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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES » VERMONT » Spartan Death Race
Spartan Death Race

Event Preview - Pittsfield, Vermont

By Phyllis Hanlon | June 21, 2011

Thousands of people participate in road races, marathons, triathlons and ultra-marathons every year. But for those seeking a *real* challenge, the Spartan Death Race just might get your blood pumping.

According to Joe DeSena, creator of the Spartan Death Race, too many people are quitters. That is, when things get tough, individuals end marriages, leave jobs, break New Year’s resolutions. The idea behind this physically and mentally challenging event is to instill determination and test creativity and flexibility.

With a resume that reads like something out a movie, DeSena embodies his philosophy that flexibility is one of the most important attributes necessary for navigating life’s challenges.   For fifteen years, he ran a swimming pool cleaning company and then dove into the buttoned-down world of Wall Street. A brief stint there left him with a serious need to “clear his head.”

So where does a Type-A personality like DeSena go from here? “I learned about extreme races – the Iditarod, the Eco-Challenge, the World Championship in Finland, a 100-mile run,” he explains. “I signed up for all of them and ran around the world. These were my vacations. I did this for six or seven years,” he adds.

A serious car accident put him out of commission for a short time when his leg popped out at the hip joint. Undaunted, he registered for sixteen Iron Man competitions as soon as he was discharged from the hospital. By the time he began the third one, his wife announced her pregnancy and asked him to cut back his activities. “I did slow down in Vermont for a few months,” he admits. But his experiences had left an indelible impression.

During this “down time,” DeSena began thinking about training he had undergone with military special operations groups. One of the key lessons he had learned during this training was the importance of flexibility and persistence, a major component of the Spartan Death Race, which DeSena says emulates life. “There are unknown obstacles [in the race] with no specific start or finish. The course is top secret and might change partway through the race,” he points out.

Now in its sixth year, the Spartan Death Race takes place on a 700-acre farm in Pittsfield, Vermont. DeSena designs the course with race director/organizer Andy Weinberg. The process takes one year and changes several times before finalized. “We change our mind every week. We laid out this year’s course twelve times and it might change again during the race,” DeSena reports. The length of the race also varies from year to year. “One year it took twelve hours,” he says. “Who knows, this year it could take twelve days.”

Participants face both mental and physical challenges during the event. For instance, individuals might have to crawl under a barbed wire fence, climb a vertical point 2,000 feet high, carry a bicycle, split a tree stump or dive into a pond to retrieve a bicycle chain. To test the mind, DeSena has created some “mental gymnastics,” including tasks such as memorizing a list of presidents, designing a Lego structure on paper and then precisely recreating it after hiking down a mountain.

In 2005, the first year the race was held, eight people signed up and four finished. This year DeSena received 2,000 entries and narrowed the field to 200. “We interview them and make a decision on who gets in based on personality and flexibility,” he notes.

DeSena asserts that individuals have more reserve strength than they realize. “You can do a lot more than your mind allows. What happens when things don’t happen as they should? Say you lose your luggage at the airport, how do you react? I create that [uncertain] environment for three to five days to see how you’ll react. I drive you to the breaking point,” he asserts.

Those who choose to enter, offer a variety of reasons for subjecting themselves to this grueling endurance event. According to DeSena, many are celebrating a milestone, such as beating cancer, or looking for inspiration. “We watch Olympians and big events like the Tour de France, but most of us can’t actually participate. This is a chance to be those people,” he says. “Proving you can do something of this magnitude is amazing.”

In addition to the Spartan Death Race, DeSena offers a shorter series of races, known as Spartan Races for “regular people.” This series is designed to “lift anyone off his couch and provide them the experience to thrive when facing any mental or physical challenge.” In 2011, the Spartan Obstacle Race Series is staging forty events across the world, including the Sprint, a three mile race with more than ten obstacles and the Super, an approximately eight mile race with more than fifteen obstacles.


Spartan Death Race

Pittsfield, Vermont

June 25, 2011



All photos of the competitors are provided courtesy, and are copyright, Cronin Hill Photography.

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