OutsideOnline Spartan Race race live author Joe De Sena
Spartan Race founder and burpee enthusiast, Joe De Sena (Photo: Gregory Smith)

How to Race (and Live) Like a Spartan

In his new book, Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena spells out his recipe for success. The main ingredient? Pain.

OutsideOnline Spartan Race race live author Joe De Sena

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“Am I intense? Yes, I’ll be the first to admit it.” So writes Joe De Sena about a third of the way into his new book, Spartan Up!, out May 13 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To which any reader is likely to reply, out loud, “No kidding, Joe!” De Sena, 45, is the creator of the Spartan Race, a massively popular obstacle race series that he’s grown into a $60 million business since 2010.

Spartan Up!

OutsideOnline Spartan Up! Joe De Sena Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing book


In Spartan Up! De Sena tells his personal story—kid grows up poor in Queens, New York; takes over dad’s pool-cleaning business; gets rich on Wall Street but also fat; finds himself through adventure racing; and moves to a Vermont farm—but mostly he works at convincing you that to find happiness and success in life, you need to suffer.

That’s the point of a Spartan Race—the plunges into frigid mud puddles, the crawls under barbed wire, and the climbs over greased walls are supposed to hurt. So are the daily training hours for your next race. As De Sena sees it, endure the pain and everything else in life seems easy by comparison. Regardless of what you think of the obstacle-racing trend, it’s hard not to finish Spartan Up! without feeling motivated to push harder during your next run, ride, or burpee session. With that in mind, here are a dozen of De Sena’s prescriptions for going farther and faster, and generally bettering yourself, pulled from the pages of the book.

Upset? Stressed? Mad? Run. Still feel that way? Run faster.

When you push your body to its limits, when you are out of breath and in pain, when you are lying on the ground exhausted—that’s the kind of experience that reveals to you how bad things can be. By doing this, you’re changing your mind’s frame of reference to set new standards. When that challenging workout is over, the small worries of the day seem like nothing.

If you never want to get sick again in your life, do 30 burpees a day. This works assuming you eat healthier as well.

The easiest way to convince your body that sitting in traffic is not worthy of a stress-induced freak-out is by showing your body what real stress feels like in the controlled setting of a daily workout.

You can either go to bed satisfied with your efforts today or stressed about what you left for tomorrow.

Be extremely physical and use every minute of your time. My wife thinks I’m nuts, but I will exercise in public if I have time to kill. She gets embarrassed, for example, if I am doing burpees in the airport. Being healthy should never be embarrassing. 

Preparing for the unexpected is easy. You just need to do the unexpected. Break out of your routine. Go for a run at night. Swim in the open ocean. Stop and climb a hill in the distance. Go farther during that bike ride.

You can talk all you want about mental strength and positive attitude… Mind over matter only takes you so far before you find yourself beyond your body’s literal control.

The pain of regret, the pain of failure—the drive to avoid feeling this pain ever again is what pushes us to work harder, to be a better person.

A good training partner can push you farther and faster when things are going well, but they can become essential when you’re burned out or training or skipping workouts and start slacking. You are conspiring against your own laziness by having a friend help hold you accountable.

The alarm goes off at 5 a.m.—what do you do? Believe it or not, our success in life hangs in the balance. If we go through life hitting the snooze button, our chances for success plunge.

Work harder. Be better. Do more.

Look for a feature-length profile of Joe De Sena in the upcoming July 2014 issue of Outside.

Excerpts from SPARTAN UP! by Joe De Sena with Jeff O’Connell to be published on May 13th, 2014. Copyright © 2014 by Spartan Race, Inc. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Lead Photo: Gregory Smith