Peak Races include the Snowdevil, a 100-mile snowshoe race at the end of February, the Bloodroot Ultra, a 500-mile trail race in early May (named after Bloodroot Mountain, where the course climbs 3,500 feet to the summit), the Woodsplitter, a cross-country mountain bike race in August that has a winner-take-all format for most laps completed in six hours of riding—and at the heart of Peak Races lies the fourth and final challenge: Death Race. And it's exactly what it sounds like. Held in July, it doesn’t really have a distance “minimum” ...or a discernible finish length.
The goal was to create the hardest race in the world. Early in the process, De Sena, who loves to ride mountain bikes, invited some of his friends to race on the trails. De Sena remembers a top-ranked mountain biker who collapsed at the finish after one of the marathon jaunts. Her reason: “She said it was the hardest terrain she's ever raced on,” shared De Sena. “It was at that point we knew we had something.”
The origin of Peak Races came from the untapped potential of the land itself. “I moved to the farm in the year 2000. The place is gorgeous...Lord of the Rings meets Eco Challenge...and when the fog rolls in it's like Scotland," said De Sena. "When I moved there I just found myself snowshoeing, going into the mountains; inviting people out there...and making TRACKS.”
The terrain was bursting with OCR potential, and most of it was untouched when De Sena arrived. “From there we created our own events. At first, snowshoeing, we didn't even need trails. But we brought out rakes and shovels and before long had refined 50 miles of singletrack hand-carved into the mountains," said De Sena. "Friends came out, family was out there. Kids were helping. We even had a mini excavator at one point. Matt Baatz...he shows up and lives off the land; he built so much of it; he refined it. He's been there over a decade and he built a pizza place.”
An Oasis Pizza Bar Makes Peak Races Special
A quick detour from the Peak Races: among the 50 miles of singletrack in the Green Mountain trail system, a racer or hiker can absolutely stumble upon a pizza bar, built from the ground up, in the middle of the forest.
Matt Baatz was an engineering major who traveled the world, investing in projects that eventually landed him on De Sena's doorstep in Vermont. (Baatz replied to De Sena's initial Craigslist ad for Assistant Trail Manager. De Sena's response was simply: “When can you get here?”). The site itself was initially planned for luxury “rewilding retreats” deep in the woods, but Baatz soon spent 600 hours of his own time transforming the abandoned tent platform and fire pit into a fully functional pizza oven.
“I have no idea how [the pizza oven] happened. But I was living in Asia, and I came back after six months, and I was at the general store, and I saw [Matt], and normally when I see him he has a rake and a shovel, which would make sense," said De Sena. "But this time I saw him with a pizza spatula, mozzarella cheese, and pizza dough. And I hadn’t seen him in six months because I had been in Asia. And he left and didn’t say hello to me, and I asked ‘What’s going on with Matt?’ and the response was ‘Oh, he’s got his pizza place opening tonight.’”
De Sena continued: “What pizza place? ‘Oh, on your property, he built a pizza place. And it’s opening tonight.’ I came out for the grand opening, and there were people from Norway and from France...there were people here.”
One hiker shared, “We came through here briefly last year, for a second, and then left. And a friend of mine who was writing a blog afterward reached out to me and said ‘Do you remember stopping at a pizzeria in the woods?’ and she really wasn’t sure. ‘Did that happen? Did I hallucinate it?’” Somehow, it flourished.
Peak Races A.k.a. Jurassic Park
Baatz’s involvement was just the beginning. The real heart of the Peak Races format was built on the shoulders of a community hungry to test the limits of the human body. Peter Borden explained it best: “De Sena was into adventure and endurance racing from early in his career, and he saw this as an opportunity to put these events on and to find that one individual out of a 1,000 that really, really, wanted to be challenged. The goal was to have them look inside themselves and test what their inner being was; to find a deep meaning behind the human body...to peel it back and get rid of all the excuses. That was the basis of Peak Races from day one.”
De Sena dubbed the Green Mountain trails and Bloodroot Mountain: “Jurassic Park” and Borden agreed: “The stuff we're doing is just not normal. The ultra marathon is in the middle of Jurassic Park, where racers start in the mud and ice in the morning, and they reach spots with 18 inches of snow—and then the sun comes out and it's 76 degrees and the humidity is climbing like crazy. It’s really got everything.”
Stories abound with not only De Sena’s friends, but also recognizable names. “I had a friend of mine come out and we tackled the snowshoe course, which is 100 miles,” said De Sena. “About halfway through he’s getting tired and wants to stop. ‘Are you pissing blood?’ I ask. ‘No,’ he says. So we kept going. We finished, but it wasn’t easy. Later, he was so tired he fell asleep in the chicken coop.”
Borden elaborated: “At Bloodroot Ultra in 2007, I rode out to the middle of nowhere with my kids. It was the middle of Jurassic Park, and Joe had attracted huge names to come and race. Here's this guy coming up the mountain carrying a sledgehammer up a mountain because he's in the death division. My kids are awestruck and (rightfully) claim he was the biggest dude they’ve ever seen. It was David Goggins. He’s massive and ripped, but also the most polite: ‘Please’ and ‘Thank-you’ the whole way. It was all about inspiring people. It literally changed what people could expect from themselves...and what was possible.”
Peak Races: The Ultimate Challenge
All of this—despite the appeal for the best athletes in the world to show up—was never about building a brand or commercialization. Instead the mission was steadfast: test the limits of the human body in the toughest terrain. “Local families remain involved,” said Borden. “Not only as volunteers, but they’re present for the incredible people and incredible feats that happen here. These events attract people from all over the world to come and compete in this town of 450 people. It swells the town to twice the size. And yet it’s fairly well supported.”
De Sena added: “The idea was family-oriented, and all about convincing my friends to come out. I wanted to make this the endurance capital of the world. We could've chosen Santa Monica, California, but out here there are no billboards; you're not going to get eaten by a mountain lion, will never get bit by a rattlesnake, and there hasn't been a single tick. Thousands of folks have tried their hands at these events, and what happens is they come to our general store and they grab a burger, pancakes, or eggs for breakfast. The memories years later are all about being in the general store.”
How Peak Races Is Different Than Spartan
For Spartans and athletes of all strengths, registration is open for each of the four Peak Race events. Information is readily available online. But the price to compete is steep: it often requires every ounce of willpower one can provide. “Spartan is 20 years old. For 10 of those 20 years this is what it was,” said De Sena. “Come out and see where it all came from. Find yourself out on the mountain. Something about it changes you. I have yet to meet someone—anyone—from any part of the world who wasn't changed by coming out to see the farm first hand...and then they want to come back again and again.”
Will Peak Races ever be the next Spartan? “No,” answered De Sena. “It'll never be Spartan. There won’t be 10,000 people at an event. But anyone can come out and get their ass kicked. The people who come out—they do work—because we put them to work.”
“I invited three million people out at one point. My wife was going crazy.” De Sena paused. “But only 10 showed up. We just put them to work on the farm.”
Editor's Note: Photo gallery by Marion Abrams of Madmotion. Abrams is a resident of Pittsfield and has been the lead media presence since the first Peak event. She’s also the producer of Spartan Up podcast, and just launched a Death Race podcast. Tune in for the first episode on Spotify and find all episodes on PeakRaces.com.