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What Makes Bill Run?

Ultra-marathoner Bill Bradley and the embrace of crazy



Preparing to track down Santa Rosa ultramarathoner Bill Bradley, I dust off my own running shoes. I bike to Santa Rosa's Howarth Park, where I am to meet him, and run around the lake a few times. For someone who hasn't run in a few months, I'm feeling pretty smug about my early morning jaunt. Of course, that was before I sat down with self-professed "Average Town Bill" Bradley.

Now 50, Bill has run six marathons. Completed seven Ironman Triathlons. Completed several 100-plus mile races. Run three triathlons—at once. For Bill, biking three miles and running another three is not even a warm-up lap. Obviously, what he's accomplished is impressive. In fact, it can be intimidating. But for him, running is not about the splits, the competition or the course, although all of those things have a bearing on how he performs. Running, he says, gives him a "high," and, just like any addict, he constantly strives to find what will give him the next big rush, seldom competing in any one race twice. His triathlon days are over; Bill now describes his former days as an Ironman obsessive as his "Ironman rut," maintaining that only the wimpier athletes compete in the same races over and over again.

Bill doesn't care about competition, and he also doesn't care too much about time. His last 199-mile race with 1.2-mile swim under the Golden Gate Bridge took him 78 hours and 5 minutes. His goals are obnoxiously ambitious: he plans to swim the English Channel in September and leaves on July 18 to complete a double Badwater Ultramarathon. The double Badwater is a 292-mile race beginning 282 feet below sea level in California's Death Valley up to an elevation of 8360 feet at the trailhead of Mount Whitney—and back.

One might write Bill off as one of those self-righteous athletes who reject the conventions of whatever institution might exist around running. But the origin of his obsession with extreme racing is really about the everyman.

After his local 17-store movie-rental business, Bradley Video, went bankrupt in 2005, Bill says he "lost all confidence in himself." A second divorce at about the same time forced him into a rented apartment trying to continue the family business alone. By that time, "Average Town Bill," a name he often uses to refer to himself, was desperate for change. When a friend asked him to join a 50-mile race in San Jose, Bill accepted the invitation immediately. "All I had left was my life," he says. "There was nothing left to take." He later adds, "Nobody cared whether I finished the race or not."

Finishing that 50-miler gave him the boost he needed to jumpstart his career and passion for ultra-you-name-it, as long as it's grueling. Since then, he's been unstoppable. Injuries? "I don't believe in them," he says flatly. A year-and-a-half-long back injury slowed him slightly when he was first biking, but after a trip to specialists at Stanford, he says that chronic pains will never bring him down again.

"What the mind will do is subtract oxygen from an area in the body that the mind deems vulnerable, a place where you believe you have an injury," he counsels. The key, he says, to conquering muscle pain is to target these areas of stress in the mind, a philosophy he attributes largely to the book Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno.

"When the economy was good," he says, "I was giving it out all the time." Now he recommends the book to everyone he talks to about running.

But a revelation about his brain curing his back has not made his training effortless. Bill balances a full-time sales job with one- to two-hour swimming or running sessions during the weekdays and at least quadruple that effort on weekends. "I try to have really big weekends," he says. He recently did eight hours in the pool one Saturday and six hours of running the next day. To fuel his rigorous training sessions, he eats about 300 calories per hour of training in addition to the standard 2,000 calories per day he maintains when he doesn't work out, although it's hard to fathom when that ever happens.

Bill's racing career is not easy on the pocket. His family electronics company, which allows him generous vacation time, lightly sponsors him; otherwise, he funds his habits with his own money. "I'm spending all my money on these races," he says, "this is my retirement." He hopes to find an avenue in reality television, motivational speeches and the publication of a book he's currently writing. Bill realizes not everyone can pull this off, but believes that playing with the limits of crazy might win him media attention in the near future.

He's got media attention right now and turns his gaze to me. "And you, you're a runner," he pronounces. "You should get a marathon on your list of goals pretty soon." Bill Bradley not only embraces crazy, he projects it onto me: "You have the look of a crazy in your eyes." Apparently, crazy is relative.

He talks about last weekend's trek up Mt. Whitney, a test run for the Badwater. Of course, he reminds, it's a double Badwater he's planning to do. Ignoring physical (his breathing was ragged at mile five of an 11-mile journey to the peak), social (the "best friend" he made at mile eight ditched him after taking one look at a narrow, cable-less pass) and authoritative (15 minutes from the peak, he passed a park ranger who was descending from his post on the top because of a storm) indications that pushing through to the top was perhaps not the most conducive to one's health, Bill finally reached the peak to find two other hikers who were battling the elements and camping out.

"There's always someone crazier than you," he says with a booming laugh that lasts maybe a little too long. Despite what he says and does, Bill keeps his level of craziness in perspective. It makes sense to him, anyway.

Death Valley will welcome Bill with 130 degrees and a painfully bare sky on July 18, the day he plans to start the marathon to end all marathons. Nothing but the open road—he says he has to run on the white line to keep his shoes from melting—and the blinding sun for Bill. But the drive is there, and his motto is simple: "Show up and suffer." He only stops if he thinks he's going to die. Seriously.

"Sometimes I say to myself, 'OK, Bill, let's do a little check here. Is death imminent? No?'" He laughs. "Then I don't quit."

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