Bradley Fenner and the Quad Quad Dipsea

AJW's Taproom“Imagine running a super tough 100 miler and then finishing with a Double Dipsea.”

This was the text I received from “Tropical John” Medinger shortly after we learned of Bradley Fenner’s successful “Quad Quad” this past weekend in Northern California. Fenner, 56 years old and from Tiburon, California, spent just over 34 hours last Friday and Saturday running back and forth between Mill Valley and Stinson Beach on the famed Dipsea Trail. In all, Fenner traversed the iconic 7.1-mile stretch of trail 16 times, covering a total of 113.2 miles and climbing almost 37,000 feet.

I first met Bradley Fenner in 2013 when I coached him in his first run at the Western States 100. An accomplished corporate-finance attorney with Sidley Austin LLP in San Francisco, Bradley is always on the move. I recall working with him back in 2013 and marveling at the way he could balance a high-stress work life with focused, consistent training. And, his extraordinary run this past weekend on the Dipsea Trail is testament to that.

The Dipsea Trail itself is the stuff of legend. Home to the Dipsea Race held each summer, this stretch of Northern California trail has just about everything, including steep climbs and descents on the famous Dipsea stairs, the wide-open and windswept grasslands atop Cardiac Hill, and the mysterious forests and creeks of Muir Woods. For decades, the Dipsea has stood as a profound test of a runner’s fitness and fortitude.

Bradley Fenner during his Quad Quad Dipsea outing in California. All photos: Gary Wang

Back in the early 1980s, a young John Medinger, who lived in Mill Valley at the time, was just getting into running trails. In fact, it was an injury that led him to the woods, “I got a hamstring injury training for a road marathon so I just started running trails because I could go slower and still get a good workout.” Around this time, Medinger became part of a loosely organized group of trail runners who would stage unofficial runs every couple of months with different runners hosting each time. When it came time for Medinger to host he knew it had to be on the Dipsea Trail. “I really didn’t know any other trails but I knew the Dipsea so I invited the group to join me and run it four times.” From there, the Quad Dipsea was born.

After that initial fun run with eight runners in 1983, Medinger hosted it again in 1984, this time with 16 runners. From there, the event took off. Medinger decided to make it a real race in 1985 and never looked back. He chose the Saturday after Thanksgiving as the date because it allowed him the opportunity to mark the course and prepare for the race without taking any time off from work. It also ended up having the Quad serve as the unofficial season-ending race on the Bay Area ultramarathon calendar. For the five years I lived in the Bay Area between 2001 and 2005, I ran it every year. It was simultaneously a run, a party, and a homecoming. To this day I would venture to guess that the Quad has more repeat customers than just about any other ultra in the world.

In 2013, Medinger handed over the reins of the Quad to John Catts who also played a role in Fenner’s preparation, as Catts said, “The Quad is not your average 50k, a bit shorter, but a lot harder. Bradley really did his homework, trained on the course, and worked his way up to a Double Quad, before his Quad-Quad attempt. He enlisted a stable of Quad veterans to pace and crew and dialed in his fluids and nutrition.”

So it was, when Bradley Fenner was considering what kind of adventure he could do to close out 2020, that the idea of the Quad Quad emerged from discussions with a friend, Tony Marshall, who was going to attempt the challenge with him.

“I later learned that Bay Area legend Don Lundell did a Quad Quad back in 2003 and that’s the only person I had ever heard of doing it on the official course,” Fenner said, “I had a chance to speak to Don, a mentor from when I first got into this sport, before my attempt and, in true Don form, he gave me great advice, especially about the importance of sensible pacing.”

On some of the stairs that make the Dipsea Trail famous.

It wasn’t until Fenner completed a Double Quad on October 24 in about 15 hours that he committed his mind and his body to the Quad Quad attempt. Living a mere three miles from the trailhead, Fenner committed himself to training as much as he could on the course every weekend between late October and Thanksgiving. Dialing in his nutrition, gear, pole work, and pacing, Fenner was meticulous in his preparation. However, according to Medinger, he was remaining quiet, “I think only about six or seven people knew he was planning to do this before he started.”

With what appeared to be a perfect weather window, Fenner departed from his car parked on the street by Old Mill Park in Mill Valley at 5 a.m. on Friday, December 4 and launched into his first ascent of “the stairs.” Marshall set out, too, but was unfortunately sidelined by stomach issues about 45 miles into the effort.

