August 02, 2022

Founder and CEO of Spartan Race, Author and Podcast Host of “Spartan Up!,” and Host of CNBC’s “No Retreat: Business Bootcamp”

Dana Safa Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #85

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Joe De Sena, CEO and Founder of Spartan. He has written the best selling books Spartan Up, Spartan Fit, and The Spartan Way. He is the host of No Retreat: Business Bootcamp on CNBC.

On this episode of Bring It In season three, Joe sat down with Sam and discussed resilience, pushing through struggles, and hiring the right people.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Graba shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “We all quit before we should. We are wired to do less, not more.”
  • “Business is a combat sport.”
  • “We’re human beings and human beings need to be around other human beings.”


Sam: Cool. Let’s do it. So Joe kicking off, what made you start Spartan? 

Joe: I started Spartan cuz I watched my mom at a young age. She got into yoga and meditation in the seventies before it was cool, before there was a yoga magazine, or even a Lululemon, and she convinced people to do this thing that they had no idea what it was and they transformed. They had a better life. They found more purpose, they found more resilience. She then introduced me to a 3,100 mile run around a one mile loop in Queens, New York. And then that opened my mind up to all kinds of crazy stuff. And I found that racing and pushing myself to ridiculous physical and mental limits was rewarding.

And then I wanted to do it for the rest of the world. I thought maybe there’d be 50,000 people around the world that would do stuff like this. Climb a mountain, trek across a country, whatever it was I was attempting to do. I thought maybe there were 50,000 people. It turns out we’ve had 10 million people graduate now.

Sam: Wow. What have you learned about the concept of resilience and challenge by watching 10,000 folks graduate?

Joe: 10 million.

Sam: 10 million, excuse me. 

Joe: We all quit before we should. We are wired to do less, not more. Our brains don’t want us to expend the energy, our legacy brains, our legacy hardware and software. And so we’re constantly being held back like a governor in a car, and we’ve gotta know that. If we know that and we’re not gonna die, accept the fact you’re not gonna die, you’re not gonna melt if you run out in the rain or you’re not gonna freeze to death if you take a cold shower, you won’t starve to death if you don’t eat for a day. If you know that your brain is telling you not to get uncomfortable, your brain is holding you back and you realize it’s not life and death, you can go a lot further than you think you can. 

Sam: How do you look at the quit rate or folks that start a race and don’t finish? Anything interesting in there on the ones that start and don’t finish and why?

Joe: Well, here’s the most interesting data point, almost everybody will say to you, ‘I gotta get in shape first before I do it.’ And the reality is that that doesn’t work. If you were gonna get in shape first, before you did it, you would already be in shape. But you’re not. 99% of the world isn’t because we don’t do the work because of what I said earlier; when you sign up for the race, when you sign up for the class in college, when you sign up for getting married, then all of a sudden you start doing the work. So, it was really interesting for us to see the paradox with, once they’re committed, and their friends know about it, Oh my God. They started putting down the cookie. They stopped drinking the wine. They start going to bed early. They start waking up early, everything changes. And that’s hard for people to get their head around. 

I was in an Uber yesterday with a folk, he was a veteran, he was a workout freak for years, but he’s bigger now. He gained a bunch of weight. He’s not feeling his best. And, he said it just like everybody says it. ‘Well, I gotta get in shape and I wanna do it.’ Not gonna happen. Sorry to tell you, you gotta sign up first. Then you’ll get in shape. 

Sam: One of my team members, Oliver, saw that we were talking today and was really excited about it. So I said, send me a few questions you got for Joe. One of the things he said was, and he signed up and he wanted me to let you know, he signed up. He’s got a bunch of buddies from Rutgers that are signed up for one of the upcoming races. And he asked who designs the races? Like who’s the crazy person out there that’s coming up with all of it?

