Professional triathlete athlete Max Vinyl was between sips of coffee When he answered the call to meet us in the middle of the morning. Folgers wasn’t in his cup, it was a freshly roasted drink coffee art, the company he founded in 2018. You see, Fennell is no ordinary athlete.
“I’m just one of those people who doesn’t want to wait for things to get done,” Fennell says. “I’m just going to do it.”
When he’s not running his own coffee company or competing in a grueling triathlon, Fennell’s busy, mind-boggling schedule includes serving as chair of the Community Engagement and Outreach Committee in Menlo Park – Fennell’s hometown of the Bay Area. He has appeared on many competitive TV shows, including a short one million dollar mile (Reality show produced by LeBron James and hosted by Tim Tebow.) And if that wasn’t enough, he chose bow hunting last year during the pandemic and now considers it one of his secret weapons.
Fennell is known as an entrepreneur, fisherman, and government employee, even if the triathlete he is best known for.
On August 15, Fennell will stand on the starting line for what he considers to be his home race: Escape from Alcatraz. This grueling race attracts two thousand athletes from over 50 countries, who will all face a 1.5-mile swim in the choppy waters of the San Francisco Bay, an 18-mile bike up and down steep city hills, and an eight-mile course that features soul-crushing sand ramps. It is a harsh set of cliff ladders. Most people were shivering at the thought of this sweat, but the unpredictability, the grinding – that’s what Vinyl lives for.
“There are a lot of variables that you have to account for,” Fennell says. “This is a race where you can’t anticipate anything. You just have to wait and see what happens on race day, and then adapt.”
Vinyl will enjoy a field advantage, as he trains regularly in a lake that connects with the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay – eliminating one of the most troubling elements. In addition to his cold-water swimming training, Fennell relies on a consistent cycling and running schedule to stay in peak condition. While other athletes emphasize race preparation and obsess over executing their plan, Fennell realizes that this race requires a different mindset.
“It’s all about showing up at the race feeling strong and confident knowing you can handle anything thrown at you – don’t worry about who’s showing up on race day,” he says.
This mindset can be traced back to last year, when he had the opportunity to compete in the Spartan Games – an endurance race on an obstacle course featuring 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 Vinil doesn’t push himself over the edge in triathlons.
The 33-year-old recently started backcountry bow hunting, a challenge that tests his physical and mental limits in ways that a triathlon can’t. I could hear the excitement in his voice as he described the grueling task of carrying a 60-pound backpack up a mountain along the rugged ridge lines. Talk about stalking turkeys stealthily for five hours straight while battling the raw elements of nature — high winds, wild temperature swings, and other four-legged predators. It’s not the type of experience most people, let alone most triathletes, experience.
“Hunting will actually make me a stronger athlete than anything else,” Fennell says. “I think this is my biggest advantage over my competition.”
Later this year, Fennell will attempt airgun hunting in Texas as part of a hunting TV show—but that’s as close to hunting with shotguns as Fennel cares about. He is a bow hunting lover at heart and enjoys the unique challenge and danger that comes with hunting in the wild.
“When you participate in a competition, you are competing with another human being and trying to win,” says Fennell. “By fight or flight, you wonder if there is a grizzly bear or a black bear around you. It is a different kind of fear, but it opens a different level in your mind to go deeper and deeper.”
Throughout his life, Fennell was never afraid to dig deeper or to work harder to overcome an obstacle in his path.
In 2014, Fennell made history by becoming the first black trio to earn his Pro card. Unfortunately, the sponsorship dollars did not follow. While he has managed to support himself by starting his business, Fenn Coffee, he is now working on a new initiative to pave the way for other black athletes trying to break into the sport.
“There is still a lot of opportunity for black endurance athletes in terms of sponsorship or any support,” he says. “I realized we needed to create an initiative to address that and help provide opportunities to open doors.”
It is currently in the process of building a non-profit organization, and United Endurance Project, which will identify and provide financial support to black endurance athletes on the cusp of professionalism in triathlon or OCR races.
The bigger the obstacle, the greater Fennell’s motivation to overcome it. It’s an insight we can all benefit from.
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