Get to know Joe
Joe DiStefano is an international speaker, fitness expert, entrepreneur and coach. Joe is the Director of Sport at Spartan Race, the world’s leading obstacle racing organization. He is also the Founder of RUNGA, a lifestyle brand focused on getting people in touch with their full human potential.
Joe grew up in a small town outside of Boston, Massachusetts. As a “free-range” kid, his mother would yell his name out the backdoor and he’d come running from across the neighborhood, usually covered in dirt, home for dinner. “As a family trying to be as healthy as possible, we had the Food Pyramid pinned up at home. We were taught to avoid dietary fat, such as butter, egg yolks, even nut butters, and by result, thought nothing of having bread, pasta, and margarine almost every night for dinner.” describes Joe.
When everything changes
One day after school, Joe and his brother Jeremy went to play basketball. They would gather their friends and play on an old neighborhood hoop that had been there for as long as anybody could remember. The 10-foot-high hoop had been cemented firmly into the ground but, unbeknownst to anybody, was growing weak with age. This was a windy Spring afternoon and with one particularly strong gust, Joe’s life changed forever. The gust sent the hoop toppling over, falling like a giant oak tree, and landing straight on top of Joe.
Joe laid unconscious in the street, the right side of skull fractured and concave, in a quickly expanding pool of blood. By a stroke of good fortune, a local nurse happened to witness the accident from her car and sprung into action, saving Joe’s life. After weeks of treatment and surgery, Joe survived the horrific, freak accident without any known serious, long-term repercussions.
Life after the accident
Today, Joe will say the accident was a blessing in disguise, and if he could change his past, he wouldn't. Joe credits the accident with building within him a protector mindset: a tenacious spirit and do-anything attitude. After all, if he could survive this, what wouldn't he be able to handle? In the years following, Joe did begin to have a growing list of strange, minor complaints. He developed TMJ in his jaw and had some rogue neck pain. He also had to give up the sport he loved most - baseball - because he had developed a vision problems and particularly poor hand-eye coordination.
Food Pyramid Gone Wild?
Two days before Christmas in 2001, Joe and his dad were at home when suddenly, his dad dropped to one knee and it became clear he was having a heart attack. Aside from the obvious trauma of the situation, the experience was pivotal to Joe’s career and nutritional journey. In fact, his questioning of the mainstream and more holistic perspectives began the moment the surgeon entered the hospital room following his dad’s surgery.
“Well, he’s going to make it, but he can kiss the steak and eggs goodbye.”
Kiss the steak and eggs goodbye? Joe remembers thinking, as he couldn’t remember the last time his dad had steak and eggs. In fact, if steak and eggs are what cause heart disease, then how on earth did this happen?!
Two years later, in 2003, Joe entered his undergraduate degree program at Fitchburg State University with a major in Exercise and Sports Science. He quickly met two people that would have a serious impact on his future career. His roommate Andrew and a wacky professor that would shake-up Joe’s entire perspective on fitness in just one sentence:
“I’ll be running 100-miles this weekend.” - Dr Jeff Godin
Do humans not die at 26.3 miles? This would be the first time Joe had ever heard of anybody running longer than a marathon. Dr J influenced Joe to complete his first personal training certification in winter of 2003, and his first triathlon and half marathon. Ironically, Joe would deny his multiple requests for Joe to run the infamous 'Death Race' in Vermont.
By early 2005, still in school and running a lot of road races, Joe’s personal training and coaching business had begun to consume most hours of the day. With the help of a growing referral network, Joe’s coaching became very specialized - his focus was breath work and core training, injury-prevention and post-rehab work. Before “retiring” from full-time coaching in 2012, Joe had worked one-on-one or in small groups with over 3,000 people, many 40+ year old adults with knee or back pain, and over 1,000+ high school and college tennis and baseball players, many with elbow, shoulder, and knee issues. Joe credits many of these young athletes with teaching him one of the most valuable lessons a coach can learn:
“When you are training a 17-year old kid who has his whole life ahead of him and a full-boat college scholarship on the line you learn fast you need to think long and hard about every single exercise you put in a workout and about the risks and rewards of every extra rep you push the kid to do. Once I left the gym and started consulting more with executives, I realized there's absolutely no reason not to carry that level of care to to everyone else, too." - Joe
Michael J. Fox Life
In 2007, at the high peak of juggling competitive running, educational diligence, and professional growth as a trainer, Joe’s growing list of “strange, minor complaints” that had begun 10 years earlier started to become undeniable. In fact, with all the running and gym-time, he was amassing overuse injuries in nearly every joint - all on his right side. It was when he started waking up with intense muscle cramping and tightness along the whole right side of his body that he sought help from the medical community.
