In her many years as a world-class wrestler, Leigh Jaynes has lifted hundreds of pounds, run dozens of miles and gone plenty of rounds on the mat in order to stay fit for her sport. But chopping wood has never been part of her training regimen. Nor has carrying sandbags up and down a mountain or swimming 10 miles over a five-hour period. But after five days in rural Vermont, the 28-year-old Olympic hopeful can add all of those to her fitness résumé.
Welcome to Joe DeSena’s version of strength training. Gone are boring gym workouts and monotonous jogging. DeSena, 40, replaces them with a more primal type of training that can only be described as a sufferfest. He tries to break his clients through consecutive hours of Bikram yoga, tire carrying and log hauling coupled with little sleep and hardly any food or water. It is extreme and unorthodox, but DeSena’s clients post results. And in an age when elite athletes all over the world have access to sophisticated training methods, measures and supplements, any edge helps.
That doesn’t make Jaynes feel any better as she heads into her 10th hour of chopping wood in two days. At this point, all she wants is a sandwich and a hot shower. But she won’t get that until she’s off DeSena’s clock and back home at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where she lives and trains year round.
Jaynes and four other members of the U.S. National Wrestling Team submitted to the regime devised by DeSena and his team at PEAK Racing, an adventure race organization in Pittsfield. The wrestlers came to DeSena, a Queens native who struck his fortune on Wall Street, at the insistence of wrestling coach Noel Thompson.
Over the summer, Thompson, of the tony New York Athletic Club, participated in a grueling adventure race in Long Island organized by DeSena. Thompson got thoroughly destroyed during the race, or so the story goes. “I met the coach this summer and I crushed him,” DeSena boasted. “It was six to seven hours of hell.”
Impressed, Thompson asked DeSena if he would consider working with some of his charges — the Team USA wrestlers. “He said, ‘We’d love to get your kind of stuff applied to wrestling,’” DeSena recalled.
DeSena had never worked with traditional athletes before — with the exception of his wife, Courtney, a former Division I soccer player. But as his reputation grows and his training methods become more widely known and respected, more and more jocks are seeking out DeSena’s services. In January, members of the Women’s Professional Soccer league are scheduled to come to Pittsfield to subject themselves to the same type of abuse the wrestlers received late last month. For some reason, getting back to the roots of physical strength and stamina through splitting wood and hiking mountains has a cachet that squat thrusts and jump lunges can’t match.
Could DeSena make some of the world’s strongest athletes even tougher?
Wrestlers are not a fragile bunch. Opponents regularly manhandle them and slam them to the ground. Their faces get pushed into the mat and their genitals are grabbed during certain takedowns. These are people who are familiar with discomfort — and know how to compete through it.
But when they arrived in Vermont, DeSena made them run eight miles to Pittsfield carrying their luggage on their backs. When they reached the tiny hamlet near Rutland, which lies flush against the Green Mountain National Forest, there were no time-outs.
JD Bergman, a strapping 25-year-old with a neck the size of a fireplug, followed up his epic run with a three-hour-long session of chopping and carrying wood. When that ended at 2 a.m., Bergman bedded down for three hours of sleep in a barn before he awoke for early-morning ab workouts and more chopping.
But because Bergman was injured, as DeSena discovered wrestlers often seem to be, he was put on wood- carrying duty. “That’s one of my goals in life — to carry wood from one truck to another,” quipped Bergman, who is the third-ranked wrestler in the country in the 96-kg weight class. “He’s trying to break us, and we’re not going to let him.”
Bergman spent much of the rest of the day moving wood chopped by teammates Jaynes and Jenna Pavlik, 25, and stacking it in front of a house on Lower Michigan Road. Before the wrestlers arrived in the Green Mountains, DeSena had asked around to see if anyone in town needed help with any serious manual labor. One family needed some extra assistance with their winter wood, so DeSena offered up the wrestlers.
The Ivy League-educated DeSena is no stranger to physical suffering, though you wouldn’t know it to look at him. He is fit, trim and looks much like the securities trader that he is. But DeSena thrives in situations that require extreme endurance. Over the past few years, he has competed in Ironman triathlons and adventure races all over the world. In 2003, he raced in the infamous Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, Calif., a 135-mile slog in temperatures of up to 130 degrees. As the director of PEAK Racing, DeSena has organized some of the most grueling adventure races, including the Death Race, in which over a period of 24 hours competitors crawl under barbed wire, swim through mud, recite the names of American presidents and climb mountains while carrying a bicycle.
It is the mentally and physically exhausting Death Race for which DeSena has become known in the endurance-racing community. The most recent iteration in July gained attention from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, National Geographic and Seven Days. Of the 49 people who started this year’s Death Race, only 18 finished. Already, 93 people have signed up for the 2010 race and only seven more slots remain. After her time with DeSena, Leigh Jaynes predicts she will probably not be one of those seven.
Jaynes, who is a lieutenant in the Army Reserves and the number-two U.S wrestler in the 55-kg weight class, isn’t averse to pain. But typically hers occurs at the hands of an opponent.
The New Jersey native took easily to wood chopping. With the ax above her head, she took clean swings and split the wood cleanly, at least in the beginning. As the day dragged on, though, and the weather became drizzly, Jaynes’ chopping form dissolved. She was hungry and tired and covered in mud. But still, she recognized the value in the unconventional workout. “Both wrestling and this are physically demanding. This is challenging in its own right,” Jaynes said. “We’re using muscles we wouldn’t normally use.”
DeSena spent some time overseeing the lumberjack wrestlers. As soon as he left, Jaynes and the others took an unauthorized snack break. The trio of grapplers huddled around a bag of miniature carrots and a hunk of cheese. They weren’t supposed to have the snacks — they had three hours of Bikram yoga yet to do before they got to eat — but it was clear they were starving. Bergman took a piece of cheese from Jaynes, which was speckled with dirt from her gloves, and shoved it in his mouth.
“I don’t even care that there’s dirt on the cheese,” Bergman said, marveling at the depths to which he’d sunk.
“It adds to the flavor,” Pavlik responded as she slipped a carrot into her mouth.
After their brief intermission, it was time to get back to chopping and hauling, chopping and hauling. Their manual-labor workout was reminiscent of the movie Rocky IV when Sly Stallone’s character runs through snowbanks in the Siberian countryside, pulls dogsleds and stacks boulders so he can vanquish the evil Drago.
DeSena’s reasoning for the nonstop physical exertion is simple. “They’re so talented, they don’t need to do this. But if they did this regularly, they’d be 10 times the athlete,” he said. “Now, 10 seconds into a match, they’re going to say, ‘Fuck it. I can do this.’”
After fewer than 24 hours of DeSena’s torture training, Bergman was thoroughly whipped. When someone brought up the Rocky comparison, he laughed and shook his head.
“Rocky would start crying out here,” Bergman said. “Now, Rambo, he’d be fine.”