“I ran my first official ultra at the Quad in 2008 and as I started up those stairs for that first lap I thought about that day and all that has come since.” Fenner’s plan was to average two hours per lap. And while some were a little faster and others were a little slower, he was remarkably consistent with his pacing. “The weather was perfect, and as the day and night wore on people just started showing up. It was really touching and heartwarming.” While Fenner had two dear friends who he truly considers as brothers, Zak Sterling and Jim Lynch, committed to crewing him for the duration, many others came out to crew and pace, including Charlie Ehm, Gary Wang, Olivia Amber, Jon de St. Paer, Corrine Malcolm, Ezra Becker, Devon Yanko, Louis Secreto, Hal Rosenberg, Greg Nacco, and Geoff Vaughan among others. As Bradley notes, “It was like a Dipsea all-star team out there!”

Crew member Zak Sterling walking Bradley back out for his eighth and final out-and-back on the Dipsea Trail.

While Fenner had a rough time goal of 36 hours, he was really just focused on trying to finish by staying consistent and relentlessly moving forward. During the course of his run he didn’t change shoes or socks, never sat down, maintained an incredibly consistent fueling and hydration strategy employing all solid food (no gels, blocks, or sports drinks), and he only changed clothes a few times, transitioning from the day to the night and then back to the day. Asked if he would have done anything different during the run, Bradley replied, “I forgot to do a happy dance after climbing to the top of the Steep Ravine stairs for the eighth and final time.” And, as John Catts said after the run, “Every ultrarunner has a few runs where they feel particularly proud of their performance, and this run should fall into that category for Bradley.”

Toward the end of my interview with Bradley, I finally asked him the all-important why question. Why did he choose to run a Quad Quad? “Well, it was my first ultra–it is my favorite ultra–it occupies a very special place in my heart. It’s in my backyard, I’ve run the Quad Dipsea 11 times, and I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to John Medinger, who I refer to as ‘Emeritus’ for obvious reasons, and John Catts, the current Quad Dipsea race director, for keeping me in the sport.” After a moment of quiet he went on to say, “I really did this to honor Tropical John and John Catts.”

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Bradley Fenner’s Beer of the Week

“Upon finishing my Quad Quad, I asked for a beer and was luckily handed one of my all-time favorites, a Villager IPA by Fort Point Beer Company located in the Presidio in San Francisco. This is the perfect beer to drink, not sip, after a long run. The aroma combines citrus and floral scents supported by some fruit and tropical flavor in the finish. This is a solid offering within Fort Point’s deep roster of beers.”

Call for Comments

  • Did you see or follow Bradley Fenner’s effort last weekend?
  • And, have you run the Quad Dipsea? If so, let us know in the comments.

Bradley speaking with John Medinger on FaceTime right after finishing.

There are 6 comments

  1. Michael Kealy

    For those paying attention and beer connoisseurs, same Beer of the Finish for Alex Varner on his double record/conquest years ago. Coincidence?

  2. Grant Acosta

    “The Quad is not your average 50k, a bit shorter, but a lot harder.” Boy did I find that out the hard way. After finishing the Tahoe Rim Trail 50 miler in July of 2019, with 9000 feet of elevation change, I knew packing roughly the same amount of climbing.descending into 28.4 miles would be tough when I signed up for the 2019 Quad. Sure enough, with blown quads (pun intended), heavy rain, high winds, and temperatures in the 40’s, I hobbled down those infamous 680 steps with frozen hands and cramped muscles swearing that was the toughest trail race I had ever done. Even in fair weather, Fenner’s accomplishment is mindboggling to me!

  3. Jim Lynch

    Bradley’s Quad Quad accomplishment is filed under: “I know he did it, because I saw it with my own eyes. I just don’t know how he did it.”

    One phenomena your article doesn’t capture, and Bradley couldn’t know, is our multiple “Who’s on First?” conversations with locals as we loitered at the Old Mill Park street corner from 4:30 am Friday till late Saturday afternoon. This happened half a dozen times — at all hours — and each went something like this:

    “Is there an event going on?”
    “Kinda. We got a guy doing a Quad Quad Dipsea.”
    “Is that like the Double Dipsea they do in June?”
    “Yes. But more so.”
    “Is a Quad Dipsea . . . is that like . . . four Dipseas?”
    “Yes. Or 2 Double Dipseas, for those scoring at home.”
    “So your friend is doing FOUR Dipseas?”
    “No. Well, actually, yes, but, again, it’s four Quad Dipseas.”
    “What?? He’s doing a Double Quad Dipsea?”
    “No. Well, actually, yes. But a Double Quad is training. Today he’s doing a Quad Quad. Or, if you like, Two Double Quad Dipseas.”
    “Now I’m confused. How many Dipseas is he running?”
    “Sixteen.”
    [Insert brain tilt]. “Whu, wha, emmm, What? Like, lifetime? 16 Dipseas in his life?”
    “No. Well, actually, yes. But in this case, 16 Dipseas since 5 am.”
    “Without stopping?”
    “No, he stops here for water and food. Maybe the way to say it is: ‘without sitting down.'”
    “Fuuuuuuuck.”

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