Joe: Well, I wish I could say it was me, but it’s not. We have an incredible team, an incredible team. If we had one superpower to describe, it would be the ability to put on amazing events, and they come up with it. And my only rule is that it’s gotta be authentic and real. If it’s not authentic and it can’t be a real obstacle treating it like a real legitimate sport, then I’m not interested in it. You’re not gonna see an obstacle that says, ‘let’s see how many hot dogs you could eat in three minutes.’ That’s not who we are. So the team’s always on brand, they do a great job. And, you literally feel alive when you’re out there. 

Sam: You might have just answered it in that answer with authenticity and real, but are there any other things you consider when designing a race? When you architect difficulty levels? What are the big keys to consider?

Joe: I want people to suffer, right? I don’t wanna break them. I wanna bend them because that’s when you meet yourself. So for example, you may end up coming back through the festival area and it might feel like the end and you have to march right through it and then head up a sand dune that is just like, you wanna shoot yourself.

But in doing that, you rewire the brain and you dig, you get beneath all those layers of helplessness that we’ve developed in the first world, in our climate-controlled houses with our Netflix and our couches. By pushing through when it’s so easy to stop. I mean, you see your family, you’re going right through the festival area, you could smell the food, you hear the music and we’re sending you back up the mountain. 

Sam: I’d like to make the flip now on this one, I could hear everything you’re saying and be like, that makes total sense. It’s fitness, it’s sport, it’s athleticism, but that doesn’t apply to my business. As a business owner, how do I apply principles like that to a business, to create a world-class workforce and develop my people? What would you say is the real application to this beyond just the race, but to your life and your community and your work?

Joe: Well, I’ll be facetious for a second and say you’re right. Business is so easy, you don’t need to do anything hard or practice anything hard. That’s obviously ridiculous. Business is a combat sport. I’ll answer your question with a question. You need 12 people to run your company. Hypothetically, you have an opportunity to hire four force recon Marines, four Navy seals, four Delta force operators, male or female, they get to join your company. Or, the other option is you’re gonna get a bunch of kids who grew up on Park Avenue. They’ve never really struggled in their life. But they’re good looking, they come from wealthy families, and they’re gonna run your business. 

I mean, I want the Navy seals. I want the Delta force operators. I feel like I could teach them the core competencies within the business. What I can’t teach them is the thing they have; the grit, the resilience, the ability to win under extenuating circumstances. So, my belief, I’ve been doing this for 40 plus years, is that business is a combat sport. And, if you believe that, well then we better get everybody on the team fucking strong. Headstrong, physically strong. We better treat them like Olympians because we’re trying to get a gold medal every day. So smoking a bunch of cigars and drinking a bunch of alcohol and hanging out at night and waking up late, that doesn’t seem to make sense for me if we’re trying to get a gold medal every day. And we certainly don’t want a bunch of quitters on the team, right? They should be the type that get going when the going gets tough. They don’t just disappear on you. They push through. 

So look, I’m doing this, like I said, a long time. I’ve had many of the Fortune 100 companies come up to the farm and I’ve put ’em through hell and the results are incredible. They don’t make sense. It’s hard to connect the dots, but the results are incredible. 

Sam: I’ve been talking to some folks about this concept that the world needs more coaches, not more “managers.” How do you get the most out of people as a leader?

Joe: I would say that the thing I’m looking for when I hire people and the thing I think I have, I don’t really have many skills, I’m not that smart, but I can motivate people and I can inspire them. I can get them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have done.

So the thing I like to hire, and I’m not always successful in this area, is people with tremendous energy. Energy givers, not energy takers. And so, if you’re surrounded by people that are just doers and they give energy, we could teach them all the other things. Nobody wants to be around folks that are curmudgeons that are draining your battery. Who wants to be around that? 

Sam: Are there any popular mantras or quotes that you find yourself constantly coming back to as a leader with your team and with your people that everybody rallies around? 

