Coffee, entrepreneurship and a Million Dollar Mile: Max Fennell just wants to keep paving the way and putting in work.
Since moving to the Bay Area in 2016, life for Max Fennell has very much centered around being a ‘go getter.’
Now, ‘go’ and ‘get’ have taken on new meaning for Fennell, who will star as a “defender” on LeBron James’s new TV show competition Million Dollar Mile. The show, which premiers March 27 on CBS, features Fennell and nine other defenders who will work against contestants attempting to finish an exhaustive obstacle course in the hopes of making it to the finish line — and potentially taking home the $1 million grand prize.
It’s no secret that Fennell is the type of competitor who enjoys an adrenaline rush — he describes himself as “addicted” to setting goals and accomplishing them, whether they be endurance or business oriented. Having completed 54 triathlons, Fennell is a world-class athlete, and he’s also the first African American triathlete to go pro. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, when he’s not swimming, biking, running or crushing the hopes of potential millionaires-to-be, he’s working on his coffee company, Fenn Coffee, and other entrepreneurial endeavors involving crypto technology like blockchain.
Ahead of the show’s pilot episode, we sat down with Fennell to talk about his goal-setting addiction, caffeine and of course — LeBron James.
When did you hear about Million Dollar Mile? How did you get involved?
SpringHill Entertainment actually reached out to me and recruited me. It wasn’t like you were just chosen, though — they had a combine that you had to go through, and a boot camp that you went through for them to get all these stats. Then I found out that I got on to the show and had a month to prepare. I teach swim lessons at Stanford, where they have a rock wall (to use for practice). My coach and I have spent three years getting rid of my upper body strength (for triathlons), and we had a month to get ready for the show to be able to beat people.
The selection process must have been incredibly competitive — what was that like?
That’s the thing, they brought a whole bunch of people. My boot camp, my pre-casting session, there were maybe like 12 to 15 of us, just really fit people. It was literally like — you get off the plane, and they kind of took us to this place where they had the boot camp. So off the plane they’re like asking you all these questions, and then we had to do our combine that night. I flew down to L.A., it was like two days total of the pre-selection. It was one of those things, a quick turn over — that’s the benefit of being already used to traveling and competing, because it’s very easy for (someone like me) to travel, get yourself out of your home base and be ready. That’s literally what it was. Off the plane, straight into like — ‘Hey, people, you’re here and you’re gonna go through this combine.’ It was pretty much a three-obstacle-course combine on the track and it was a mile, so it was getting off the plane and having to run a mile as hard as possible.
Is it surreal to be around all of these brand-name athletes like Tim Tebow, who’s hosting? And I have to ask — did you meet LeBron James?
We didn’t get to meet LeBron James because I think that was during his preseason. I’ve mentioned this to other people, as well, kind of like the same thing for us — as soon as we were filming, you’re in race mode. So I personally don’t want to be taken out of the zone, because there’s a level of pressure that comes with you having to defend a million dollars. You don’t want to be the person that gives up a million dollars because you’re off your game. And when you have to compete night after night and sometimes twice in one night — you know, I wanted to meet LeBron James, but I also — if I have to race, my adrenaline is pumping. But it was very cool to meet Tim Tebow, because he was presenting it, and he’s the one that would launch you off. And that was very cool because he’s legitimately genuine, and it was just very cool to be on stage with him. While there’s a two-minute delay and I’m getting ready to go, in between takes you’re just talking to Tebow. And in the back of my head, I was like, ‘Yo. This is Tebow!’
So he’s very down to earth?
Yes — and that’s also helpful because you don’t want to be on stage like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is Tebow.’ Meanwhile, the clock is counting down and you’re about to go chase someone.
I know you’re originally from Pennsylvania — the East Coast. As a competitor, do you feel like you’re representing more the East or the West Coast?
I think actually it’s more like — representing people in my situation. I think my community is strongly East Coast, but living in this area I definitely have a significant presence here in the Bay Area. I also have international representation from people that direct message me and contact me, and I think it’s a representation of sometimes we just don’t see those that don’t have doors open for them. And I think that’s what LeBron James and SpringHill Entertainment are doing — they want to help individuals like myself that normally wouldn’t have the opportunity. They want to give individuals like myself that opportunity, and that helps inspire those that look like myself. This show’s going to be very inspiring from a health and fitness standpoint, because they’re going to look at me, see my story, and say, ‘Man, this guy because of the sport of triathlon is now on television,’ whereas normally someone like me might play basketball.
I was about to ask about paving the way for “firsts” — you’re the first African American pro triathlete, and now you’re the singular black contestant on this show. Was that on your mind the entire time?