After doing the rounds, he finally found three doctors specializing in neurology that would change his life forever. All three diagnosed his tightness issue as Dystonia, which essentially, involves muscle tightness and involuntary muscle contraction. The first white-coat doctor explained it this way: “Michael J. Fox had bad luck, Muhammad Ali got hit in the head too many times. Both ended up with the same problem.” Then he added, “You’ll be Michael J. Fox by 30-years-old.”
A sentence capable of breaking any 24-year old's spirit. Thankfully, the other two doctors were more optimistic. Fueled by the initial grim prophecy, Joe decided to dedicate his life to his rehabilitation. Now, he began piling on up to six treatment sessions with his doctors per week, on top of his business and the last year of his degree in Exercise Science. But it seemed for the amount of efforts going in, the results were slow coming.
Cumulative Stress Load
After 6 months of treatment, Joe was feeling especially defeated and emotionally uncharged, shrouded in negative beliefs about where his health was heading and consumed with the “Michael J. Fox Prophecy”. That being said, he was still "going through the motions" of getting well and doing what he was supposed to do. Joe walked into Dr. Peter Percuoco’s office and, needless to say, Dr Pete knew it was time to call the bluff. Joe credits this lesson with guiding his entire career:
"That it starts between the ears. It's not about what you do but how and why you do it, and most importantly, the stage you set and to what extent your gut truly believes in the outcome."
There’s simply no success to be had when you do not set the stage, regardless if the lights and camera are in place. Whether the goal is to rehabilitate a brain or lose 100lbs, you will fail until you remove everything that’s pushing you in the opposite direction. For Joe at this time, the fatigue and distraction was rooted in a successful training business and an education that he was still wrapping up. Joe understood from his present failures that to get well and have any chance of getting rid of this muscle tension, he needed to focus on rehab alone and take off the metaphorical roller skates.
“A fool who persists in his folly becomes wise.” - Alan Watts
The Next Phase
In late 2007 Joe quit his job and said goodbye to all of his clients. It was time to focus on himself with all of his power. This was the craziest thing he had ever done in his life - and at the highest possible peak in his business success to that point. He still recalls the mantra that got him through this perplexing investment he was about to make:
“You can’t take it with you”.
It was then, unemployed and focused on wrapping up his degree, in between eating wheat bread sandwiches and popping adrenal boosters and adaptogenic herbs to fight extreme fatigue and burn-out, that Joe decided to attend a Holistic Lifestyle & Nutrition Coach Certification by Paul Chek. The program encompassed mindfulness and it rekindled Joe’s passion for breath work. It also demonstrated to Joe something he never, ever expected: that his body needed a LOT more fats than he was giving it, especially butter, oils, red meats, egg yolks, and nut butters. And not only that, but that he was extremely sensitive to carbohydrates and was completely gluten intolerant.
After the workshop, Joe dedicated himself to his treatment even further. He cut all caffeine and all alcohol from his diet, and for the next 16-months he would eat nothing but meats, avocados, non-starchy vegetables, coconut oil, and butter.
After just weeks of this new high fat diet, no job, no school and attending therapy, Joe showed more positive progress than all of the previous months of therapy combined. For the first time since starting therapy, he began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. He also began to understand what would soon become the backbone of his coaching approach: Cumulative Stress Load. That stress from work, family, exercise, diet, and even our own minds that accumulates in the body as one blanket of negative energy called stress. Joe also learned that you truly can never change just one thing. For the first time since he stared at that x-ray of his broken skull, Joe was completely confident that the powers he had been looking for were inside of him ready to be put to work.
To take things to the next level and with his newly formed personal power, he needed a vacation to more or less celebrate “waking up”. He talked his brother into a week on the island of St John in the Caribbean. At the end of the week, Joe informed his brother of the news - that he was staying.
