Life is not without its shares of struggles and challenges, but if many of us could choose, we would easily pick the path rid of all these hardships. Robert "Fireman Rob" Verhelst's guest in this episode would choose otherwise. Tony Matesi is That Endurance Guy behind the blog, "The Legend of the Death Race." He has competed in three Spartan Death Races, made it to the City Finals on American Ninja Warrior, created a Death Race training program, and launched Spartan Endurance Internationally, among others. In this episode, Tony shares with us his book, Legend of the Death Race, which tells his story of conquering one of the world's most extreme endurance events. He talks about the lessons he learned about conquering life through courage, power, and wisdom, reminding us of each of our abilities to overcome life's challenges, no matter how big or small. Dive deep into this great conversation that will inspire you to be bold and go beyond your perceived limits.
Listen to the podcast here:
The Death Race: Lessons On Going Beyond Your Limits With Tony Matesi
I've got a great guest for you. Anybody who's done a Spartan Race is going to know this guy. We will get into The Death Race, you'll know this guy. His name is Tony Matesi. It's great to have you on the show.
Thank you so much for having me, Rob. I'm excited to be here.
It's insane to think about all the things you've done. When you start back at the roots, you are an entrepreneur in which you got your Bachelor's in Marketing and PR. You are the all-round person that wants to go out there and do more, isn't it?
That's an easy way to describe me. I am a Jack of all trades, but not a master of too much. I liked to do a little bit of everything.
You have written a book and we're going to get into that book. I want to make sure that people go and get this book because it is one of those things that you have to read. Tell us more about what that book is. It's The Legend of the Death Race. Tell us more of how that came about because you talk about conquering life through courage, power, and wisdom.
It's one of those interesting things that happen. I say that when it took eight years to make it happen. I wanted to do this crazy thing called the Death Race, which is this 60-plus hour endurance event that takes place in Vermont at a small little town called Pittsfield. At the time, when I wanted to do this, I was like, “I need to hold myself accountable.” I'd taken a bunch of graduate program classes at DePaul University. One of the things that one of my professors had told me was, “You have to start a blog and find a niche and go all-in on that niche. That's how you can create a brand for yourself.”
In the final semesters of my graduate program, I was like, “I'm going to start a blog about this Death Race thing that I'm training for. I’ll write about it as a way to hold myself accountable. I doubt anyone will read it or care to take a look.” I started writing my workouts and all this stuff. I got the Legend of the Death Race web domain and I rolled with it. That spiraled. I didn't know what was going to come of it, but I started going to Spartan Races and people would be like, “I've been reading your blogs about these different Spartan Races you're doing it. I love it. It's great.” I was like, “You're reading my blog? That's cool.”
At some point, Andy Weinberg and Joe De Sena, the guys who started the Death Race both had told me that they also were reading it and they thought it was fantastic, especially after I participated in the Death Race and started writing a long recap. Each post was 2,000 words and it took me twelve posts to get the full first-year story out. All of that kept compiling and it kept having more content. At some point, someone said something to me like, “You've got enough material here for a book. Are you ever going to make it a book?”
I was like, “I never thought about that, but I might as well.” I decided like, “I'm going to keep participating in this race until I finish it, officially. Once I finally did that, it was like, “It's time to compile this,” but like any endeavor, sometimes you hit lots of roadblocks and speed bumps. You got to figure out, “How I got to get over these?” I had one year where I was too busy writing for the Spartan Race because I eventually got hired by the company to help develop their Spartan endurance program, which is a series of events that helped build people up to be able to compete in a Death Race. Doing that led to me being too busy to write my book because I was writing so much for Spartan.
I was writing and editing blogs and we were doing all kinds of web content. I was completely spent when I'd finished the day that I didn't want to write my own story or anything. A year later, I finally started having some more time and said, “I'm going to finish this thing and write it.” I was like, “You think that's the finish line, but it's not.” All you've done is you've finished writing the book and the whole process has just begun because now you have to go back and edit it a dozen times. You have to go through cover designs. There are many things that you don't realize at the time. In your head, you're like, “Once I finished writing it, that's it.” No, that's just the beginning.
Anybody who wants to get it, you can go to www.LegendOfTheDeathRace.com/book or you can go to that same site and listen to the podcast about the Death Race and all of your endeavors. Also, you are a busy man. You also have a blog on coaching with ThatEnduranceGuy.com but I want to go back to 2012. I found out more about you from your American Ninja Warrior. When you're talking about the Death Race that you first signed up in 2012, I want to know what your mindset was after you read that the Death Race you went to and it said, “YouMayDie.com.” What was your mindset after you read that was the URL you had to go to?
