The Spartan Race Revolution

Redefining what it means to be a weekend warrior

Think remaining committed to working out a few times a week is tough? Imagine the mindset required to train to exhaustion hours a day every day. For thirty-two years. With the high probability of dying when done.


That was the requirement for King Leonidas’ legendary Spartan warriors of Greece. It also helps explain how 300 of them were largely responsible for fending off over 200,000 opposing troops for three days at Thermopylae in 480 BC, a battle long famed in fable and film. Inspired by those ancient icons of strength, courage, determination, and endurance, a new breed of athletes today are testing their own mettle and fighting to the finish—well, finish line—in the endurance world’s latest rage, the Spartan Race.

Spartan began as the brainchild of endurance extremist Joe Desena and a few friends. Desena first began endurance racing as a way to vacation.

“I just needed to clear my head and it’s a great way to see the world,” says Desena. “When you’re out there in the woods stranded, thirsty, and hungry, you really appreciate your surroundings.”

But after competing in countless Iron Man triathlons, marathons, and 100-mile ultra-distance events, Desena was motivated for more.

“In 2004 a bunch of adventure-seeking lunatics and I decided to put on an event like no other in the world,” he explains. “One specifically designed to break people.”

The Spartan Death Race was born. Held once a year in Vermont, it remains the penultimate Spartan event and receives over 1000 annual applicants. In homage to its name however, the race accepts only 300 participants, and out of that number, all but 30 or so will quit before the end.

“We actually don’t want any finishers,” says Desena. “We want people to get a real introspective look at themselves and come up with excuses. Those that do finish are completely inspiring, people like Catherine the Great or Rocky Balboa.”

But while the Spartan Death Race was designed for an elite few, Desena wanted to create similar events on a smaller scale that were more accessible to the masses. As with the original, competitors wouldn’t know the obstacles they would be facing ahead of time, but the distances and demands would be feasible enough for most to finish.

“The response has been insane,” says Desena. “We field 300-400 calls per day. I’ve become an endurance typist.”

There are currently close to 40 Spartan events worldwide every year. Besides the Death Race—now considered the world championship—Spartan Races currently fall into four categories: Spartan Sprint (over 3 miles with 15 or more obstacles), Super Spartan (over 8 miles with 20 or more obstacles), Spartan Beast (over 12 miles with 25 or more obstacles), and Spartan Ultra-Beast (over 26 miles with 50 or more obstacles). Far more than regular runs where competitors plod along point-to-point, these test mind and body with carefully crafted challenges that can include everything from mud and moats to barbed-wire and fire. And there’s no trail map or course outline to study ahead of time, thus Spartan’s tagline: “You’ll know at the finish line.” So how does one train for the unknown? 


“I’ve found that a strong core and solid cardio are the best weapons,” advises Spartan racer Michael Lewis. “But the strongest part of your body has to be your mind. There will be times during the race where you’ll be tired, cramping, thirsty, and taking that next step will be the toughest challenge to overcome.”

A Santa Barbara local, Lewis takes advantage of the area’s varied terrain and outdoor offerings when it comes to training.

“A Spartan Race will test muscle groups long forgotten about, so I mix it up with hiking, dodgeball in the sand, Ultimate Frisbee, and Jiu-Jitsu for strength, cardio, and mental discipline,” he says. “I also do 150 push-ups with breakfast; some plyometrics; and run on the track, up steps, or in the sand a few times a week.”

For those just starting out or with limited time to train, Spartan’s official Web site ( and Facebook page offer a Workout of the Day (WOD). Some daily suggestions are specific: Grab a sandbag and do 5 reps of a 400-meter run, 20 walking lunges, 20 back lunges, 20 push press (all with sandbag), followed by 10 burpees. Others are more general, such as the one given for a recent Saturday that included: “Get outdoors this weekend. Try something new that will work new muscle groups. Find your weakness, decide to eliminate it, and then stick to this resolution.”

Many maintain motivation by training alongside others with similar goals and forming teams to tackle Spartan together. Teams of four or more are eligible for discounts on entry fees and specialized timing. The times of each team’s top four finishers determine standings for prize contention. Recognizing that there’s strength in numbers, a group of personal trainers and clients at Conditioning Specialists in Santa Barbara recently formed their own team, the SB Warriors. The 12-person multi-generational group has sights set on the Spartan Sprint in Malibu happening December 1, 2012.


“Once we made the decision to enter together, we all quickly agreed that it wasn’t about winning, it was about allowing everyone to participate and have fun,” says Conditioning Specialists’ founder Doug Holt. “There’s a very distinct sense of family at our studio and so making sure clients of all abilities felt included was very important to us.”

For 70-year-old Dennis Peterson, an SB Warrior who served as a Marine in Vietnam, keeping battle-fit is de rigueur.

“A guy came up to me at the gym and asked what event I was training so hard for,” says Peterson. “I replied, ‘life.'” Peterson’s one complaint about his workouts? “I just wish we could use live ammo.”

Perhaps it’s Spartan’s similarities to a military bootcamp that appeals to many who have served, or are currently serving in, the armed forces. It also may be due to the primary charity benefiting from every Spartan Race, Homes for Our Troops. This national non-profit builds and provides specially adapted homes to wounded veterans—free of cost. But it’s only one of many organizations that Spartan supports.Screen-Shot-2012-06-27-at-10.31

“When we see a good cause, we’re behind it,” says Desena. “It doesn’t matter what it is.”

Of equally immeasurable impact are the personal rewards each racer receives upon completion.

“I have achieved a greater level of mental toughness, overall fitness, and stronger sense of self” says Lewis. He also admits to a drastically improved diet due to the nutritional demands of training. “Along with the mud, blood, and sweat comes an overall benefit to one’s lifestyle,” he adds. 

While the original Spartans live on only in lore, their twenty-first-century counterparts strive to keep their spirit alive. After all, Spartan racers must rally behind a common goal, stand fast in the face of adversity, and muster up the courage to continue. Leonidas would love it.

To learn more about the Spartan Race community, training, and upcoming events visit

Photography courtesy of Nuvision Action Image 

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