Alternately fearful and fearless, Bill Bradley is a study in contradictions.
At 23, he started his own company, Bradley Video, on a credit card and home equity debt. He made a fortune in the video rental business and expanded his empire to ultimately include 11 stores, with three more under construction.
Then Netflix emerged and killed the video store.
Bradley, by then a millionaire with a big house overlooking Bennett Valley Golf Course, fancy cars and a six-figure income, lost everything, including his marriage.
“I was a mess. I was humiliated,” the now 56-year-old said in an interview last week. “My whole identity was wrapped up in those stores. I had the ‘more’ syndrome. I always wanted more, more, more.”
As he wallowed in his misfortune, his sister told him he should take the time to do something he’d always wanted to do. A buddy told him he should run that 50-mile race he’d talked about.
One morning, he woke up at 2 a.m. and decided to do it. He finished the race, despite poison oak on the most unfortunate areas for a runner.
From then on, Bradley said, he had a new identity: “I’m an ultra runner.”
“I’m really good at suffering,” he said, a hearty laugh filling the room. “I was trying to make a mark on people. I didn’t know what it was yet, but I knew that much.”
Since childhood Bradley felt he was destined for a grander purpose. Indeed, he believes everyone is.
He’s decided his purpose is to motivate others, to help them achieve their dreams. He — a middle-age, slightly paunchy, self-professed average athlete — wants to be their inspiration.
“It’s still the best 50-miler I’ve ever run,” he said.
Over the past several years, Bradley has pushed himself to the brink, seeking limits. He knows it makes him tougher. The frostbite, the trench foot, nearly dying on a frozen mountain peak or in ocean whitecaps. He believes he can help other people realize their dreams.
“Don’t quit. People let their subconscious fears rule,” he said.
Bradley had competed in one Ironman, at 36 years old, but his outsized passion to be an extreme endurance athlete didn’t truly start until later.
Now, it consumes his life. He trains multiple hours every day. He has events stacked up well into the future: Climb Mount Denali this summer, climb Mount Everest next year, complete a swim across the English Channel in 2019.
Later this month, Bradley will make his sixth attempt to finish one of the most difficult races in the world, the Arrowhead 135 Ultra marathon in Minnesota. That’s January. In Minnesota. Where temperatures reach minus-40 routinely in mid-winter.
This comes on the heels of his most recent feat: summiting two volcanoes in Mexico, Malinche (14,635 feet) and Iztaccihuatl (17,120 feet) over a period of four days in December.
Bradley climbed both volcanoes not as an end in themselves, but as training for Denali. His effort next year will be his third try at the storied Alaskan peak.
His first attempt came just six months after he tried to swim the English Channel. That target remains just out of Bradley’s reach as well.
In his most recent attempt two years ago, he completed 20 miles between England and France, just a mile short — although the rocky current had pushed him another few miles off course before his effort was stopped for safety precautions.