As a marketing professional and entrepreneur, you understand marketing at its core. You're like, “No one's going to die at this thing because that would be a bad business practice.” That drew me in. I was like, “These guys are bold to be able to make a statement like that. I got to see what this is all about.” That got me into the whole thing like, “Let's find out what is this race. Is it the hardest race that's out there? Can I finish it?” That intrigued me immensely. I was like, “I need to do some more research.” There was a New York Times article and video that was out. It was limited information, but the tasks that you saw in that video were off the wall. These guys had to go to the top of the mountain and memorize a Lego pattern that was built. It was a bunch of blocks, different colors, whatever. They then had to go back to the bottom and then assemble it. If they got it wrong, they have to go back to the top, take a look again and come back to the bottom. I was like, “That sounds awesome. It's like mental, physical and everything.”
One of the years, they had to take the bike. They brought their bicycles, but at the start of the race, they had to tape their tires together and give them to the race director. They had to take the bike apart. They had to take their chain off, put it in a Ziploc bag, and write their bib number on it. They had to carry the frame for the bike the whole race. Eventually, they get to this pond and they're like, “Here's your chain,” and they throw it in the pond and the guys have to run, jump in, swim, and go find the chain in the pond that they threw it in. Eventually, they somehow acquire their tires and they had to reassemble our bike and then they ride their bike for one mile. The mental game there is ridiculous. I was like, “I love it.” I wanted to be a part of that. That's why I decided to do this race. It was like, “I wanted this challenge.” A lot of things in life thankfully came easily for me. I started athletics at a very young age. It was always pretty quick with school and with homework. I would get done with stuff so fast that I wanted to challenge myself. The Death Race was the challenge I was looking for.
The first year that you did it in 2012, the story behind that is even better because you tore your labrum in your shoulder. That was how many weeks before that race?
That was about six months before that I tore it. It was the day after I signed up for the race that it got torn. I was like, “I paid $400 or $500 or whatever for this. I can't get a refund. I'm going to go with it.” I didn't know that I had torn it right away. It took me about a month or two. I was doing all this training and I was like, “My shoulder is hurting. I don't know what's going on.” I finally went to the doctor and the doctor was like, “You got a nice one-inch tear. Good job.” I was like, “That's not good. How do you feel about me doing this race that's getting supposed to be 48-plus hours?”
He was like, “You can't do any more damage to it. It's up to you.” I was like, “Give me a cortisone shot and let's do this thing. If I can't do any more damage, let's get it fixed after and we'll call it a day.” He gave me a cortisone shot and then two weeks before the event, he gave me one more cortisone shot. Within about two months, I had two cortisone shots, which is probably not recommended normally, but he knew my goals and he was willing to help me attain them. I went out to the event with this torn shoulder. It was a tough experience because I was taking opioids. I was taking Norco.
It's not the best thing to be doing when you're doing something like this, but it helped me get through it. The sad reality is I got addicted to those painkillers for that year. When it came time for surgery, it was like, “I have to stop taking these pills. This is not great.” The doctor was like, “If you don't stop taking them, you're not going to have any pain relief after the surgery.” I was like, “Okay.” I had to wean myself off that. That was my first experience with withdrawal and understanding how addictive a substance can be. I was like, “I never wanted to do that again.” Ever since then, I'm averse to taking anything. I'll take Aleve every once in a while, but I even hate taking that. I don't want to be dependent on anything.
That adds to the aspect of mental strength to be able to persevere because that first year, you didn't make the official cutoff, but you still finished. That speaks volumes to your character of wanting to complete something. You talk about courage, power, and wisdom. All those things came into effect when you said, “It doesn't matter that the time is done. I'm not done.” What does that mean to you?
I did not want to quit. I hate quitting. I was in a pretty bad place. I mentally checked out for about two hours in the race and I was like, “I'm done. This is not going well. My shoulder’s a mess. I'm going to hurt myself probably more. I don't know if I should keep going.” I then got there and I was like, “I need to finish what I started.” They were like, “You can keep going. You can't officially finish the race.” I was like, “I don't care that I can't finish. I need to keep going. What is next?” They were like, “Go do this. The next task was to go climb the mountain and carry this wood to the top of it or whatever.” It was digging deep inside and being like, “I know I have more to give and I have to give my all.” The only way I wanted to be pulled from that race. It felt like I was laid out flat on the ground and I was like, “I am done.” I did not want to come out of that race or any other way.
When you finished it, there is something that you receive that’s not a medal. What is it?
