Triathlete (and coffee entrepreneur) Max Fennell chats Peninsula lifestyle in-between workouts and hustle groups

By Charles Russo

California Dreaming: Max Fennell talks local lifestyle on the Peninsula. (Photo courtesy of Max Fennell)

Menlo Park resident Max Fennell is on the move, and in more ways than one.

As metaphors about triathletes go, that’s a bit of a gimme, but Max makes it work in ways that go above and beyond. At 29, he was recently the subject of a big profile piece in the New York Times for his trailblazing presence in a sport that has been traditionally devoid of African-American competitors. And that’s merely the context. As a triathlete with his sights set on Tokyo 2020, Max’s lifestyle involves 3am wake-ups, long hours in the same lane with world-class swimmers, and clocking as many miles on his bike each week than most people do in their cars.

At the same time, he is managing Coffee Method, an artisanal small-batch coffee roasting company here in the Bay Area. In this sense, his days are as much networking and hustle groups, as they are pre-dawn swim sessions and coastal loops. From Max’s point-of-view, these all go hand-in-hand.

We sat down with Max over coffee (at our beloved Backyard Brew) to discuss local life on the Peninsula, from chicken sliders to state-of-the-art tech. He was humble, funny, and left us feeling like we should do more sit-ups….

Fennell and his coach see “the shorter distance stuff” — mixed relays and sprints — as his angle on the Olympics. (Photo courtesy of Max Fennell)

So tell us about your connection to the area and how you came to the Peninsula?

I grew up on the East Coast outside of Philadelphia, and I moved out here because I was dating a Stanford doctor. But I had been here only about a month, just gotten here really, when her and I broke up. So I had just arrived and I didn’t know anyone. I remember telling my mom — “I don’t know what to do, I guess I’m gonna just move back home.” And she said, “No you’re not, you need to figure it out.”

I had barely even begun to lay some roots, and I literally knew no one here. So I had to grow my network from zero…and since then, I’ve met a ton of people here over the past few years.

I imagine you were already training as a triathlete when you came out here?

When I came out here I was sort of a newly-minted profession, but I was at the beginning of my career (well, I still consider myself at the beginning of my career).

But your background as an athlete was in soccer?

Yeah, I played in high school and in college. I was hoping to work my way up the ranks and maybe make the Philadelphia Union. In 2011, I sprained my MCL in a pickup soccer game. So initially I was using triathlon as a way to get my knee back into shape and show that I was healthy. And I figured that once I got through a triathlon I would know that I was 100%. But it just so happened that because I did well, I decided to stick with it.

A native of Philly, Max thinks the Peninsula has it dialed….just don’t ask him to root against the Flyers.

Do you have certain go-to spots for gear on the Peninsula? Maybe a bike shop that you stick with?

For my bike I go to VeloTech in Palo Alto, they take good care of me, and ever since I’ve been out here I was told to go to them. I drop my bike off and they get it done crazy fast and proper. It’s just what every bike shop should be.

Not to get too Silicon Valley on you, but does tech factor into your training?

Sure, living out here I’ve been fortunate to have access to tech that isn’t available yet. So for a year now I’ve been testing Everysight’s heads-up immersion display glasses, which gives me my my speed, my distance, my heart rate all displayed right there in front of my eyes, it not only increases safety but enables me to monitor my times and even take videos without strain. I’ve also been trying out Halo Sport, which is out of San Francisco, which is a headset you put on that shoots electronic waves to help you from a neuromuscular standpoint, and become stronger. Beyond just other wearable teach, those have been the main two, and it’s been amazing to have companies like that reach out to me.

Shifting gears then….where are your spots to eat?

Recently I’ve been eating a lot at Willow’s Market in Menlo Park. They’re right around the corner from me and their sandwiches are amazing. SliderBar is also one of my favorites, especially for the chicken sliders. The Dutch Goose in Menlo Park has an amazing chicken sandwich and sweet potato fries. Also, on Stanford’s campus I like to go to Jimmy V’s. A lot of people don’t know it, but they just make that campus-y breakfast food that is always so good.

How about if you have a big cheat day?

That’s a lot of the time. Actually, Pizza My Heart, those pesto pizzas are such a good call. In fact, I might do that tonight, now that we’re talking about it.

You’re a big coffee guy, right?

Actually, I manage a coffee company out of San Francisco — Coffee Method. We are a small batch coffee roasting company right now. We’re about to come out with a cold brew soon, and we are subscription based as well: we mail out three different roasts — a light, medium and dark — on a monthly basis. Also, we sell our bags in the Willow’s Market.

