Are you Spartan Race material? Prove it in a Death Race and You're Hired

By Laura Baverman
Upstart Business Journal

As an extreme athlete and entrepreneur in the early 2000s, Joe DeSena didn't understand why he couldn't find employees as driven and hard working as he was.
 
He operated a farm, bed and breakfast and general store for hikers in Pittsfield, Vermont, and before that ran a successful pool-cleaning business. In his spare time, he competed in very long-distance athletic events like Ironman races and "the toughest 48 hours in sport," the Furnace Creek 508 bike race. So one day in 2005, while out on a 12-hour snowshoeing adventure with friend, Olympic swim coach and now five-time Ironman Andy Weinberg, they decided to create the ultimate obstacle course.
 
In building up his team, DeSena decided that he would hire any athlete who completed the 48-hour Death Race.
 
Eight years later, the men are running one of the fastest-growing athletic events in the world. The fire-jumping, mud-crawling, wall-climbing Spartan Race, launched in its current form in 2010, will happen in 60 cities by the end of 2013 and 100 in 17 countries in 2014. Lead sponsor Reebok recently attributed its 11 percent sales growth to its connection to Spartan Race, and DeSena says he gets new sponsorship requests almost daily.
 
All that momentum has led the entrepreneur to set two big goals for the company's future: to turn Spartan Race into a major consumer brand and to make obstacle racing the next Olympic sport.
 
"We thought it'd be a race series that weeds out great people from mediocre people," DeSena told Upstart Business Journal this week. "We thought we'd find amazing people we'd want to hang out with, and then it exploded and became a tremendous business."
 
DeSena attributes the takeoff of his business, named after the Spartans of ancient Greece (who DeSena considers "the most badass athletes known to mankind"), to a number of factors. There's the growing obesity rate, which is prompting more attention to healthy lifestyles. And there's the overwhelmingly fast growth of the entire ultra-sport industry. USA Ironman membership grew 13.8 percent in 2012 to a record 550,446 members. That's up from 262,703 in 2005. A whole industry of mud and adventure running events has been created, including Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash (Here's a slideshow of mud runs Upstart compiled in 2011). And there's also been a movement toward racing made fun and social, with national events like the Color Run, the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon and the 5K Foam Fest.
 
DeSena's take? "It's no secret that it feels really good to be healthy. But you've got to appeal to people in a way that is going to get them off the couch. I think this style of race or event is more appealing then running 26.2 miles on the road."
 
Spartan's secret is a database created by friends in New York of every sport played or competed in since the beginning of time. DeSena, Weinberg and a handful of other extreme athletes and military vets mined that list for the most interesting and challenging activities. They'd recreate those tremendous sporting events in three progressively more challenging races of 3 miles, 8 miles and 10-12 miles. And they'd continue holding the Death Race once a year in Vermont.
 
The race has inspired so many people that the company created workout guides, now downloaded 350,000 times, and Workout and Food of the Day downloads. An e-book and reality TV show are on the way.
 
"It's such an amazing brand. People get thousands and thousands of tattoos of our logo on their body. They really become Spartans," DeSena says. He won't reveal any specific details of the company's plan to grow the brand, but he says all efforts will be targeted to the 'whole fitness lifestyle.'
 
Helping all the growth is a 2011 investment by Boston's Raptor Group Holdings, the owner of the Roma soccer team in Italy and part-owner of the Boston Celtics and Manchester United. But still challenging is managing the logistics, technology and volunteer base (500 at each event) required to pull off so many events in a year.
 
It all works, DeSena says, because of his initial intent for the company, to find the most motivated people in the world to work for him. Today, he's got 80 of them. And almost all have met his one extreme requirement for employment, completion of the Death Race.
 
"We get people knocking on our door for jobs all day every day," he says. "But are they willing to put in the time and hours? Have they the passion to work in this fast-paced environment? One of the ways we find out is exactly the reason we created it. Can they survive? And if they do, then we want them."

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