You get this awesome plastic skull that you can probably buy for $2 or $3 on Amazon. There are lots of jokes about it. At one of the Death Races, Joe De Sena said to me because I was out of it because I didn't do well, performance-wise, but then also I had caught a bacterial infection and I was in a bad spot from a medical standpoint. I got to the point where I had a fever and everything. They did have to pull me, but prior to that, I missed a cutoff and I wanted to keep going. I was like, “I want my skull.” He's like, “Go buy one on eBay or something.” I was like, “That's not how I want to earn it.” Even though there's this little plastic skull, it's the journey that it represents. It's this whole endeavor that you're going through in this adventure of trying to see how far you can push yourself beyond your own perceived limits. It's like, “I want it so that way I can represent that and look at it.” Whenever I do hit a low point in my life, I can look at that skull and be like, “Life can be hard, but if I can get through this thing, I can get through anything.”
It's a little plastic skull and it's one of those things where it's like, “You go through life and you have little things that you pick up along the way that you understand are bigger.” Somebody else could look at it and go, “Congratulations, you didn't clean your house after Halloween so you might want to do that,” but you look at it as a sense of purpose. That purpose transcended into something bigger. When you started to show your perseverance as an entrepreneur and went to Joe De Sena and said, “There has to be some mix in between the races that you have at Spartan.” Tell some more about how you pitched that to Joe.
Right after my first Death Race, it was glaringly apparent because of all my training leading up to it. I went and did Spartan Races. I would run multiple laps out of Spartan Sprint or Super. On my second lap, I would throw a rock on with a dozen beers in it or something. Something to carry some weight, but I'd go do the race multiple laps. I was like, “They don't have anything officially that helps train people for this crazy death racing. There's this big gap.” They have a 13-mile race and they've got this Death Race thing and there's nothing in between. I was like, “We need to build something that fills that void so that way people can properly prepare,” because I was going to outside events, like GORUCK.
There was this thing at the time, it's not in existence anymore, but it was called Seer Performance. It was going all these other places to try to train for their race. I was like, “If you're going to have a good viable business, you should have everyone staying in your ecosystem completely. You need to build more events that help lead people up this to create those stepping stairs.” I went and started my own race in Wisconsin with my friend, Chad Weiberg, who was super generous in letting me use his farm to get things rolling. He also made the rewards and everything. It was cool.
We started hosting 24-hour events on his farm. We did a couple of those. Within 3, 4 months of my first participation in the event, we had a dozen people come out, not like anything crazy, but people were like, “I want to come train because I want to do this Death Race thing. If you've done it, you've got some experience.” We put those on and that whole time, I kept going to Spartan Races and every Spartan Races, Joe would show up. This was the early days. Joe was on site a lot more often in the early days of the Spartan Race. Any chance I got to see him and talk to him, I'd be like, “Joe, you need to do this. You need to have events. You need to hire me to create this event series.”
At the time, I was unemployed and I was like, “This is what I want to do. This is my purpose. I want to help others achieve what I achieved. I want to help others realize that they can go beyond their perceived limits. I want to motivate and inspire. I want to harness this as my career.” I kept it relentlessly over and over. Finally, at the Fenway Sprint, they started doing stadium events where Spartan Race was at stadiums. They had one at Fenway and I was able to hang out with Joe there pretty much the whole weekend. I was like, “Joe, you got to do this. We've been talking about this for a whole year. Let's do this. You've said a million times that you like it. I have sent you the one-pager that explains how we're going to do it. What else do we have to do?” He was like, “Come up with me to the farm for a week and we'll figure it out and sign it up.”
He had a TEDx Talk, which is great. If you want to look it up, it's about Burpees and the Art of Pool Maintenance. It's on YouTube. I had helped him with his closing line for that TEDx Talk. He was like, “How do I close this?” I was like, “You got all these guys here. You're telling them that the burpee is the greatest exercise, but these people like data. They want facts that they can rely on. Why don't you tell them to go create the data by spending the next 30 days doing 30 burpees a day. Challenge them.” That was how the Spartan 30 was born. The next thing you know, people are doing 30 burpees a day for 30 days. They're posting videos on all the social media. This thing rippled into this massive outreach program that brought a lot of people in that thought that they couldn't do a Spartan Race.
There's a lot of people that were like, “I can't do a Spartan Race. I could never do it.” If you can do 30 burpees a day for 30 days, you can. More people started signing up for the races and that was super cool. He ended up taking me up to Vermont for the week after that TEDx Talk. We would spend the day on the mountain moving heavy rocks in the morning to build this cabin in the woods with my buddy Miguel and all while we were building the foundation for this thing, we were talking about how are we going to build The Spartan Endurance Program. It was super cool because most meetings take place inside a conference room or something, but with Joe, it was always, you're doing something. You're carrying heavy rocks, you're climbing a mountain, you've got a sandbag on your back. You're not sitting in a conference room and I loved that. I was like, “This is so cool that this is how he conducts business.” At the end of the week, we had a contract signed and I was working for Spartan Race starting to develop the Endurance brand.
