What most people don’t know about Spartan Race founder Joe De Sena is that the famously tough guy is a family man in love with his kids.
De Sena, 47, didn’t set out to build an endurance-race empire that helped give rise to the word “sufferfest.” He set out to answer a question a lot of fathers have: “How can my wife and I inculcate a love of movement in our own children?”
On the way to doing that, he made Spartan Race into a global phenomenon. Its primary business is obstacle racing; more than 1 million people in 25 countries participated in a Spartan race in 2015. There's also an NBC TV show ("Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge"; the season finale is Thursday at 8 p.m.), books, a podcast, a magazine and a partnership with Reebok.
De Sena and his wife, Courtney, have four children, ages 3, 7, 8 and 10. Like their parents, the oldest three begin their days stretching on the family's 700-acre farm in Pittsfield, Vermont. They train physically at least two hours a day, and the oldest two have run marathons. The children only watch television in Mandarin.
Through his new book “Spartan Fit!,” which will be released Aug. 3, De Sena proposes to get sedentary American families off the couch and to the finish line. He spoke with The Deseret News about the challenges of raising children in a sedentary society, what would happen in the first 100 days of a De Sena presidential administration, and why he’s throwing away his phone in 2018.
Deseret News: For people who aren’t familiar with you and your organization, describe what it means to “Spartan up.”
De Sena: Get (stuff) done; live a healthy lifestyle. You gotta get out of your comfort zone and be passionate about everything you do, whether you’re making eggs or working out. Whatever you do, you’ve got to do it well and you’ve got to finish what you start.
Deseret News: There’s a health and fitness divide in America, with a small number of people extraordinarily fit and a large swath of people sedentary and obese. Has the Spartan movement contributed to this, and is it a good thing?
De Sena: The problem globally with health and wellness comes down to a few issues: lack of knowledge, lack of discipline, lack of social acceptance of enforcement around kids. Spartan is trying to fix those issues. We want to provide knowledge around healthy living and make it viral and sharable. We want to teach discipline around healthy living and make it something that everyone wants to achieve. We want to show parents and teachers that pushing kids to exercise and restricting junk food is OK and should be the norm, not the exception.
Deseret News: Can you explain more about you mean when say there’s a lack of social acceptance around kids?
De Sena: I was at a wrestling camp two weeks ago with my kids. They were doing a two-hour workout four times a day, and I take them out for a healthy lunch, and the owner of the restaurant comes over and gives them a bag of M&M's. Now, I’m the bad dad for saying they can’t have them. Another time, we go into a restaurant for healthy food and the guy next to us hands them a couple of cookies. How does this happen?
One morning, my 10-year-old son was on the Great Wall of China in his pajamas at 2 a.m. We’d hiked up the mountain for five hours because we wanted to see the sun rise. If anyone had seen us up there, they would have said that was not socially acceptable. But that’s exactly what kids should be doing. All studies have shown that if you want kids to do better at school, be more cerebral, you’ve got to give them a physical challenge.
Deseret News: If America woke in November to President De Sena, what would you do in your first 100 days?
De Sena: Six things: Require exercise every morning nationally. It’s unacceptable that people don’t move. Tax all junk foods heavily. Subsidize health insurance for the healthiest people. Subsidize corporations that produce healthy products and services. Tax more driving and less human power. Set up burpee stations all around the country where people can come in and do burpees (a full-body exercise that combines a squat, a push-up, a plank and a jump) for discounts on taxes.
Deseret News: Why burpees?
De Sena: It’s all about blood flow. They engage the whole body, and the amount of blood that moves around the body with a full burpee is just what the doctor ordered.
Deseret News: Extreme fitness requires extreme amounts of time. As the father of young children, what advice do you have for parents who struggle to balance work, family and health?
De Sena: This is easier than you think. Wake up, do burpees and pull-ups. During the day, walk and stand at a desk. Before bed, do burpees and pulls-ups.
Deseret News: What about our children? How can parents who lack the famous De Sena discipline get control of their family’s poor health habits?
De Sena: First get rid of all junk food and sugar; then limit the iPad and TV. If you have to, use them as a reward. Think about when we were kids; we spent most of our time outside. You’ve got to recreate that for your kids. If you don’t, you’re doing them a disservice.
You only have a limited time with them to instill the values you want to instill. I say to always choose the hard route when making a decision. Ask yourself, is this the easy thing to do or the hard thing? Do the hard thing. You do your kids a disservice if you’re not exposing them to tough times.
I just took my kids out surfing in terrible weather. They don’t know how to surf, but they had a blast. It’s hard to get in cold water and do a brand new sport and get smacked around. Some parents would say that’s completely irresponsible. I would say it’s completely irresponsible to let them stay on the couch and watch TV.
Deseret News: Do you have a TV and iPads in your home?
De Sena: We have a TV but the kids can only watch shows that are in Mandarin. I wanted them to learn it because it’s the hardest language to pick up. It’s a constant battle in the house, not because the TV is only in Mandarin, but because it’s very hard to get DVDs in Mandarin.
My wife got iPads, which were great until they stumbled across Minecraft. I’ve now taken the iPads away. They argue, “Well, Dad, you’re on your phone all the time.” So on Jan. 1, 2018, I’m throwing my phone away. I put that date in the sand, and I’m telling everyone I know.
Deseret News: You’re a proponent of yoga, and in “Spartan Fit!” you talk about the importance of meditation and prayer. These seem counter to the warrior-like mentality that people associate with the Spartan movement.
De Sena: A strong Spartan has a strong mind and body. Let’s make sure our minds are completely tuned up as well as our bodies. With phones and all the crap we deal with on a daily basis, our minds are a mess.
Deseret News: What are your own health stats: resting pulse, weight, height? And how many calories do you typically consume in a day?
De Sena: 55 resting heart rate, 175 pounds, 5’ 10." As for food, I consume quite a bit. I don’t measure it, but I don’t gain weight. I try to stay away from gluten, meat, dairy, junk, coffee and alcohol.
Deseret News: What have you got against coffee?
De Sena: I cleaned swimming pools for 20 years. Like swimming pools, our bodies are mostly water, and they have pumps and filters, our livers and our lungs. If you put coffee and French fries and salt and other junk in, even a 20,000-gallon pool would have a hard time cleaning that out.
If you want to wake up in the morning, do some burpees and jump in a cold shower.