Brett Rivers traces his ultrarunning start to a bánh mì sandwich. It was 2007 and he’d finished his Vietnamese lunch early enough to wander into a The North Face store in San Francisco, California. “Upstairs, there were tables set up, bibs out, and I was like ‘what is this?'” Rivers had strayed into packet pick-up for the first-ever The North Face Endurance Challenge Championships.
“I was quickly intrigued. They said I could sign up for the 10 kilometer, half marathon, or marathon. I’d been running, but was a not a racer,” he said in declining the offer, while also learning of the then-unthinkable-to-him 50-mile race. “I was really intrigued about who these people were.” Rivers repeats the word “intrigue” a few times, and says he signed up to volunteer the next day at the 47-mile aid station. “It was one of the Matt Carpenter-versus-Uli Steidl years and I was just blown away. I thought about doing it the next year.”
While the bánh mì story is fun, Rivers’s origin story is really about The North Face, and things have incredibly come full circle.
Rivers settled in Silicon Valley for a busy, stressful four-year stint at a technology start-up, and running was both a literal and figurative escape. He came from a family of entrepreneurs, including an uncle in unlikely North Pole, Alaska, and so after years of travel with visits to running stores that left something lacking, he jumped in.
“California has a strong ski, snowboard, and skate culture and the shops are deep into that culture,” and then Rivers rattles off a bunch of Bay Area skate shops. He wanted to model that business plan, and opened the San Francisco Running Company in 2012. The first store opened in Mill Valley and a second outpost came in 2016, each near popular trails on Mount Tamalpais. “We wanted to lead with the brand, culture, and community,” Rivers emphasized, and leans in on the marketing. “We had our own branded shirts and hats, a whole brand kit and brand identity. We printed everything on nice tech tees, but also on comfortable tees that you’d want to wear pre- or post-run.”
The shops became incredibly popular and their branded apparel ships worldwide. Runners are fiercely loyal to the group runs, and runners traveling into San Francisco make pilgrimages to the shop. “The North Face [Endurance Challenge Championships] race week was our busiest week, our most fun week. So many friends coming in to town. We’d have one or two events, a shakeout run, a movie night. That was the race that got me into the sport,” he recognized of the cycle. Rivers was successful in creating the community he sought, and his running came along with that community growth. He was ninth at the 2014 Western States 100. “Well, first is my super-supportive wife and family,” he interjects before I fully point his 2014 success to the stores and community.
And then in July of 2019, Rivers sold the businesses and moved to Louisville, Colorado. “We had three kids in four years,” he deadpanned, pausing for effect. They’re all girls. “It takes a special man to be the father of three girls,” Rivers jokes. “We reached this point in our life where family-wise it was harder and harder to operate the stores as I wanted to. You’re in there late at night, early in the morning, and weekends. I couldn’t give it everything I wanted to.” He goes deeper and introspective. “In entrepreneurship and business, I’m happy when I’m learning. I’m not as fired up just maintaining.”
“And in the bigger picture, raising our girls in the Bay Area, our house was just too small for our family.” Houses are cheaper in Colorado and the family nearly doubled their footprint when moving, and his wife was simultaneously able to transfer her position to Denver. The family has friends in Louisville, and he audibly points to Galen Burrell, Matt Trappe, and their families. There’s Lucky Pie Pizza, Sweet Cow Ice Cream, and a great new shave-ice place too. Rivers just turned 39 and celebrated with an ice-cream cake, and even better, he got to the top of Boulder’s Green Mountain with his seven-year-old daughter. “As the girls get older, there’s amazing stuff around here. We’re going camping outside of Aspen next week. We’ve got bikes and scooters. That’s stuff we couldn’t do living on a hill in Marin.” His mom retired and also moved to Louisville too, to be closer to the grandkids.
He admits he misses that Bay Area running community that he helped build. And where his running was once a stress relief from work, it’s now again an outlet for personal time moreso than for competitive ambitions. To make it a true roundtrip, Rivers now works for The North Face. He has a dual role as a running sales representative for the Rocky Mountain territory, and then is helping to bring a product to market. He’s extra careful in what he says, so I don’t press on the top-secret details. He’s happy at The North Face too, but come on, he seems like a guy who’s always happy. “It feels like a start-up, but with security,” he says of the work. “I’m learning a lot. I was on the dealer side for almost seven years, so it’s fun to be on the brand side now,” and Rivers is able to leverage his earlier experience for success in his current role.
“I’m working with The North Face on this project and 13 or 14 years ago, I started [with this sport] in one of their stores,” he pauses, shaking his head at how the dots have connected.
Call for Comments
Brett Rivers stories, we know you’ve got them! Leave a comment to share your story of running or racing with Brett, of the San Francisco Running Company, and the Rivers family.