From Wall St. broker to Subzero Blizzards, 300 Burpees a day to bestselling author, Spartan founder Joe De Sena is no ordinary Joe


Spartan founder Joe De Sena.

Gulf Today, Staff Reporter

The Spartan World Championship returns to Abu Dhabi this December 2-4, with participants set to take on a series of custom-designed courses deep within the desert landscape at Al Wathba Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa.

For Spartan founder Joe De Sena, the conditions will be almost the polar opposite of the eureka moment that prompted him to create the world’s leading endurance sports and extreme wellness brand.

It was while attempting to trek 1,500km across Alaska, amid blizzards and subzero conditions, that De Sena says he realized the difference between “difficult” and “desperate.”

The light bulb moment led to him creating his own obstacle course racing series in 2007. Now, as the Spartan World Championship returns to the UAE for a second successive year, participants will test their own mettle in temperatures at the other end of the thermometer – in the heat and humidity of Abu Dhabi.  

While the world’s best will compete for the championship, weekend warriors keen to test themselves on an elite circuit can do so through the Open Beast (21km, 30 obstacles), the Open Super and Open Team Super (10km, 25 obstacles), the Open Sprint (5km, 20 obstacles), and the Kids Open (500m-2km, 5-20 obstacles).

Those seeking inspiration need only look at some of the achievements of De Sena, Spartan’s commander-in-chief. Below we have listed five of the most impressive accomplishments of his storied life and career.

Entrepreneur Before he Could Spell It

While still at school in New York, De Sena proved himself a keen entrepreneur almost before he could spell the word. After having his black-market fireworks business shut down by school administrators at the age of eight, he switched to moving T-shirts and, later, cleaning his neighbor’s swimming pool.

The neighbor – who happened to be the head of an organized crime family – had three rules: On time is late, go above and beyond expectations to make yourself indispensable, and never ask for more money. (“If you deserve it,” he told Joe, “you will receive it.”) Even as a youth, his habit of taking physical exertions to the extreme was present. At 15, he became obsessed with BMX racing, riding 35 miles to an event one afternoon. After winning three races, he insisted on riding home again, only to be found sleeping on the side of the road by a friend’s mother.

He Did Workouts on Wall St.

After graduating from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in Apparel and Textiles – he was rejected three times, but refused to give up – he returned to his hometown of Howard Beach, Queens to resume his pool-cleaning business. Cleaning for more than 700 families, the business grew to the point that he made $200,000 in a single year.

When he pocketed $100,000 overnight on a hot stock tip at age 24, he sold the business for half a million dollars and went to work on Wall Street, earning $30,000 a year as a trainee at a brokerage house. Long hours behind a desk, little sleep, and nightly client dinners of rich, heavy food inevitably lead to weight gain.

Rather than embrace his new lifestyle, De Sena pushed back, seeking efficient ways to stay fit. Soon he was incorporating intense physical activity into every aspect of his life, from running the stairwells of Manhattan high-rises to busting out burpees at the bus stop. He also became obsessed with getting eight hours of sleep every night.

Competed in the Iditarod – on Foot

Tired of the corporate slog, De Sena discovered adventure races, leading him to eventually sign up for the most challenging one he could find. The Iditarod is an annual 1,500km dog sled race across barren Alaskan tundra in subzero conditions. Most participants take part with a team of 12-16 dogs, and often require more than two weeks to cover the distance due to whiteout conditions and gale-force winds that can cause wind chill to reach minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

De Sena took the decision to leave the dogs at home and compete on foot.  The experience was so traumatic that he said he’ll never go back, and he  shivers at the idea of even flying over Alaska. In braving the icy conditions and relentless course, the Iditarod taught De Sena how to be tough and resourceful. Seeking refuge in a hole that he had dug out of 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.”

Founded The Death Race

With a newfound determination to push his body and mind to their limits, De Sena embarked on a relentless calendar of events, competing – and completing – 50 ultra events and 14 Ironman events in the space of 12 months. It was then that he decided to create his own event: the Death Race. The inaugural race took place in 2004, attracted eight participants, and was completed by only three.

It is, De Sena would later describe it, “72 hours of hell.” With no start line and no finish line, the race is as much a psychological challenge as a physical challenge – although physical fitness is essential, considering participants can expect to be doing anything from 3,000 burpees to crawling a marathon under barbed wire, from chopping wood for an undetermined number of hours to pushing a 230kg sled up a hill. The race is the subject of a 2020 eponymous documentary.

New York Times Bestselling Author

Now 53, De Sena continues to do 300 burpees every morning before starting his day, no matter where he awakens. And as the profile of both Spartan and De Sena continues to grow, he finds himself awakening in an increasingly diverse range of cities and countries, from Chicago to Singapore to South Korea to the Emirates.

Spartan is now franchised across more than 45 countries and De Sena is regarded as a bona fide guru, appearing on prominent mainstream podcasts such as The Joe Rogan Experience and The Tim Ferriss Show.

He’s also established himself as a New York Times bestselling author, with a series of books including Spartan Up: A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance In Life and 10 Rules for Resilience: Mental Toughness for Families.


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