Joe: One of the things I’ve been saying for forever is, it could be worse. Because again, business is tough. We had a tough day. We didn’t hit our revenue goals. We lost a great employee. We weren’t looking to lose a competitor opened up across the street. Could be worse. Could be living in the Ukraine right now. We’re not. Dust off. Put your cleats back on. Let’s go.

Sam: Your new show, No Retreat, Business Bootcamp. What’s that all about? 

Joe: So it’s basically everything we’re talking about, and we’re bringing people to the farm, and CNBC is filming it. And we’re trying to showcase this idea that if we put our teams through challenging times, if we put obstacles in front of them and then help them get through them, it’s better than listening to a podcast. It’s better than reading a book. It’s better than, in some cases, going to Harvard business school. 95% of companies fail. Ninety-five percent, and they have podcasts and they have books and they have Harvard business school. Kodak failed, the largest largest brand in the world at the time. So, businesses are not doing something and I would argue it’s this. And so, CNBC is showcasing this. 

Sam: That’s great. I know that a lot of people are excited about it. Last question for you. Future of work, it’s a top theme right now. Seems like everywhere you turn, there’s a future of work podcast, article, perspective, we just got done talking about great resignation. And we’re still talking about it. Labor shortage. I wanna ask you, what’s your hope for the future of work?

Joe: I want people back in an office. I’m an outlier. I know that every article that is written that says the office is dead, is a great article that sells magazines and newspapers and press because all the employees wanna read that.

None of us actually wanna go to work. I’d love to stay home in my pajamas every day and, and do work. Look how much more productive I am because I don’t have to drive and this and that. I moved down to Florida and I’m reinventing our office with every new hire they’re gonna be here. They’re gonna be in the office in Florida, five days a week. ‘Oh my God, Joe, it sounds terrible.’ It’s amazing. We sit down for five minutes, we resolve things that otherwise would’ve been 50 emails. 

So the other thing is we’re human beings and human beings need to be around other human beings. Do you really want to be in the house alone? Do you want that new employee, that young person in the house alone? Talk about no connection to the company they work for! Your company becomes a commodity. They just switch companies every three months because their only connection they have is via Zoom. You wanna build a culture? We gotta get people together in an office. 

Sam: There’s way too many things to hide behind right now. You can hide behind Slack, you can hide behind text messages, hide behind emails. In person it’s a little harder.

Joe: In person is hard. And let’s go back to the science, the biology. Our brains are wired to avoid work, to avoid anything uncomfortable. That’s a fact, that’s not crazy Joe saying it. That is a fact, that’s what kept us alive as long as it has on the planet. And so, well, imagine you were a professor and imagine as the professor of this particular class at Harvard, you said, ‘look as a professor, I’m not gonna come in the kids, they’ll just do it on their own. They could do it via Zoom.’ No one would do any work.

Sam: Yeah. I learned how to be the person, the man, the father I am through a lot of coaches who challenge the shit out of me every day. And it was relentless and it was hard, but you learn more from the failing. I remember every loss, I don’t remember a lot of wins. We had a lot of wins in different sports I played, but I remember those challenges and I remember that the coach was there to challenge me. 

Joe: Yeah, no doubt about it. You’re awesome.

Sam: Joe. I appreciate you, appreciate it. Last question. I’ve never done a Spartan race and I want to, how do I pick, if I’m someone out there, how do I pick a race to be my first? 

Joe: Well, you gotta trust me. So let’s start with that premise, that whoever’s listening trusts me. Find the race that’s closest to you geographically and closest to you date wise, close your eyes, and sign up.

It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter what the distance is, it does not matter. Just sign up and then tell everybody, you signed up, try to rope a few friends in, and I promise you, you will start working hard immediately, overnight, and you’ll get in shape faster than you think you can because the clock is ticking and you don’t wanna embarrass yourself and you wanna finish and you don’t wanna “get hurt.” It just forces change.

Sam: Joe. Thanks for making time.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Work, Competition, Resilience, Authenticity, Hard Work, Motivation, Togetherness, Training

Dana Safa Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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