Ithaca, N.Y. — A world-renowned obstacle course race will be held in Ithaca this fall thanks to a Cornell graduate and Wall Street trader who traces the race’s origins to his upbringing in the city of gorges.


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On Sept. 5, Cornell University will host a Spartan Race with all proceeds going to the Tompkins County United Way and Cornell.

The Spartan Race was founded by Joe De Sena, with the first race held in Vermont in 2010. Since then, it has spread all over the world and led De Sena to write a book that rose to number two on The New York Times’ best seller list. De Sena said he has aspirations of making the races an Olympic sport.

De Sena grew up in Queens, and after his parents divorced he and his mother moved to Ithaca when he was about 13 years old. He said when growing up in Queens, everyone seemed to be focused on materialistic things, and moving to Ithaca had a big impact on him due to its lack of materialism.

De Sena, who became a successful Wall Street trader, said his parents offered him inspiration to create Spartan Races. His mother meditated, taught yoga and did long-distance running, and his father was a dedicated work-a-holic, he said.

“The original idea was to get people healthy,” De Sena said. “[My parents] both had this concept of: if you can push the mind, the body will follow. I think it’s infectious when you get people moving and being productive.”

Spartan Race Founder Joe De Sena at City Hall with Mayor Myrick and James Brown of the United Way. (provided pic)

The races are meant to challenge participants both physically and mentally. They come in different levels of intensity: the Sprint, the Super, the Beast and the Ultra Beast, which is the hardest. The race at Cornell will be a Sprint, which is a three mile race with at least 15 obstacles.

Some of the Spartan Race’s most notable obstacles include the barbed wire crawl, where participants have to crawl through a field of mud beneath barbed wire; the object carry, where participants must haul a tire or a sandbag over a certain distance; and the spear throw. If racers do not finish the obstacles, they must do burpees as a penalty.

Spartan Race stock photos courtesy of the race’s Facebook page

The upcoming race has received support from Mayor Svante Myrick, who said the race will be an opportunity to show support for the community.

“The Spartan Race is a great way to test your mind, test your body and show what you’re made of,” Myrick said. “Because this Spartan Race will benefit the United Way, it is also a chance to show your generosity and care for our City.”

The goal of the races, De Sena said, is to change people’s lives.

“Once you’ve tasted the Spartan lifestyle, you don’t go back,” De Sena said. “This kind of activity becomes your normal day. It’s a lot healthier, you feel better, you start finding friends that are a lot different and healthier, you go to bed earlier, you don’t drink as much.”

Rob Lister, an Ithaca College student from New Jersey, said his first Spartan Race, a Sprint in his home state, took him four hours to complete. At the time of his first race, Lister said, he was a “twig” who struggled to complete upper body exercises. He recalls carrying a forty-pound sack for a couple hundred yards as being particularly brutal.

“The ability to push yourself well beyond your limit is an awful, but very amazing and inspiring experience, when your body is physically breaking down and the only thing keeping you going is will power,” Lister said.

Lister is no longer a “twig.” He said what started as an annual event for him and a friend to do together became a central motivator in his life. Now, Lister hopes to make a living by becoming a Spartan Race employee and traveling the country to set up and participate in races. He said he also has aspirations of becoming a top Spartan Racer.

Lister said he is currently working on getting a team of friends together for the Cornell race.

According to the webpage for the event, racers can create teams of at least four people for the event, and for a limited time can sign up for $25. Spectators can enter the event for free.

De Sena said he is looking forward to student participation in this event.

“If we can get students interested in living this lifestyle, then maybe we really can change the world,” De Sena said.

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