My friend Joe De Sena is the founder and CEO of Spartan Race, the obstacle race, endurance event, motivation, training and nutrition juggernaut featured on NBC this past summer. I’ve been hearing him speak about Montauk for close to 25 years and wanted to see if the magic of the place played any role in his transformation from pool boy to the mob, to mother nature’s son with a marine ethos. And, of course, it did.
How were you first introduced to Montauk?
Oh, by my mom. When we were kids, she and her side of the family took me, my sister, and all my cousins to Hither Hills every summer to camp out in tents on the beach. We would rough it for three to four days. Well, it felt like roughing it back then. And we loved it, all except my father, who was a Spartan in his own right, but stayed nearby in a hotel.
Sounds like an adventure. Was it?
Always. And sometimes a misadventure! One time, when I was selling fireworks at about age 8, I snuck some sparklers and stuff into my mom’s car and smuggled them into our tent on the beach. My cousin and I started playing with the sparklers after my mom and aunt were asleep. They looked awesome on the dark beach. But we weren’t sparkler savvy, and when they burnt down, we dropped them—into the box of fireworks. Of course, the fireworks went off and the tent caught fire, creating complete havoc for everyone. Another time we stayed on the beach despite a big storm, and the ocean came up over the bluff. Thankfully my mom had bought me a $5 raft that day, and I had decided to put my sleeping bag on it that night, so I was just floating around when they found me. It was fun until they made us all pack up and leave.
Very Spartan, no?
Maybe too much so. My dad bought a house on Fort Pond right after that storm. No more camping. I spent my teens in that house. We had great times in that place. I did a lot of bicycling then, and not much else. There was no money for sailing or surfing or charter boats. Just having the house was a really big deal for us. But I had a good bike, and I bet I biked every inch of the East End.
Is that how you found your way to Southampton?
Ah, you remember that? Funny enough Wall Street actually led me there. When I started trading, I kept being asked to go in on a sharehouse. Everyone was doing it! I investigated it, and it seemed like a business opportunity to me. So I did some research, and I found you really could buy a house, sell shares, and have the place pay for itself. I ended up selling so many shares I needed a few houses to accommodate everyone. On the weekends, there would be so many people lying on blankets on the lawn, you couldn’t see a blade of grass.
And the pool was packed!
You know, I started putting in that pool before we even closed on the house! [Note: contrary to my legal advice] The owner let me! And I put in a volleyball court, a tennis court and a half court for basketball in the three weeks before the share folks arrived in May. All by myself. I’m handy, you know.
Well that’s an understatement. But take me back to Southampton in the wild Wall Street party years…
You know what? I can’t. I didn’t stick around for that stuff. I really fell in love with the bays, the ocean, the preserves…everything given to us by nature. That’s where I was. At first, I soaked it in jet skiing. I would ride around Shinnecock Bay all day while the share people partied. There was nothing like the sun and spray and the view there. I would go from right by the house all the way to Dockers in Westhampton.
I didn’t even recognize him, but he remembered me. And he arrested me in front of everyone! Thank God he announced that it was for failing to pay a $50 ticket for jet ski speeding
I have a wild story of a sort for you. I liked to jet ski fast with my friends. And there were police boats in the bay. We got pulled over once, and they took us in. They actually cuffed me and put me in front of a judge, all in a wetsuit! Then I forgot to pay the ticket. Maybe a year later, I was having breakfast with friends in Southampton, and the cop who arrested me walks in. I didn’t even recognize him, but he remembered me. And he arrested me in front of everyone! Thank God he announced that it was for failing to pay a $50 ticket for jet ski speeding. Instead of being embarrassing, it turned into a story we all laughed about.
And now you’re back to your old haunts, aren’t you? How did that come about?
Well, I bought my dad’s place to keep it out of foreclosure when he went into tough times, and I rented it out for years. Richard Monte took care of everything for me. But then I started getting calls complaining about the tenants. There were junked cars on the property. They were running a cab service from the house. So we evicted them and Richard had the house boarded up for me. Apparently, these tenants waited a short while, removed the boards and moved back in! So I called Richard, and I told him, “Knock the house down.” And his crew did. There was just a foundation there for a while. But I always wanted to rebuild it. Then in 2008, as the financial crisis hit, a builder relative approached me. He needed work, and I needed a house again. It was a good fit. By 2010, we had a place on Fort Pond again.
Now that you’re back, what are you up to? Back on the bike?
We have four kids now and are trying to expose them to everything. Everything. Not just biking. We’re sailing, surfing, fishing. We’re on the beach, we’re in town, you name it.
So what’s a typical day? Is it Spartan?
You tell me. We’re all up at 5:45 a.m. and all four kids and I walk three to four miles around Montauk carrying rocks. Sometimes they’re in pajamas, sometimes not. By 6:15 a.m. or so we hit the beach for a workout. Sometimes I bring battle ropes or kettlebells. Often we just sprint. Last week, my sister emailed me a picture that someone at a hotel posted of all of us on the beach at 6:00 a.m. With a caption about a lunatic on the beach waking everyone up while working out his kids at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday! Sorry.
You’re not sorry.
I’m sorry they weren’t up getting some exercise.
What’s the rest of the day like for you guys.
My wife and I made each of the kids come up with a business idea. They’re putting a lot of time into that. They’re each building a brand! So Charlie came up with Bon-fire Charlie’s, and his team will build a nice fire for you on the beach. Jack came up with Hachi Dragons, to sell sustainably-sourced sushi. Catherine started Surf On, a support group to get people past a fear of the Ocean, the slogan, “Face the Wave!” And Alexandra came up with Binky Baby which will manufacture really cool Binkys.
They each came up with a slogan and a logo, and we had shirts and hats made. They set up a stand at Ditch Plains, and they’re selling their swag. The first day they had sales, they spent $85 of the $90 they generated—on tacos, french fries, ice cream, you name it. Then we all had a long talk about junk food, and how to appreciate, no, respect, your money. Now we opened a bank account for each, and they’re saving. It’s pretty cool to see them point to Chase and hear them say, “There’s my bank,” all excited. And cute too.
What stores and restaurants do you just love out here?
Duryea’s! I like—no—I love it’s pure, fresh food. I don’t like sauces and extra “stuff” on food. The closer it is to its original form, the better for me. I like clean, properly cooked vegetables and seafood. And interesting salads. That’s what we get there. Really, I could eat all my meals there.
We love Joni’s. Everything about it, particularly the smoothies. And the kids love White’s Drug and Department Store. It’s so old school, and it has what they consider an “old fashioned phone” out front—a pay phone that takes coins and has buttons to push. Also, how could you not love Air & Speed Surf Shop?
Finally, what’s the most Spartan thing about Montauk?
The commercial fishermen. Strength, stamina, gritty and no quit. And as for training, running on the beach. Whether in the surf or up and down the new dunes, you’ll really get your heart pumping—especially with a rock in hand.