Baptism of Fire & Water & Mud & Ropes & Barbed Wire & Chains & Walls & Spears & Tires
Spartan Race Has Turned Our Pain Into Their Gain: With Obstacles That Require Guts And Gusto.
Most successful innovations simplify things. Automation brings efficiency. Convenience is king. As a result, an opportunity to make lives easier usually turns out to be an opportunity to make a buck.
But that's not the only way to sketch out a business plan. Obstacle race series like Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and Spartan Race—in which adrenaline-fuelled participants shed their three-piece suits to crawl through mud under barbed wire and jump over fire—have seen their popularity explode precisely because of just how inconvenient they are. They are the physical challenges that the Industrial Revolution nearly erased. And former Wall Street banker Joe DeSena, one of the founders of Spartan Race, intends to capitalize on this: "In the last hundred years or so, we got soft. We have all these so-called 'advancements'—indoor plumbing, heat. The TV turns on when it's supposed to; the car starts when it's supposed to; you get hot coffee when you want it. And that's not really the way the human body and mind are supposed to work. We want to jump, crawl, climb, get dirty. It's natural. We've been doing it for 900,000 years. You're supposed to sweat; you're supposed to confront obstacles; you're supposed to have problems on a daily basis, adrenaline rushing into your core. But that doesn't happen anymore. So when you provide an outlet for people to experience that, they love it."
Spartan Race began in 2010 when DeSena and "a bunch of thirsty, adventure-seeking lunatics," including a former British Royal Marine, "had an idea: Let's try and break people. The ones that break will maybe come back for more and even try again, and the ones that succeed will be inspirational for us. And so we said, 'what would happen if you did an Iron Man and you came out of the swim and your bike seat was missing?' Most people would just say 'forget it, I'm done.' A few unique individuals, you know, the Rocky Balboas, would get on the bike anyway and get through it. That's why we love those movies, and that's why we're inspired by those individuals—so we wanted to find them."
Paying to push our bodies to extremes is nothing new, of course. Iron Man triathlons have been around since 1978. Adventure races, which can involve orienteering, rock climbing, kayaking and mountain biking, have also grown in popularity (but are reaching a plateau, probably thanks to obstacle races' increasing market share). What DeSena has done is make these experiences accessible. "I used to do a lot of Iron Mans," says DeSena, "and that is expensive. I used to do an Eco-Challenge: $50,000 to compete in that adventure.
A Spartan race for $150? Pretty cheap." Adding to its appeal is the fact that there are no skill requirements—just a masochistic streak.
And the races are scheduled according to geographic demand. "When it's thousands of people wanting us to set up a race, we just say, 'We're coming.'"
Because of its accessibility, Spartan Race has grown from the Vermont-only "Death Race", which The New York Times described in 2009 as "part Survivor, part Jackass," and whose web address is the subtle www.youmaydie.com, to an international series with different levels of difficulty (the Spartan Sprint, the Super Spartan, the Spartan Beast and the Spartan Death Race). In 2010, they held seven races, each with at least 500 competitors; this year they expect to have 55, drawing upwards of 7,000 at each one. "We can't stop it," DeSena says. "It's like a freight train."
Everyone from sponsors to corporate teams looking for the ultimate teambuilding activity—an estimated 60% of Spartan Race's participants in 2010 were on corporate teams. "We've got teams from Intel out west showing up with 80, 90 people," DeSena says.
Until recently, Spartan Races, a subsidiary of Vermont-based Peak Races, the company owned by DeSena which also puts on snowshoe races, ultramarathons and mountain biking races, among others, has handled the breakneck pace of expansion like a team of obstacle racers hurling themselves over a muddy wall, with little regard for what might be waiting on the other side. The company's infrastructure is just as chaotic. "People are chipping in all over the world to help us," DeSena says. "That, in itself, is a challenge. Everyone talks about the virtual office, which is not as sexy and easy as it sounds. Things take 10 times as long. If everyone's in the same room, it's just much more efficient. I think we're going to have to eventually consolidate and bring everyone under one roof. The goal now is to get it right, to perfect it. To catch up. It's grown so fast—we'll have over 300,000 people compete this year. Think about the customer service emails a company receives with that many. I've become an endurance typist. I used to do a lot of endurance exercise but now I find myself just sitting and typing and answering phone calls."
That'll change soon enough. When we caught up with DeSena, he had recently returned from a trip to New York City, where he met with "some well known names in many different industries," he says. "A bunch of new players. There are a lot of influential people looking to get behind the brand. That'll help."
It's not just about corporate expansion and branding though—the core of Spartan's sentiment is about challenge and self-improvement. "Whether participants had a tough time—somebody in their family died, they just got back from war, they've lost weight... I had a guy come up to me and tell me he was in a car six months ago, an overweight drug addict at the time, and heard a radio advertisement for the Spartan Race. He stopped the car and decided at that moment, listening to the ad, that he was going to change his life. He drove into the woods, went to his uncle's cabin, lived there for six months and transformed himself for this race, and wanted to thank me for changing his life. It's unbelievable."
Spartan Race's slogan is "You'll know at the finish line." For DeSena, the finish line is nowhere in sight—he's only at the start of this race.
UPCOMING SPARTAN RACES:
August 11-12: New England Spartan Sprint, Amesbury, MA (40 miles from Boston).
August 25-26: Mid Atlantic Super Spartan, Leesburg, VA (40 miles from Washington, DC).
September 9: Tri-State NJ Super Spartan, Vernon, NJ (52 miles from New York City).
October 14: Carolinas Spartan Beast, Winnsboro, SC (59 miles from Charlotte, NC).
October 28: Midwest Super Spartan, Marseilles, IL (75 miles from Chicago)