To Joe De Sena’s credit, he never seemed out of breath, despite conducting a recent, 20-minute phone interview while climbing flights of stairs. “I’ve got a little routine,” explained the 47-year-old co-founder of the Spartan Race series, and one the pioneers of the emerging sport of obstacle racing. “While I do my calls I like to go up and down stairs.”
Spartan will put on 170 events in more than 25 countries this year, including the return, in October, of the Reebok Spartan Race World Championship at Squaw Valley, Calif. All those events are evolving in interesting ways. This year, De Sena and his ever-so-slightly twisted crew—they have an exceptionally high threshold for other people’s pain—are unveiling the “Agoge,” the company’s “most challenging event yet.” (With a $375 entry fee, it’s also by far Spartan’s priciest experience, more than double the cost of the Kids’ Race, Sprint, Super and Beast.) Hard to say whether that 60-hour ordeal is tougher than the “Death Race”—the multi-day sufferfests that De Sena designed and held from 2004 until recently—often on his family’s 700-acre compound in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Participants were tasked with such labors as doing 2,500 burpees at a time to wading two miles down a whitewater river to naming all the U.S. presidents in chronological order. The event’s mantra: “Every man dies, but not every man lives.”
Austin Murphy: Before we ask if Agoge has a mantra, tell us how the word is pronounced.
Joe De Sena: We did some work with history specialists and so forth, and the right way to pronounce it seems to be a-GO-ghee.
AM: The g’s, like the races, are hard. Kinda like Smokey Robinson’s “Going to a Go-Go.” What’s the history there, what are you trying to capture?
JD: Agoge was a system that the Spartans came up with for training their children. They started at a very young age, it went for seven-plus years, and the training was brutal, extremely tough, so much so that a lot of kings and queens and high-class folks from around the world would actually send their kids to Sparta. The running joke around the world was, those damn Spartans enjoy going to war because it’s like a vacation compared to how they train.
AM: Would you hold your own kids to that standard? [Joe and his wife, Courtney, have four children.]
JD: For my kids I started a similar program, minus the brutality. Every morning we get up at 5:45 and they do a solid hour, and every night they do a solid hour. My oldest son is now 10. Before he was eight, he ran the Boston Marathon, then he did a 50k trail run. My younger son ran the New York City Marathon when he was seven. People are going to say, “My God, Joe, you’re so ridiculous, pushing kids that hard.” I would argue that we’re not pushing kids hard enough.
Even with my kids doing this kind of training, they’re still stuck on computers for the rest of the day because they love Minecraft or whatever it is. What would happen if we weren’t doing that training?
AM: You’ve talked about how these events transcend physical suffering, and lead to personal growth. How do Agoge events differ from what you’ve presented before?
JD: Starting with the Expedition BVI over 16 years ago, I’ve put on all kinds of iterations of events and races. So the idea was that I wanted to have an event that touches on the experiences that transformed me when I was out doing these crazy events around the world. I’ve learned a lot about what buttons to push, physically and psychologically, to get those transformations to occur.
I don’t want it just to be masochistic, “Oh, I’m so badass, I’m the last man standing.” I want it to be a learning experience, where everybody comes out of it saying, “Wow, I learned a ton, I’m transformed, I shouldn’t be afraid of the woods anymore,” or, “I think I can run a marathon.”
AM: How did this get started?
JD: It has its roots in Sparta, and in the military. It started with a bunch of cadets from West Point. We took them out and did the Agoge zero-zero-zero, the test run.
There’s a lot of military [influence], and a lot of Joe craziness from doing these long distance events all over the world. What mentally breaks people? [Between ordeals] we would come into the barn, have a quick classroom study, ask: “What’s going on? Why do you want to quit?” and then say, “Let’s go push further.”
AM: The first Agoge, with 100-plus participants, was on your farm in Vermont in early February. Did the weather cooperate? What special torments were offered?
JD: Envision, if you can, the Green Mountain Boys, a military unit training in the wilderness, in the snow, for survival—and being able to thrive in that environment. That’s what you’re going through. It was 20-below during the Winter Agoge. It was awful, and people not only survived, they thrived, and were really excited it when it was over.
JD: Well, almost everyone. Some people had frostbite. Unlike previous races I’ve put on, where we’re going to torture people until there’s one person standing, the goal here is different. We’re going to get everyone through this thing, because that’s the purpose: to build stronger humans.
Obviously 20-below for 40 hours is brutal, but you learn a lot about yourself. [My job was] to put them through really interesting challenges that teach them how to climb, how to rappel, how to start a fire, how to eat [in sub-zero temperatures], how to push through.
AM: Unlike Tough Mudder, Spartan races are timed, places are assigned. You don’t get a “participation trophy.” But for Agoge, you’ve made a concession to the reality that not everybody’s got 60 hours of intense suffering in them.
JD: What I’m letting people do, unlike my past events, is: you can ring the bell. You can drop out at 24 hours, and you’ll have completed the “Agoge 24.” Or you can ring the bell at 48 hours, or go for the full 60. And I think there’s something really elegant about that. It’s interesting, when people are allowed to quit, to see what happens. Do they quit? It’s almost easier when there’s no way out. It’s harder when you can ring the bell, and say, “Okay, I only did 24 hours.”
AM: Agoge sounds different, but it doesn’t sound any easier.
JD: We could make more money if we made it easy, and gave everybody a medal, and just said, “F--- the timing, everybody hold hands, and you know what? We’re gonna give you a beer halfway through, because, no sense waiting for the finish.”
This is a commercial, consumer culture we live in: everything is about faster, easier, more comforting. That’s an easy sell. Who’s looking to buy 20-below for 60 hours? But in my opinion, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.