If you’re a running fanatic with a “26.2” or “13.1” sticker on the back of your car, know that it doesn’t much impress Joe De Sena.
Yes, you can run in a straight line, on a flat path, for a couple of hours, while smiling volunteers cheer and hand out Gatorade orange slices lest your energy fade. So what? The average German shepherd can do as much, without the treats.
De Sena is the creator of Spartan Race, the grueling obstacle race that makes a typical 10K look more like a nap than a measure of fitness. Two years ago he wrote Spartan Up! to explain the philosophy behind the movement, which De Sena directs from his 700-acre farm in Pittsfield, Vermont. Now he’s back with Spartan Fit!, proposing to get slackers who’ve never suffered through a Spartan event to the finish line. Thirty days is all you need, he promises, even if you’ve never done a burpee.
Here, it seems important to point out the typical challenges in a Spartan Race. In addition to running between 3 and 26-plus miles, participants crawl under barbed wire, carry buckets filled with gravel up hills, climb ropes, walls and nets, drag tires and throw spears. Often in mud. People have died on the course. (In fact, an early iteration of a release form contained the disclaimer “You may die.”)
The point, as De Sena explains it, is that physical challenges like this prepare us for life outside the race, which is a lesson our buttery soft society badly needs, he says. “Forget the challenges of an endurance run — some people are so ill-equipped at handling the unexpected that a cold cup of coffee or a traffic jam can ruin their day,” he writes.
In training for, and then enduring, a Spartan event, people develop what De Sena calls “obstacle immunity” that will help get them through a pink slip, broken marriage or cancer diagnosis. It’s a logical approach, and De Sena an effective cheerleader. He himself is the sort of muscular, militant demigod that Spartan Races tend to attract, and you wouldn’t want to come across him in a dark alley, but surprisingly, his books aren’t nearly as intimidating as the program behind them, and they are bolstered with inspiring anecdotes and occasional wit.
There is, for example, the story of Amanda Sullivan, a young woman who completed a Spartan Race on crutches after being hit by a car twice within six weeks and spending three years in a hospital bed, every body part “broken, fractured, torn, ruptured, bloodied, or bruised.”
After reading about her, it’s a bit difficult for anyone who hasn’t been hit by a car lately to explain why they, too, can’t “commit to grit.” Even being out of shape is not an acceptable excuse for De Sena; there’s a prescription for anyone significantly overweight, or so unfit that they can’t attempt Spartan’s three basic tests: hang from a bar for as long as possible, do as many burpees as possible in five minutes, run or walk as far as you can in 30 minutes. Those are the baselines from which progress is measured.
De Sena’s program is dense with specifics. In addition to outlining the seven pillars of fitness, his 30-day plan gives specific activities to be performed every day, from 60-minute runs to taking cold showers, from fasting to playing with your kids. On rest days, called “active restoration,” he recommends community volunteering, writing thank-you notes and calling someone you are at odds with — an unexpected touchy-feely bent to such a hard-core program.
But De Sena, whose physical accomplishments include completing three Ironmans — the 135-mile Badwater ultra, the 140.6-mile Lake Placid Ironman and a 100-mile Vermont trail run — in a single week, is also an advocate of yoga and meditation; he’s part guru, part drill sergeant, which makes his hardest prescriptions a bit easier to swallow.
Unfortunately, to get to them, you have to suffer through a bizarre and disturbing prologue, about how a Spartan associate escaped a violent home invasion because his father had taught him to wrestle blindfolded as a teenager. While technically the story does fit with De Sena’s core message — life is unpredictable and often unfair, and you’ll survive longer and be happier if you prepare for all sorts of physical challenges — it’s an off-putting beginning to an otherwise useful and potentially inspiring book. Skip it and start with the first chapter, in which De Sena condenses the book to five sentences for anyone without time or inclination to read the rest:
“Go outside right now and run as far as you can. Then do as many burpees as you can. Then run, walk, or crawl home. Eat whole foods, skip dessert, don’t get drunk, get some sunshine, take cold showers, lift something heavy, use the stairs, meditate or pray, find someone to love. Lights out at 8 p.m.”
But disregard the invitation to bail, because somewhere in the remaining pages most everyone will find nuggets that are useful, from De Sena’s discourses on life in ancient Sparta, to his Steven Pressfield-esque exhortations on how to overcome existential barriers to achievement. There are even a few unusual recipes (kale lemonade), and a convincing aside on why obstacle racing should be an Olympic sport. It’s a quick read, but one that pulses with energy and surprises with depth. B+ — Jennifer Graham