It’s one of those things where your mind probably works the best when you're doing activities. Joe may have known that or love to keep moving forward. I love that part about it.
You develop a lot more ideas when you are moving.
We talk about the greatest accomplishment that you feel. I look at the Death Race and go, “Wow.” You also have done the Cascade Crest 100. The manual for the Cascade Crest 100-mile endurance run, one of the first general principles says, “Retain your sense of humor. Remember that you did pay for this. This event may be difficult, painful, emotional, and frustrating. Don't forget that you volunteered for this.” That is the best way to say, “I don't know what you're thinking.”
I look for events that have that kind of humor and that straightforwardness. If an event says something like that, I'm more likely to sign up for it.
It's so much better. You have a bunch of different things that you're looking at, but you're also going to be writing another book. What is that next book that you're writing?
The next book I'm writing is going to be called Stories of Endurance. It's going to be a collection of stories from athletes of all different walks. You got your running and ultrarunning. You've got these extreme endurance things like the Death Race. You've got people that are doing triathlons, IRONMAN. People that are doing long-distance swimming, long-distance biking, long-distance skiing, and all kinds of endurance. Mountaineering, rock climbing, anything that lasts more than 20 to 30 minutes or whatever they consider endurance technically. I'm going to try to collect all these fascinating stories like people who have done the PCT or Appalachian Trail or swam the English Channel. I'm trying to connect with all these athletes and I've started getting some good stories from some incredible athletes. I'm going to compile this into a book so that people can go through anywhere in the book at any time. You don't have to read it in order and you can get yourself a story that's going to motivate and inspire you to go live beyond your limits.
You're one of those people that motivates and inspires to live beyond your limits because when you were doing that Spartan Race, when you created that intermediary. You were trying to help others to achieve their goals and to eventually compete in the Death Race and find that next level that they couldn't find. How important was that for you to be able to develop that for others since you had seen the benefits for yourself?
The most important thing in my life is helping others realize that. Oftentimes, we get stuck in our head and we think that, “I can't do this, I can't do that.” We create these negative dialogues and the reality is we can all do a lot more than we think we can and we have to apply ourselves and go do it. Being able to create a platform where people were able to realize that we live in America, we live in a country where oftentimes things are a lot easier than most places. We are afforded a lot of opportunities and yet some reason a lot of people don't go and make the most of their life. I want to help people realize that they can make more of their life.
My favorite thing about doing, for instance, the Hurricane Heat, which is a four-hour event was at the end of every event, I'd be able to tell people like, “You got through this hard time and you did it with all of these people. You worked together and you came together as a team.” I want you to remember this so that the next time you're standing in line at Starbucks and someone tries to cut in front of you or something, you don't get mad about it. You will realize that's not worth getting mad about. You will realize that life can be harder because you've gone through something like this and you could apply that to your life and have a more stoic approach. You will be able to approach life in this way where you're like, “I can do anything. I can get through anything, no matter what obstacles pop up in my way. I'm going to overcome them one way or another.”
You can find that in the book Legend of the Death Race. It is also in the new book that you're going to be writing Tony. If people want to find your book, they can go to LegendOfTheDeathRace.com. They can also see the podcast as well as the book. You then got the other side of it, The Endurance Guy blog at ThatEnduranceGuy.com. Tony, you are an amazing individual. I greatly appreciate you coming on. We're going to have to end this with the questions that I know I told you before.
I want to say one thing about the podcast. The whole idea with that is the Legend of the Death Race book is my story, but everyone has a different experience at this race because life's not fair. That's how the race is conducted. Everyone had a different event and I wanted to include all their stories in the Legend of the Death Race book, but that would have been 100,000-page book and no one would have read it. The podcast is everyone else's story. It's a great way to hear all these different, amazing people from all different walks of life who go and try to do this crazy thing called the Death Race. You have teachers, doctors, or nurses. You have people who are construction workers, all walks of life and they all come and do this crazy event to see what they're made of and see if they can overcome all these crazy obstacles. I share all of their stories on this podcast every week, and it's a great way to get motivated and inspired by these amazing people.
I love that you have many things that people can go to, to find that inspiration, to find that positivity of these people who are pushing way beyond their limits. I would suggest going to that podcast as well. I've listened to a few of the episodes and as far as being able to get out there and get motivated, I'm not one of those that's easy to do and those did. Go to the website. You can go get the book as well as listen to the podcast. I've got some great questions for you. The first one is going to be interesting because I don't know if you have anything outside of your comfort zone. What is one thing you haven't done, but is outside of your comfort zone?
