By Tom Held Special to Published Jun 07, 2013 at 4:33 PM
Tom Held produces the blog,, powered by The new Web site covers "silent sports," including running, biking, skiing and more.

Joe De Sena wants to find the likes of Rocky Balboa, William Wallace (think Braveheart) and Russian Empress Catherine the Great on Bradford Beach Saturday morning.

Breaking people, pushing them beyond their limits and forcing them to face adversity and recreate themselves as "better humans" is De Sena’s business, and his Spartan Race series is big business.

One of the top three draws in the booming obstacle race market, the Spartan series projects to attract 650,000 participants to 62 events around the world in 2103. The sprint distance Spartan race in Miller Park is scheduled for Sept. 7, and the two-hour workout on Saturday is part of the build-up to that event.

De Sena, 43 and a father of four, will lead the session: dozens of broad jumps, lunges, and strength exercises designed to prepare people for the 15 obstacles and challenges spread over the three-mile Spartan Sprint course: Climbing ropes and walls, being pummeled to the ground with pugil sticks, crawling under barbed wire, sprinting up the stadium stairs, leaping over fire.

It’s part of De Sena’s mission to prepare them for a life based on the principles that have guided him from his childhood in Queens, N.Y.
"Just to see what’s possible," De Sena said. "There’s something really meditative about going out and suffering, and all those things. A two-hour workout in the morning is suffering. There’s something good about completing those tasks.

Trim and powerful, De Sena is a role model for the people he wants to test.
He built a business cleaning pools during high school and college, graduated to financial success as a trader on Wall Street, then decided to test himself in other ways.

"I was wasting my life away," he said. "Making some money does make your life easier, but it doesn’t make your life better."

His exploits as an adventure racer and ultra runner in the early 2000s exceed anything the Spartan Race can offer. In one week, he completed the Vermont 100, Lake Placid Ironman and the Badwater Ultra through Death Valley and won some of the most grueling adventure races ever devised, including te IditaSport and the Raid International Ukatak.

It was during a 12-hour snow shoe trek with a friend in Vermont, where he now lives, that De Sena hit upon the idea of the Death Race, the outrageously tougher version of his Spartan series.

"I said wouldn’t it be great if we had an event that purposely broke people, and found the people who against all odds get the job done," De Sena recounted. "What would people do if they got in an Ironman and they got out of the swim and found their bike and it didn’t have a seat. Would they quit or go on? Would they react like Rocky Balboa, Catherine the Great, or Braveheart. That’s what Death Race was about, finding those people."

The Death Race, first launched in 2004, takes place in Vermont, with this year’s test coming up on June 21. The URL for the race matches the waiver form, stating simply: "you may die."

Over 24 hours, participants dig out stumps, carry them for miles in backpacks, dive for bicycle chains in ice-cold lakes, start fires with a single match, carry buckets of gravel, crawl through briars and barbed wire and essentially break themselves to the very core of their being. That’s where De Sena believes we belong.

"We referred to the Death Race as an exorcism and the Spartan Race is a baptism," he said.

It’s also one of the top three obstacle races in a market that tripled in size from 2009 to 2012, and projects to attract more than two million people willing to pay $100 or more to suffer in 2013.

De Sena’s fight with Tough Mudder founder Will Dean for pre-eminence in the arena has been nearly as fierce as the Spartan Race competition.

Without being critical or confrontational, the founder of Spartan Race explains how his series stands alone. His races, whether the three-mile Spartan Sprint or the 12-mile Spartan Beast, are chip-timed and finishers earn points for world-wide rankings and spots in the Spartan World Championship in Killington, Vt.

"In any industry, television or automobiles or whatever, a bunch of people jump into the market," De Sena said. "A lot of the businesses have approached it like a party. We want to stand alone and carry this into an Olympic sport.

"Our goal is to get into the Olympics and put our stake in the ground as an actual sport that people wake up in the morning and train for."

Details on the Milwaukee Spartan Workout can be found here. Registration and information on the Spartan Race Miller Park are available here.

Tom Held Special to

Memories of running cross-country for the Slinger Owls motivated Tom Held to get his body moving again when he turned 30. Almost two decades later, he's still on the move. The 49-year-old bikes, runs and skis, and covers news for similarly active people as a freelance writer and blogger.

He spent 26 years as a daily news reporter, and applies that experience to dig out stories about athletes, races, endurance sports, fitness and self-propelled transportation. His work has appeared in Silent Sports Magazine, Wisconsin Trails and Cross-Country Skier.

Held lives in the Bay View neighborhood, where he counts being Dad to twin daughters part of his daily workout.