I started working at a coffee shop when I was 20, where I was part of the “counter culture,” and I was able to learn a lot about really good coffee.

Fennell clocks upwards of 180 miles per week on his bike. (Photo courtesy of Max Fennell)

Do you have a local coffee spot that you like to hang out at?

The coffee shop I go to a lot — especially when I need to get work done — is the Treehouse on Stanford campus. It’s helpful to look up and see everyone just grinding hard after it….so it’s an inspiring environment.

Do you get outside of the area much?

I go down to Santa Cruz a lot, because that’s where my coach is, so I go down there to train with him. I then go up to the city quite a bit for…I guess you can say…networking and talks. There are a lot of Silicon Valley people who do these talks and kinds of continued education, in the city. So I go up to SF for those kinds of networking talks and hustle groups, connecting with individuals. Plus, I just went to a baseball game recently, which was pretty sweet.

Speaking of — and not to put you on the spot — but who are your teams?

I’m still pretty Philly, but since I live here now I definitely root for the Warriors and the Giants. I can adopt those two teams, but I think I’m sticking with my Flyers and my Eagles. But, I mean, who doesn’t want to watch the Warriors?

Obviously, you have this diverse workout to tackle, so let’s start with running…what is your routine like out here?

It’s a unique schedule. All of my track workouts are at Stanford. But I pretty much run in either my neighborhood or Huddart Park on a continuous basis. Near my house I have an out-and-back loop where I run Cowper to Embarcadero back to Cowper down Middlefield and then I cut over a road through Atherton, back to my house…and it’s seven miles. Generally my runs are 50 or 60 minutes.

How about cycling?

You will routinely find me on the Noon Ride or the Spectrum Ride. And everyone knows the fast pace noon ride on Tues/Thursday, which meets on Old Page Mill near Foothill Expressway. Otherwise, I’ll do the standard coastal loop through Pescadero. Or come up the backside on the bike hut loop along Tunitas Creek Road. Generally, in a week I average between 160 and 180 miles on the bike.

Max Fennell with Stanford Aquatics Director and Masters head coach Tim Edmonds. (Photo courtesy of Max Fennell)

And swimming?

So I pretty much swim with Stanford Masters on a continuous basis. Every once in awhile I might swim by myself at the Stanford recreation center, because I teach private swim lessons there. But generally I swim with Stanford Masters, which is part of a national program; it is still essentially a team, but where anyone can join. And Stanford Masters is regarded as one of the premiere masters in the country. That workout is not like other master’s workouts. And it’s acknowledged for that: when swimmers are in town they’ll come and work out with Stanford Masters. It’s an amazing range of people that show up: there’s people who just swam in Rio at trials, people that have world records, people that are former D-1 swimmers, All-Americans and the like. So on any given day I have 20 or 30 people swimming faster than me….swimming like fishes.

So being from the East Coast, is there anything you really miss now that you live out here?

I wish there was another spot or two down here that has live music…and that’s just about it. Palo Alto has pretty much nailed it, but what if Palo Alto was known as the spot for live music? I really think that is the only thing that’s missing — three spots that have live music, where you say “This is awesome.”

Just to wrap up then….what’s next for you?

Well….Coffee Method continues to grow. We continue to look for places and people to partner with. We’re just finishing our cold brew which has taken up a lot of my time getting it out there. We’re coming out with these cold brew shots as well. So a lot of my attention has been going towards making Coffee Method grow.

The second thing that keeps me inspired is getting ready for next season [as a triathlete]. My coach has me focused on putting the work in to see if we can make a run for the Olympics while I live here, while my body continues to adapt and get stronger. We see triathlon with mixed relays — the shorter distance stuff — as my strength.

It’s going to be interesting, because I’ll be managing Coffee Method while I’m also training and racing. But if you look at it from the standpoint of….when you’re in high school, you still went to class and studied while you played a sport. And the thing with triathlon is that it turns into a healthy lifestyle that allows the rest of your life to increase, because you’ve set these physical goals that you’re constantly striving for, so it affects your business and your personal goals as well. So even if I don’t make the Olympic team — which is 3 years from now — I’m banking on what it will do for my business life, because if I’m making money so I can race internationally….even if that doesn’t that doesn’t happen internationally but I became successful as a business person — I still won.

But still…I feel very confident in myself and my physical goals.

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