It was, but it’s also… from talking to my coach, it’s that the person that is needed to be a defender has to have a whole host of qualities and athleticism. There’s a significant water obstacle — you have to swim 18 yards across, and then be able to climb a 50 foot rock wall with an overhang. And to be able to do that, that means you have to have a certain aerobic capacity while also being a strong swimmer. I don’t think anyone would argue, actually, that on the show I was the strongest swimmer. So for me that meant that as soon as I hit the water obstacle where everyone else is out of gas, I can figure out how to relax underneath the water and not be out. So it’s one of those things — I think me being in the position I am in the show is going to inspire other individuals like myself to own their certain abilities. The show is looking for multiple seasons, but the fact of the matter is this just goes to the notion that as an athlete, I’m a rarity because of the skill set that’s needed for the show.
You’re working on your coffee company right now, too — how are you finding balance between the company and your place on the show?
Even though I have my coffee company, I have other businesses, as well, that I’m working on, too. I have a blockchain company I’m working on — you can use blockchain technology to build your app or your platform. And I think it just comes back to living in this area and being around the individuals that I’ve been around. There’s a very supportive entrepreneurial community that like — whatever it is that I think about, I can go to much more accomplished individuals and flesh out those ideas. And that’s how I’ve been able to execute the coffee company, and building this blockchain app, and as well as the other whole host of business things. I think you see it now, already — athletes that are involved with other entrepreneurial ventures. The only difference is that I’m an entrepreneur that likes to build things. I’m more hands on about building it, and less so being like, ‘I wanna invest my money in something and get a return.’ I full on want to build it. Honestly, triathlon and endurance sports help me to become a successful entrepreneur, because it teaches me discipline — that time management — and then it gives me a lot of drive because I like setting goals for myself. I want to win races, but I also want to win in business. It’s the same drive. Me being successful in my athletic endeavors just transfers over into business endeavors.
Are there parallels between being an entrepreneur and an athlete?
It’s the fact that I see that from triathlon, and for any endurance sport that I partake in: I set a goal for myself, and I always accomplish that goal. I see those incremental accomplishments in my business life as well, and I think that’s just mainly what I’m addicted to. I’m addicted to setting a goal for myself and accomplishing it, as well as putting the work in for it, because I then sit back and I can look at the work that’s been put in, and that’s very satisfying.
Have you discussed your time on the show with customers of Fenn Coffee?
It’s one of those things that I like keeping separate — mentally separate. They’re different worlds that I’m stepping into, and I’ve found that if you can keep those different worlds separate, it just keeps a level of happiness there, as well. As opposed to just being burnt out on both sides. I don’t publicize (the companies), but I think this is the start of it — starting to merge. I think we’re going to do a CBS interview for the coffee company. But going back to how they’re the same, it’s the same thing I’m doing in triathlon, I want to do in the entrepreneurial world. It’s very important for people to see minorities as well as female entrepreneurs being successful, because we understand that that representation matters. People have to see it so that they believe they can become it. And I want people to know that I put the work in, that it wasn’t given to me. I did it myself. I want people to know that the labels and the sourcing — every single thing, I figured it out myself.
Are there any competitors on the show you’ve enjoyed running against or working with?
One of my friends is actually on the show as a contestant — her name is Logan Cohen. She’s a female entrepreneur out of New York who has a very successful educational app. We’ve known each other since high school because we’re from the same community and we’ve worked together, and we’ve just been friends — I helped her train for her first marathon. When I was in L.A. filming the show, she posted that she was in LA. I was like, ‘Yo, Logan — you’re in L.A.? I’m in L.A.! I’m here, filming this show’. She’s like — ‘No way, I’m here filming this show!’ So it’s like my homie from Philly. And then that’s when we found out we were both on the show. We couldn’t talk while we were there in L.A., but since then we just think it’s so funny, because we were like — what if we didn’t know we had to compete against each other?
Who do you look to as setting an example for you — maybe in terms of that representation or someone you think has really ‘put in work’?
I gotta be honest — people I’ve always looked up to are LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bryant, I’ve met him a few times in Philly as a kid, I saw him play in Lower Merions. I’m one of the Philly people that have seen him from the beginning and have been inspired by Kobe because he’s a Philly guy. And the same thing with LeBron James because of what he does on and off the court, and what he stands for. When I found out I was going to be on the show, that’s when it solidified — I was like, man, LeBron James is reaching his hand out and trying to figure out a way to help everybody, whether people realize it or not. My three people that I consciously cycle through my head would be LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Barack Obama. Those three people in terms of archetypal figures I strive to be.
What’s your ultimate goal for this season of the show?
It’s hopefully to have a significant character impact — like I was saying, to get brought back for season two. We’re also trying to see if we can have an impact where my brand continues to grow and influence people from the health and wellness standpoint. And we want to continue to see if we can travel the country and get more kids involved with triathlon, and swimming, and living a healthy lifestyle. I hope it just builds my platform to a point where I can continue to inspire other people to live a healthy lifestyle.
The Million Dollar Mile Premiere’s this Wednesday, Wednesday, March 27 9/8c on CBS.
Learn more about Fenn Coffee and where you can find it on the SF Peninsula.
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