The Fit List

The Untold Story of the Feud that Killed Obstacle Racing's Most Insane Event

A lawsuit reveals the personal spat that brought an end to the iconic endurance event

  • DeSena puts the nail in the coffin as top Death Race finishers were buried alive—their final challenge.  Photo: Courtesy of Peak Races

  • Racers begin a 20-mile trek barefoot.  Photo: Courtesy of Peak Races

  • Top finishers read their own eulogies to remaining racers and were then buried alive.  Photo: Courtesy of Peak Races

For more than a decade, Joseph DeSena and Andrew Weinberg were known as cofounders of the Death Race, a 48-hour endurance event that captured headlines across the country for being both insanely masochistic and completely illogical. But on July 1, 2014, DeSena made an unexpected announcement: there would be no more Death Race. Fan reactions ranged from disbelief—“Marketing BS,” one person wrote on Obstacle Racing Media—to genuine disappointment. 

The shock was matched by confusion two days later, when Weinberg announced on ORM that the Death Race would continue. “Prior to [the ORM article] I didn’t realize Joe wanted the race to end,” he wrote. “It’s obvious there is a disagreement right now between Joe and I on how we should operate moving forward.”

About six weeks after that, DeSena seemed to backtrack when he announced that the 2015 race would happen, but there would be no Death Race in 2016 or any year after that. (Thus far, that announcement has stuck: there is no 2016 Death Race currently scheduled.) Even close observers of the industry were mystified, and neither DeSena nor Weinberg talked publicly about what killed one of obstacle racing’s most respected events. 

That was finally going to change this month: DeSena was scheduled to appear in a Massachusetts court to proceed with a lawsuit that he brought against Weinberg and other defendants. When DeSena filed his suit in September 2014, he made ten claims, ranging from interference with customers and sponsor contracts to unfair competition, trademark dilution, and libel. A jury trial was originally scheduled to start on March 14, 2016, but the defendants had all settled or were in the process of settling* with DeSena before the trial began. The filings in this dispute—which have not been reported until now—show how poisonous relations between DeSena and Weinberg had become. DeSena’s original complaint argues that “the destructive power of greed and jealousy” ultimately killed the event.

Started in 2004 and held each summer on DeSena’s farm in Pittsfield, Vermont, the Death Race took participants through mountainous terrain and was punctuated by challenges: baling hay for hours, diving for sacks of coins at the bottom of a freezing pond, and rolling logs around a track. The whole thing was over only when DeSena and Weinberg said it was over. One of Outside’s writers—who tried and failed to finish in 2010—described it as “a demented sufferfest” and “an idiosyncratic form of punishment that can't be compared to any other race in the world.” 

Despite the absurdity, or perhaps because of it, the race became surprisingly popular. There were seven competitors at the first event; a decade later, Vermont’s Mountain Times reports, organizers had to cap the number of entrants at 300. 

The Death Race, technically operated by a DeSena-owned event company called Peak.com, was a success by any measure. It spawned Spartan Race, a separate company founded by DeSena to bring the spirit of the Death Race to a mass audience by making the challenges and distances more manageable. (Today, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder are the leading race series in the industry.) 

According to DeSena’s lawsuit, the Death Race began to deteriorate in 2014, when Weinberg and other former Peak.com employees claimed they were denied their rightful share of the profits from both Peak.com and Spartan, and began a concerted effort to discredit both companies. (DeSena and Weinberg declined to speak to Outside; any comments by them come from DeSena’s lawsuit or a response Weinberg filed in February 2015.) 

In his suit, DeSena claims that he and Weinberg had “discussed the possibility of forming a company to conduct races in Pittsfield, Vermont, to be known as Peak Adventure Races (or some derivation thereof), with Weinberg and DeSena each being 50% owners of the company.” That company, according to the lawsuit, was never formed. Instead, in early 2014, DeSena “offered Weinberg a more formal position at Spartan, namely an independent contractor position” as the company’s Brand Ambassador. The offer allegedly included a monthly salary, and additional fees for attending Spartan races, but, Weinberg turned it down, saying “he was ‘insulted’ by the offer and felt his time was worth far more,” according to DeSena’s lawsuit. (In his response, Weinberg denied practically all of DeSena’s allegations, and said that DeSena mischaracterized the Spartan job offer.)

What ensued was a fundamental business dispute: DeSena said Weinberg wrongly claimed to be a co-owner of Spartan and wanted compensation. Though the Death Race was a separate entity, DeSena made the decision to cancel future events in June 2014 “out of frustration over Weinberg’s unfounded demands.” 

On July 22, 2014—just weeks after the back-and-forth cancellations for the race—Weinberg formed a race company called the Endurance Society. The company’s first event was called Sine Nomine, which was billed as an event for a secret society of endurance athletes. It was scheduled to start at 1 a.m. on June 26—the same day as Spartan’s Summer 2015 Death Race.

It was around this time, according to DeSena’s lawsuit, that “Weinberg lodged a calculated and concerted effort to sabotage the Death Race, Peak.com, Spartan, and DeSena as well as their relationships and reputations, through a smear campaign of false, defamatory and disparaging statements made through a variety of media channels.”

For example, DeSena claims that Weinberg enlisted other former Peak.com employees in efforts to drive Death Race customers to Endurance Society events, like allegedly announcing that the Death Race Facebook page would be moving to a new site, and instead directing them to a page for the Endurance Society.

Over the past five months, Weinberg and the Endurance Society both settled with DeSena, though terms of the settlements were not made public.

While the Death Race is no more, Spartan continues to host events. The company has 170 races scheduled in 25 countries this year, and recently renewed a deal with NBC to broadcast five races in its 2016 series, including the Reebok Spartan Race World Championship. A Spartan Race team competition television series is also reportedly in development.

The Endurance Society has hosted a handful of endurance events, including the Death Race-like Sine Nomine. Vermont Sports reported that the 2015 Sine Nomine sold out with 50 entrants. The 2016 version of the event is scheduled for June 24, 2016—exactly a week after Agoge, the Spartan-branded event most similar to the Death Race. Registration for both events is currently open. 

*During the editing process, the fact that one of the defendants had yet to settle but was in discussions to do so was removed. Outside regrets the error.

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