There was a time in the not too distant past when obstacle courses were spoken of exclusively in a military context, well that and school sports days. In the past few years however the phenomenal rise in popularity of OCR events has taken the sport to unprecedented new levels. They’re pretty much everywhere and they seem to attract an enormously wide spectrum of people. Runners, weight lifters, CrossFitters, rugby players, stag dos, hen parties, corporate team away days – a hell of a lot of people of taking part in them.
So we decided to speak to Joe De Sena, the founder of one of the world’s most successful OCR events, the Spartan Race, to see what he thinks about it’s meteoric rise. Just so you know, he raced the Vermont 100, the Lake Placid Ironman and the Badwater Ultra in one week. So he probably knows what he’s talking about.
Joe, why do you think obstacle course racing is becoming so popular at the moment?
I think it’s the fact that obesity and general unhealthiness, poor diets etc are so prominent, and growing, that there’s a contingent of people that want to get back to being human again. And I think spartan, doesn’t even just supply that outlet, not only from a race perspective but also from a lifestyle perspective. Spartan is good for so many things. I think that people want to associate themselves with [it] when they get off track. Less is more, you know, not getting caught up in consumerism and just being as tough as nails. Even though it’s the complete opposite of what society drives us towards.
What would you say is different about the Spartan races and the Spartan mentality from a lot of the other races that are out there?
Well that’s like asking what’s the difference between the spartans and every other military way back when. Spartans are badass, we take it seriously. I race myself, all over the world, so we’re pretty legitimate when we lay out the courses. And we rank you, and we judge you, and we time you, and so we treat it like a sport, we want it to be in the olympics some day. Certainly camaraderie exists and people come out in droves and teams but when the gun goes off people are competing. Spartan pushes people to their absolute limits, which is scary and will mean less people will take part in it because it is extreme, but at the end of the day, you know we’d probably sell a lot more tickets if we focussed on beer and holding hands. But that’s not us, this is the real deal and people are going to go to war for the day.
You founded Spartan in 2010. What kind of things did you have to overcome from a business perspective?
It is an absolute battle. It makes the race look like going to Disneyland. When I started this company, and I’ve ran a lot of businesses as a young kid, my left eye started twitching, my right shoulder is completely screwed up from typing, I’m going backwards in health, Everything that can go wrong does go wrong every single day. But we’re doing something great and getting people healthy, and that’s the goal.
You raced in a lot of events. What are the toughest that you’ve done?
The toughest race I ever did was the Iditarod, the race across Alaska. I raced for ten days, 30 below zero fahrenheit. I can’t even look at Alaska on a map any more. It was brutal. But I’ve done all kinds of things. Listen, the Spartan Ultra Beast is in a class of it’s own. You want to do an exorcism, come out here and do either a Beast or an Ultra Beast.
The Ultra Beast in just in the US?
Yeah. It’s a full marathon. But even the Beast, people are out there for seven or eight hours. You’re hallucinating by the time you’re done with it.
Are there any sports you haven’t tried that you’d quite like to?
I really want to get into kite surfing. And one of the things I’ve challenged myself privately with is this idea of rowing a row boat across the Atlantic. I’ve got those two things to get done at some point in my life.
How do you think obstacle course racing compares with running events like marathons?
Whatever you do that’s endurance based, whether it’s an hour or two hours, or even twenty hours, at some point you’re going to feel it, it’s normally at about 80% of the activity. There’s something that goes on in our minds, that says we’re almost there. I’ve done every event out there imaginable, but there’s something different about Spartan. It sounds self serving, but there’s something different. You’re going to war, and everything that can go wrong does go wrong, just like running the business. I dunno, an Ironman is tough right? But it’s kind of like a catered training day in that everything’s organised, there’s no sand in your shoes, you’ve got changing tents to make your transition. This [Spartan], You run out of bullets, you get shot at, everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
Spartan racing is closely linked with Reebok and CrossFit training. Is that the best way to train for it?
We have a system called SGX, and that’s a body weight system for training. CrossFit is obviously an excellent way to get in shape but we’re not seeing the CrossFit athletes win our events. We’re seeing more body weight type athletes win our events, and that’s the sort of stuff we preach. So, love CrossFit, love the fact that droves and droves of those athletes come out and compete, but it’s not going to get you on the podium, it takes more than CrossFit. I believe our system is pretty impressive.
What do you think the future has in store for obstacle course racing?
Well it’s not going away, we hope to see it in the Olympics Games some day. But I think there will be a lot of small guys that go out of business, just because it’s the reality of the industry, hopefully we’re one of three left standing. Every industry goes through the same thing, it balloons, there’s a bunch of players. We have spent tens of tens of million dollars marketing around the globe, so yes, we think we work hard, we have a better product, we have a fantastic name, but at the end of the day you’ve got to be willing to spend some serious money.
On May 16 Spartan Race hosts its first UK stadium-based event at the Allianz Park stadium in London, with competitors racing over fifteen obstacles at the home of the Saracens. To enter the event click here.
Picture Credits: Spartan Race