You think running a 26.2-mile marathon is tough?
How about running a marathon AND jumping over a wall of fire, flipping over a 400-pound tire and crawling on your belly through mud under a barbed wire fence? These are just a few of the obstacles that contestants happily endure in a typical Spartan race, which ranges from a “sprint” (5 kilometers and 20+ obstacles) to the “Ultra” (30+ miles and 60+ obstacles).
Spartan is the world’s leading series of obstacle-course races, a quickly growing subsection in the field of endurance racing. If the marathon is the perfectionist Type-A oldest sibling, the Spartan race is the fearless and slightly unhinged youngest child.
There are now over 200 Spartan races every year around the world, from Austria to Oman to South Africa. So far, five million people have participated in a Spartan race, says Spartan CEO Joe De Sena. He’s confident that the new multi-year global partnership between Rakuten and Spartan will help make many more millions of people healthy, active and confident.
“Our core mission is to change one hundred million lives. We’re not going to be able to do that one person at a time,” he said. “We need help. We need companies that have scale, that reach across geographies, that have technological solutions.”
“And Rakuten is the perfect partner to do that.”
He remembers being impressed after he learned that Rakuten CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani takes a group of top executives every year on an arduous, day-long hike up Mount Tanigawa, known in Japan as the “Mountain of Death.”
“That’s my kind of guy,” said De Sena, with a grin.
A Real-Life Video Game
Spartan wasn’t always an industry leader. In fact, De Sena struggled for more than 10 years to make his races a success. In those early days, only a modest number of folks toed the starting line.
“I couldn’t get people off the couch to commit and to sweat,” he said. “It just didn’t work.”
So De Sena gave the race a face-lift. Instead of 24-hour to 48-hour long hikes and runs with Herculean challenges — such as climbing up a waterfall with a bucket of rocks and moving a truckload of manure by hand — he shortened the race and inserted more military-style obstacles. He also searched for a new name. De Sena sat down with his wife, friends, and other family members, and asked them to write down suggestions on pieces of paper.
“We did that, and ‘Spartan’ literally floated off the page,” he said of the word, which originally described a citizen of the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, known for its stoic, highly disciplined way of life.
The new branding and format worked. Everyone from distance runners and Cross-fitters to soccer moms and middle-aged weekend warriors signed up. What was once a small-scale endurance event in the Vermont woods has now taken over the world of obstacle-course racing. Right now, there’s probably a Spartan race within 100 miles of you.
“People got excited. It felt like a real-life video game,” De Sena said. “And it was transformative. People would cross the finish line and you could literally see that their whole being had changed.”
“I mean, who doesn’t want to be a Spartan?”
Commitment, Grit, Optimism
The tenets of Spartan living — such as pursuing your passion, staying optimistic, and pushing past setbacks — go beyond athletic events and can be applied to the workplace and to life, De Sena points out.
“We all need to dig down deep and look at ourselves and make a decision to be optimistic and keep going. And I know it’s tough,” he said. “But anyone who has pushed through very bleak times knows that if you keep your eyes on the prize, you’ll eventually achieve success.”
That’s the advice he gives to anyone facing a daunting challenge — whether that’s starting or growing a business, participating in a Spartan race, or turning off the TV and getting more exercise.
“If you just put one foot in front of the other, no matter how hard it hurts, you can get anything done.”