Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena was introduced to racing at a very young age. During his childhood in Queens, N.Y., Joe's mother — a vegan who practiced regular meditation and yoga — had a spiritual leader, Sri Chinmoy, who launched the Self-Transcendence 3,100-Mile Race. Perhaps an even greater mental challenge than it is physical, the world's longest certified road race boasts a distance equivalent to a trip from the U.S. West Coast to the East Coast, plus 11 marathons, and it takes place over the course of 52 days. (Indicative of how mentally draining and challenging it is, the course is literally one New York City block, repeated, nearly 5,700 times.)
The 3,100-mile race was what sparked Joe's interest in extreme endurance sports, and the Spartan kid was born.
Since then (and for over 30 years now), Spartan's CEO has competed in more than 500 races of all types. It goes without saying that Joe has experienced all forms of adversity while building his hefty race resumé, but he has learned — from the ancient Spartans, who are said to have loved going to war because it was less challenging than their daily training — that the secret is to always train harder than you actually race.
"When you do that, you prepare for the unknown," Joe says. "On long races, it's the mosquitoes and the gnats and the flies that get you, not the lions, tigers, and bears. It's the small stuff — typically blisters or chafing or bleeding — that is going to throw you off of your game and ultimately cost you the race."
While Joe's "preparing for the unknown" consists of filling his shoes with wet sand — sometimes without socks — and going for 30-mile training runs to toughen up his feet, he recognized that when issues and inconveniences do arise out on the course, being improperly prepared to persevere in that moment will likely be your downfall.
So Joe created the Spartan Survival Kit.
The military medic-inspired kit, given to Spartan+ members at in-person races once a year, contains several seemingly insubstantial tools and supplies that Joe handpicked to help racers — from OCR to mountain biking to hiking and more — prepare for the struggles they'll face before they actually happen. Though the items may not look like much, Joe says that this kit solves problems before they become problems.
Here's why Spartan's CEO picked each item, and exactly why you'll need each one — no matter what race you're running.
What's in the Spartan Survival Kit?
1. A Length of Paracord
The most simple use for the kit's length of paracord is as a replacement for a shoelace that breaks, or a torn waistband in your pair of running shorts. Maybe you twist your ankle and want to concoct a course-made brace to push through to the finish. Even if your emergency is far greater than some ripped fabric, you'll be surprised, Joe says, that a piece of paracord has the simple solution to what had seemed like a race-ending issue.
"I actually had to drag someone 50 miles in a snowstorm," Joe says. "It was about 15 or 16 hours. I was doing the Iditarod by foot, and my teammate broke down. I just tied his chest to my back, and if I took a step, he had to take a step."
So, even if you don't personally face an unpredictable extra challenge during your race, the paracord may just help you save someone else on the course from a similar fate.
2. A Nail Clipper and Nail File
Despite being possibly the most self-explanatory items in the kit, the nail clipper and file are far from strictly cosmetic.
"A lot of people screw up and break nails or have to take nails off their feet during a race," Joe says. "Or, you were an idiot and didn't clip your nails cleanly before the event and find that the toe adjacent to a longer nail is now bleeding. It's not the infection we're worried about, it's the fact that it's going to affect the way you run or walk."
And if you're familiar with the agony that snagging a hangnail on an obstacle will bring you, you'll be glad to have clippers on your person.
3. Liquid Chalk
If one thing is certain about endurance racing, it's that it will be intensely uncomfortable. Along with that comes unpredictable and — more often than not — oppressively hot, humid, rainy, or blistering cold weather. All of these factors take a toll on the course, and affect your body's ability to approach its twists, turns, and obstacles. So it pays to be prepared with Spartan's Liquid Chalk.
"It comes in handy to have hands that have some grip, so that you can get up and over things," he says. "I can't tell you how many times I've gotten to an obstacle or I've been on a mountain bike and my hands are sweating and slipping. Your hands are pretty freaking important, so you've got to make sure that you have grip."
4. Duct Tape
Joe's selection of duct tape comes from his belief that there's nothing you can't fix with a roll of the stuff.
"Duct tape is something I've been using forever, whether it's the bottom of your shoe, a toe, a blister, a bruise, something that's bloody, or a ripped backpack," Joe says. "Once, I had an IT band problem, so I took duct tape and tied it really tight above my kneecap to stretch out my IT band with every step."
And finally, if you find yourself facing a runner's infamous foe (bleeding nipples), using strips of duct tape to prevent your shirt from rubbing more will be a game changer for maintaining posture and persevering.
5. Spartan Hydration and Energy
"From a nutritional standpoint, I've gone days without food with no problem," Joe says. "But you can't go long without water. Dehydration will kill you way before lack of food will."
Years ago, Joe looked feverishly for a medical-grade, healthy, zero-calorie, zero-excess, zero-garbage hydration and energy solution, but — unsurprisingly — he couldn't find it on the market. So he decided to make it himself.
"I took to the medical profession, and got really lucky that Ancient Spartan tea from 3,000 years ago had properties that Hippocrates and Socrates used to use, as well as the Spartan warriors," he says. "So we formulated the Spartan Energy Capsules, and the same with the Hydration, which was used in hospitals."
When you're competing in an hours-long endurance event, you may face a few fatal problems. According to Joe, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich won't save you from them, but being hydrated and having your electrolytes in check will. No matter the distance of the race, he recommends taking Spartan Hydration every two to three hours. As for the Spartan Energy, a capsule 15 minutes before your start will do the trick for a shorter race, and for races upwards of 30 to 40 miles, take them as you bonk for best results.