Bow Hunting Is Giving Pro Triathlete Max Fennell a Competitive Edge
Professional triathlete Max Fennell was in between sips of coffee when he answered the call for our mid-morning interview. It wasn’t Folgers in his cup, but rather a freshly roasted brew from Fenn Coffee, the company he founded in 2018. You see, Fennell isn’t your average athlete.
“I’m just one of those people who doesn’t want to wait for things to get done,” Fennell says. “I’ll just go do it.”
When he’s not running his coffee company or competing in a grueling triathlon, Fennell’s mind-boggling busy schedule includes serving as chair of the Community Engagement and Outreach Committee for Menlo Park––Fennell’s hometown in the Bay Area. He’s appeared on various competitive TV shows, including a stint on Million Dollar Mile (a reality show produced by Lebron James and hosted by Tim Tebow). And if that’s not enough, he picked up bow hunting last year during the pandemic and now considers it one of his secret weapons.
Fennell identifies as an entrepreneur, hunter, and public servant, even if triathlete is what he’s best known as.
On August 15, Fennell will be standing on the starting line of what he considers his home race: Escape From Alcatraz. This grueling race attracts two thousand athletes from over 50 countries, all of whom will be confronted with a 1.5-mile swim in the San Francisco Bay’s choppy water, an 18-mile bike ride up and down the city’s steep hills, and an eight-mile run that features the soul-crushing Sand Ladder––a brutal set of cliff stairs. Most people would shudder at the thought of this race, but the unpredictability, the grind––that’s what Fennell lives for.
“There are a lot of variables you have to account for,” Fennell says. “This is a race where you can’t expect anything. You’ve just got to wait and see what happens on race day, then adapt.”
Fennell will enjoy a home-field advantage, as he regularly trains in a lagoon that connects to the San Francisco Bay’s chilly waters––negating one of the most daunting elements. In addition to his cold-water swim training, Fennell relies on a consistent biking and running schedule to stay in peak condition. While other triathletes stress about race prep and obsess over executing their plan, Fennel understands this race requires a different mindset.
“It’s all about showing up to the race feeling strong and confident knowing you can handle whatever’s thrown at you—not being worried about who’s showing up on race day,” he says.
This mindset can be attributed to last year, when he had an opportunity to compete in the Spartan Games––an obstacle course endurance race that features up to 30 different obstacles. The experience inspired him to change his approach to racing—to focus less on winning and more on competing and pushing himself to his outer limits. And Fennell’s not just pushing himself to the edge in triathlons.
The 33-year-old recently began backcountry bow hunting, a challenge that tests both his physical and mental limits in ways triathlons can’t. I could hear the excitement in his voice as he described the arduous task of carrying a 60-pound backpack up a mountain along rugged ridgelines. He spoke of stealthily pursuing turkeys for five straight hours while battling nature’s raw elements––gusty winds, wild temperature swings, and other four-legged predators. It’s not the type of experience most people, much less most triathletes, experience.
“Hunting is actually going to make me a stronger athlete more than anything,” Fennell says. “I think that’s the biggest edge I have over my competitors.”
Later this year, Fennell will try air gun hunting in Texas as part of a hunting television show—but that’s as close to hunting with guns as Fennel is interested in. He’s a bow hunting purist at heart and revels in the unique challenge and danger that comes with hunting in the wilderness.
“When you’re doing a competition, you’re competing with another human and trying to win,” says Fennell. “With fight or flight, you’re wondering if there’s a grizzly bear or a black bear around you. It’s a different kind of fear, but it unlocks a different level in your brain to go deeper and harder.”
Throughout his life, Fennell has never been afraid to dig deeper or go harder to overcome an obstacle in his way.
In 2014, Fennell made history by becoming the first black triathlete to get his pro card. Unfortunately, the sponsorship dollars didn’t follow. While he’s managed to support himself through starting his business, Fenn Coffee, he’s now working on a new initiative to pave the way for other black athletes trying to break into the sport.
“There’s still not a lot of opportunities for black endurance athletes in terms of sponsorship or any support,” he says. “I realized we need to create an initiative to address that and help provide opportunities to open doors.”
He’s currently in the process of building a non-profit organization, the United Endurance Project, which will work to identify and provide financial support to black endurance athletes on the cusp of going pro in triathlon or OCR racing.
The bigger the obstacle, the more motivated Fennell is to overcome it. It’s an outlook we can all benefit from.