I want to do a triathlon. The big thing that has prevented me from doing it is my unexplainable fear of the swim. As a kid, I was a fish. I would swim all the time. I remember being at summer camps or whatever and I moved all the way up. They gave us different categories for how good of a swimmer you are. The sharks were the highest and I was in the sharks with all the older kids with no problem. I don't know what happened, but at some point, I started having a fear of open waters and stuff. I want to overcome that fear and go do a triathlon.
You’ve got to do it. That's now out there and everybody knows.
That's something I'm working on. I'm crafting possibly by own personal one that I might do out here in Seattle. It'll involve a swim across Lake Washington and then a bike ride out to the mountains and then a mountain marathon.
You're going to have to invite me because I'm coming. Your second question is what is your favorite quote and why?
My favorite quote is one by Aristotle. It is, “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” It's simple and it's precise. We can be excellent as long as we make it part of what we do. As long as we strive for that doing the impossible and keep working at it every single day, you can be excellent.
It's such a powerful statement and you show this through your actions. That excellence isn't the result. It's the result of making it a habit, not an end result. It's not a finish line. It's not a skull, but it's all the things that led into that plastic skull that you can buy for $5. Your last question is going to be a good one because I want to hear your three people. If you could pick to have coffee with three other people at a firehouse table, in other words, nothing is off the table and you can ask anything, who would it be and why?
One athlete that I would love to meet is Kílian Jornet. He is by far one of the most amazing mountaineers and ultrarunners that exists. He set the record on Everest for the fastest time to do it, where most people take almost a month or whatever to the climate it. This guy did it in 24 hours or something. I'd love to meet him and pick his brain a little bit, ask him how he built the confidence to be able to do things like this and the courage. I would like to meet Elon Musk because he's a radical entrepreneur who likes to toe the line with what's normal and not normal and what's outside your limits. He's one of those guys who does walks to the beat of his own drum and takes massive risks.
I think it takes us so much courage to take the risks that he does. I'd like to talk to him and pick his brain a little bit. One of my favorite philosophers, which would probably be Marcus Aurelius. Everything I've read about him when it comes to leadership, he seemed to understand how to be a good leader and temperament. He was able to keep his cool often. He's known for looking at things from a rational standpoint and a stoic standpoint and not like letting his emotions get the best of him. I would love to talk to him and learn how he came up with that. He was many generations ago.
That is a good three. That would be a great coffee table conversation right there.
If it had to be someone that’s alive, probably Ryan Holiday, who is an author that is all about stoic principles and who has taught me a lot about guys like Marcus Aurelius.
I'll give you four. We're going to go to the rapid round. I'm going to give you two things. All you’ve got to do is pick one off the top of your head. Paper or plastic?
Soup or salad?
McDonald's or Taco Bell?
I don't like either, but McDonald's.
Camping or hotel?
Fly or drive?
Sleeping late or wake up early?
Run or walk?
Partly sunny or partly cloudy?
Fire or water?
Use a porta-potty or run or drive to the next physical bathroom?
Use a porta-potty.
Coke or Pepsi?
Go big or go home?
I'll go big.
Tony, it has been a pleasure having you on and I'm betting that I will have you on again after some of these new adventures and when your new book comes out. If anybody wants to find out more about Tony, you can go to that ThatEnduranceGuy.com and find out more there or you can find out more about LegendOfTheDeathRace.com. He has a great podcast and a book that you should get. Tony, thanks so much for coming on.
Rob, thank you so much for having me. It's been a great pleasure.
Burpees and the Art of Pool Maintenance - Joe De Sena TEDx Talk
About Tony Matesi
I’ve been in sports and athletics my entire life. Growing up with a father who was a gymnast, circus stuntman, body builder, marathon runner, and triathlete, and a mother who won the NPC Bodybuilding Competition and became Miss Illinois three times during my early years, you can easily see that I had a lot of athletic influence at a young age. At the age of three, my father had me learning back flips in my backyard and taking Tae Kwon Do at night. He was training me to be a ninja before American Ninja Warrior was even a thing!
Anyhow, I figured some background and an establishment of my credentials would be helpful. With decades of experience in gymnastics, mixed martial arts, competitive cheerleading, rock climbing, weight training, running, endurance events, obstacle racing, and yoga, I’ve developed very specific and unique training plans tailored to the specific sport I have needed to train for. It’s from all this experience that I derive my training and coaching programs to help YOU to achieve YOUR health and fitness goals.