Joe stayed in the islands for the next few months. He scuba dove, he hitched rides with local sailors and visited 13 islands. He practiced breathwork on the beach nearly every morning and completed Tony Robbins’s daily “Personal Power II” program twice, at the advice of Dr. Pete. His symptoms were almost gone - without therapy. Mindfulness was the ingredient he had been missing and come to find out - it was actually the prerequisite to getting anywhere at all.
In mid-2008, Joe returned home and opened a new gym: Ultimate Athlete. Prior to opening his doors, he reached out to many of his former clients, and was excited to find that nearly all were excited for his return. Joe also returned to therapy for the finishing touches that he needed, and was a changed man forever. With his optimism and energy more vibrant than ever, his new business was an overnight success. He was back in the game.
from gym owner to consultant
By 2010, Ultimate Athlete was a booming business and meanwhile, Joe was receiving an increasing number of consulting projects. He began dabbling with corporate coaching to help office workers avoid things like back pain, weight gain, or reduced productivity, and even helped a few install fitness facilities inside their offices. He began consulting with team sports coaches on developing practices that would help their athletes perform better, grow as a team, and avoid injury.
It was then that two things happened almost in the same week: an independent buyer came to Joe and made an offer to purchase Ultimate Athlete and, through his consulting network, he was offered a full-time position managing 100-individually owned and operated fitness facilities across the United States. He felt like he was definitely caught in “the flow”. As much as he loved his business, many of his most prized athletes were heading to college, and the opportunity to do something so brand new with his passion and career was simply too exciting to pass up. Joe sold the business and took the job.
He calls it the Spartan Race
Soon after taking the job at the gym franchise, Joe received a call from Dr J, hoping to convince Joe to participate in the new 'Death Race'. Before Joe could say “NO!” for at least the fourth time, Dr J explained that this was in fact a new race with many of the same elements, except that it was only a 5K.
"He calls it the Spartan Race." - Dr J
Perhaps it goes without saying that Joe enjoyed the Spartan Race. It was so liberating to have zero idea what to expect, no reliable means of preparing, and absolutely no sense of “time” once you’re on course. From Joe’s first race, he saw it as a meditation, a timeless physical exercise that connected the mind, body and spirit. And what a stark contrast to the “pavement-pounding” Joe was accustomed to from his road racing days, where he was glued to his watch, timing when the next sip of sugar and salt would take place. Joe’s first Spartan Race made him feel like the thrill-seeking 3-year-old he once was, the little boy who loved to run around, climb and throw things.
Following the Race, Dr J invited Joe to meet with “the Death Race guy”, Joe Desena, who was now the founder of this new race. Quickly it became clear that people needed to understand the benefits of this event and details such as how to train, how to fuel, what to wear, and how to adjust their perception of what a 5K should be. Dr J had brought Joe into something magical, so the nights and weekends began. In 2011, Dr J and Joe’s program called “Spartan SGX” launched. Between 2011 and 2018 Joe would host 100+ training events in 75+ cities around the globe from London to Beijing on behalf of Spartan Race.
the birth of runga
Perhaps not surprisingly, hosting 100 events around the globe is exhausting - even when you love your job. And nobody knew that better than Joe. He was living his dream of traveling the world, spreading his passion, meeting people, and loving life. Unfortunately, he also knew too well the undeniable truth of his cumulative stress theory. Joe decided that it was time to take a step back - he left his professional life and electronics behind, and spent a week in Costa Rica.
Long story short, an off-the-grid vacation that Joe took in order to connect with himself again, quickly became a movement and a sold-out "retreat", year after year. It turns out, this need to connect - to understand ourselves in a way that is essential in order to make the right choices for ourselves - is universal. Six years later, RUNGA has become a guide to internal empowerment. Using tools such as functional fitness, meditation and cold immersion, events bring experts from a variety of disciplines together to support guests’ journeys to connect with the strength, resilience and passion that resides inside every one of us.
Today, Joe is still bursting with passion and energy. Since 2015, he has spoken at several corporations on wellness, and has had the pleasure of sharing the stage with some of the industry’s most influential people at various health conferences. Joe is a host of Spartan's Live Race broadcast, and the sports cast, Under the Wire. Joe currently lives in Venice, CA.