When Spartan Race founder Joe DeSena began contemplating a destination for the 2014 “Founder’s Race,” a coveted tag assigned annually to one event in his popular series of brutal obstacle-course races, Montana was not the immediate first choice.
Then last year DeSena watched as thousands of Montana runners braved a battlefield of barbed wire, mud trenches, water obstacles, flying projectiles, a gladiator pit, climbing obstacles, and a fire pit, and realized that Montanans are a brawny bunch.
It doesn’t hurt that the 6,000 participants in the May 10 event in Bigfork are treated to striking views of Flathead Lake and the Rocky Mountains – but only after they complete a grueling, quad-zapping, two-mile climb to the high point of the Spartan Race course, which DeSena says is “hands down” the most challenging Spartan Sprint course he’s ever designed.
The Beacon caught up with DeSena last week while he and his team assembled the course near Bigfork.
Flathead Beacon: How did you select Montana as the Founder’s Race?
Joe DeSena: Montana called us. And we were excited. We had some initial concerns given that Montana is not the biggest population in the country, but it turned out that when we got here last year the terrain was rugged, the people were rugged and it really had a Founder’s Race in its DNA. So here we are, and the team is working through Biblical weather to set up the course, enduring everything from hail to rain to snow to sun. We were waiting for the seas to part. It certainly has the makings of a Founder’s Race.
Beacon: In what way does the rugged terrain of western Montana distinguish the Spartan Sprint in Bigfork from other Spartan races?
DeSena: This is the toughest sprint course we have globally, hands down. Between the elevation, the cold, the water. It’s rugged and the views are spectacular.
Beacon: How do you conjure up the obstacles featured in the Spartan Race series?
DeSena: I want to say they just come to me in the middle of the night. But it is really the team. They are very methodical, they have military backgrounds and they dream up these crazy things. My team members are all Spartans in spirit.
Beacon: How does the Spartan Race differ from the Death Race, and does it attract a different brand of participant?
DeSena: Very athletic, healthy-minded individuals tend to gravitate toward Spartan Races, but they’re more accessible. The whole motivation for creating this was about changing lives. You can’t just sell people a gym membership. That doesn’t change lives. You need to put their backs against the walls, give them a deadline and something to strive for, and when they do that with friends everything changes. I think our customers also know that it is a lot of fun.
Beacon: Can you share some highlights from your own resume of endurance races? How many have you competed in?
DeSena: I mostly did long-distance adventure races that were 350 miles in distance and took somewhere between seven and 10 days and really just took you out of your comfort zone. All you wanted was water, food and shelter. When you have all the stresses of modern day life that is a really comfortable experience, to strip your needs down to those essentials.
Beacon: What can participants expect from the Spartan Sprint in Bigfork?
DeSena: Fifty-five-hundred lives are going to change. People are going to hate me but when they finish they are going to feel an enormous accomplishment and that is just the beginning.
Beacon: Endurance runs and ultra-running, once considered a fringe sport, have gained popularity in recent years. Does the Spartan Race series cater to a wider field of participants than, say, Badwater or other notorious ultras?
DeSena: The roots of the Spartan Race stem from all of those events but it is just more accessible. As badass as the Spartan Race is, a 4-year-old can get off the couch and complete the course, and so can an 85-year-old.
Beacon: What is it about the Spartan Race that has generated such strong appeal, with each event drawing thousands of runners?
DeSena: The name is powerful. It’s been around for a long time and it is authentic and conveys strength. We actually live it and breathe it. Everyone at the company really believes in this mission. And the mission is powerful – to get these people off the couch and get them healthy. It’s not a typical business meant to make us money and revenue. With that being the roots, it really resonates with people.
Beacon: Your book “Spartan Up!” will be released May 15. What can readers expect?
DeSena: People can find the book at Spartanupthebook.com. Basically it is a book I have been writing for 30 years. It’s about how to change your life, get a little bit more gritty, and help yourself get through these challenging times. I think we have gotten too soft, not only as a society and a culture but also as a species. There are a lot of people that want something different in life, and this book is a manual for the Spartan way of life.
Beacon: Did you make any drastic changes in your life when you began competing in endurance events or have you always embodied the Spartan mission?
DeSena: I have always been a nutcase. I had heard of an Iron Man but I thought that I would never do something like that. I’ve always felt the appeal of getting out in nature and carrying things and crawling and getting back to those most primal issues like water, food and shelter, and it really felt good. When we have unfettered access to these basic elements, we want all these creature comforts, but in society, and in America especially, the pendulum has swung too far the other way. We have such an abundance of those comforts that I think it has actually become a negative.
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