Joe De Sena: ‘We Like Hills’

Redefining High Performance One Obstacle at a Time


he term “high-performance” isn’t just for superhumans who go heliskiing every other week and Laird Hamilton. Sure, Laird is about as high-performance as they get, after maybe Thor, the God of Thunder. But what about all the surfers out for dawn patrol at the local break, rock-climbers scrambling over boulders in Joshua Tree, guys shooting a pick-up game after picking up the kids, cyclists on the climb of their lives, and the runners sprinting for the subway the same way they run in triathlons? Fellas, we see you. We got you. Hill City makes technical apparel for all of the above scenarios. And possibly pushing Suburbans.

We asked a few high-performance humans we admire to show us their perfect days and talk about how high-performance is being redefined. This is where Spartan founder Joe De Sena came in. We asked him about his ideal Montauk day, then came along for the a ride.

Joe De Sena is a person with casual goals in life. Those include things like getting 100 million people healthy and off the couch (only 95 million to go), get Obstacle Racing recognized as an Olympic Sport and to guide his kids to be badass, productive, and happy for when they are out on their own. When he’s not doing that he can be found leading Spartan, a world-class organization he started back in the early 2000s after walking away from a successful run on Wall Street. The guy knows a thing about resiliency and what equipment is needed to tackle what life throws at you when things don’t always go accordingly.

This is Joe’s kettle bell. He takes it with him everywhere. Don’t be surprised if you have a meeting with Joe in San Francisco or New York or Seattle and he walks in and puts it on the conference-room table before it starts.

Hill City supplied the gear and the thought bubble asking what would you do on your perfect day? Joe supplied the early-morning energy, a Chevy Suburban, and a dozen or so neighborhood kids. We were just fortunate enough not to get run over in the process.

August 27th, 2019  |  Montauk, New York  |  06:00 hours

Where did the idea to start Spartan come from?

Joe: After leaving my career on Wall Street, I wanted to do something to help people transform their lives—not just get in shape, but help to change their mindset to show people that humans are capable of incredible things. After experimenting with a few race formats, I came up with Spartan as a means to show people that with the right attitude, you can overcome all obstacles in life, both on and off the course.

We’ll warn you that there’s a bad pun coming. What was the biggest obstacle (sorry) to getting Spartan off the ground?

Joe: Finding the right concept that would appeal to a mass audience, while also being challenging enough to show people what they are really made of. It took a lot of hard work and dedication to get Spartan off the ground. I tried and failed with different concepts to the point where I almost lost my entire life savings. When we hosted the first Spartan event, as it exists today, and 700 people showed up, I knew it would take off from there.

I wanted to do something to help people transform their lives—not just get in shape, but help to change their mindset to show people that humans are capable of incredible things.

What are your favorite Spartan races?

Joe: Killington, VT and Sparta, Greece. Killington represents the roots of the brand, with it having been founded there (in neighboring Pittsfield), and Sparta represents the ancient culture from which we derive our values. Both events feel surreal to me in their own way.

Your dream location for a Spartan race?

Joe: We’re currently on six out of seven continents, in incredible locations so I’d like to plant the Spartan flag in Antarctica to round it off. The natural beauty and extreme elements would set the backdrop for an epic event.

How many Suburbans can you lift?

Joe: I can’t lift any, but I can definitely push one.

One thing people would be surprised to learn about you?

Joe: I have a Barbie Doll collection. 300 brunette, 30 year old Barbie Dolls.

I’d like to plant the Spartan flag in Antarctica to round it off.

How is Spartan re-defining high performance?

Joe: The conveniences of today’s world are teaching us helplessness. We’re getting too comfortable, and the Spartan mindset stops that downward spiral to show us all that we’re capable of achieving greatness.

You were posed the question, “What would you do on your dream day?” What did you do?

Joe: I decided to get all the kids in the neighborhood out, including my own kids, and put them to the test. At 6:00 a.m., we walked to the neighborhood basketball court and broke up into two teams, which was difficult, but we got that done. And then, we compete against each other in a bunch of exercises. To make it interesting, winner picks a charity to donate $1,000 to.

Burpees, sprinting, and, believe it or not, pushing a Suburban uphill in a parking lot. We competed, we fought. There were accusations of cheating, but in the end, we chose the winning team. That winning team has decided to donate the $1000 to the Amazon Rain Forest Restoration Project.

Why is it so important to get these kids (and us) up in this morning and running around?

Joe: Three days ago I was walking with my kids in Boston. We were doing a one-mile walk, I kid you not, only a one-mile walk. And I got pulled over by a woman who wanted to know if the kids were okay, if they had enough water if they would make it or not, because she had seen us going for about a half a mile at that point. And so, clearly, there is a problem in our country with people not seeing kids outside. There’s a study that’s been done that said kids spend less time outside than prisoners. Fact.

Even if I just got all these kids out for a half-hour this morning, or an hour, whatever—you have to get kids outside. Many people I am sure recall that twenty years ago you go grab Tommy, and Jane, and Susan, the neighborhood kids, and you round everybody up, and you go play football or Wiffle ball. Now, now what do they do? They talk to each other on a phone. But we ended up having a dozen or so kids get up at 6 a.m. and go push a Suburban and get some exercise, and they all went home smiling.

Try to catch up to Joe and follow @spartan and follow @hillcityoffical