By Ben Fogelberg (B.A. ’94, M.A. 98)
Most serious amateur endurance athletes measure their fitness level and accomplishments by a set of universally recognized gold standards. For runners, it’s qualifying for the Boston Marathon. For triathletes, it’s qualifying for the Hawaii Ironman World Championship. Cyclists have less well-known markers for excellence, but completing the grueling 3,000-mile, coast-to-coast Race Across America looms large in the dreams of truly dedicated pedal pushers.
Brad Cooper (’89), CEO of US Corporate Wellness, completed all three—the so-called endurance trifecta—within a five-month span in 2015.
Cooper credits friend, sportscaster, and fellow motivational speaker Jerry Schemmel with the idea that started it all: compete in the Race Across America as a two-person relay team while raising money for an orphanage in Haiti.
Cooper embraced the challenge, in part because it sounded fun and he believed in the cause, and also because it was the right time in his life. “My kids were older—with two in college and the other a runner himself—and my wife was working on a master’s degree.” It also fit the wellness narrative of his educational and career paths.
A Colorado native, Cooper graduated from Bear Creek High School in Lakewood and went to CSU because it was the “natural choice.” An interest in exercise physiology led to a degree in biological science and unforgettable experiences as an athletic trainer. One of the biggest highlights? “Being court-side with legendary basketball coach Boyd “Tiny” Grant,” known for his infectious enthusiasm and for elevating the men’s basketball program to the national stage.
The Fort Collins community left a lasting impression too. He got to know the area by running its trails, especially around Horsetooth Reservoir. “How can you live in that town and not have a healthy lifestyle?”
After graduating in 1989, Cooper went on to earn a master’s degree in physical therapy from the Washington University School of Medicine and then started a successful career in the healthcare industry.
That stage of his professional life ended abruptly in 2007, when he was laid off due to a corporate merger three days before his 40th birthday. While he initially had no idea what the next step would involve, encouragement from his bride, Suzanna, resulted in a completely new plan. He sat down at his kitchen table and sketched out a concept for a new kind of employee wellness company offering personalized, “one size fits one” programs. He launched the company within a month of being let go.
Fast forward nine years to Jerry Schemmel’s Race Across America idea. Cooper’s company, US Corporate Wellness, now had a proven record of improving the lives of employees. Cooper’s background taught him that the human body adapts to what it’s given, regardless of age. And new research showed that implementing small “keystone habits,” such as walking 20 minutes per day, can trigger other positive changes. People eat better, manage stress better, and manage relationships better. Some even stop using credit as much. So the cross-country race wasn’t just a challenge, it was an opportunity to “model the pursuit of the healthy lifestyle that we’re honored to encourage in thousands of individuals across the country.”
The whole thing sounded pretty cool to Cooper, but he wondered, “How can we make it even cooler?” That’s when he decided to try to become the first person to complete the endurance trifecta.
The quest took months of training and meticulous planning. Everything would have to go perfectly in order for it to work.
Six weeks before RAAM, a goose flew into Cooper’s bike while he was riding at top speed. He broke his clavicle and four ribs, fractured his pelvis, and suffered a concussion. The accident derailed his training, but he recovered and was on his bike in Oceanside, California, with Schemmel and their support team on June 21, 2015, for the start of the race.
Cooper and Schemmel rode non-stop across the country, averaging 420 miles per day. They weren’t alone. Seventeen people took care of every logistical detail, from nutrition and hydration to mechanical repairs and tracking the progress of their competitors via GPS. Together, the racers and crew dubbed themselves Team Enduring Hope. “They were amazing,” Cooper recalls. “They worked in shifts, often without sleep. Some helped for a few days while others stayed for the whole journey. Everyone, including my wife, Suzanna, and our three kids, made a ton of sacrifices and kept us going.”
Seven days, 14 hours, and 44 minutes later, Cooper and Schemmel arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, an entire day ahead of their division’s second-place team. In the end, they raised more than $50,000 for the orphanage, a fact that enhanced the post-race euphoria and lessened the pain.
But the pain lasted longer than Cooper anticipated. He had intended to rest a few days and start training for Ironman Florida. However, his legs had adapted so much to the concentric contractions of cycling that they couldn’t switch to the eccentric contractions required by running. His mantra about the body adapting to what it’s given had come back to haunt him.
With time, Cooper found his running legs and was able to train for the November Ironman triathlon. He finished 18th overall, a tremendous feat for a 49-year-old. Even better, he qualified for the Hawaii Ironman World Championship by more than 25 minutes.
Just two weeks later, Cooper ran the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He finished in 2:59:48, again 25 minutes below the Boston Marathon qualifying time for his age group and again in 18th place overall.
Well-known endurance sports writer Matt Fitzgerald, when hearing about Cooper’s quest, noted he “just might be the fittest CEO in the world.” Looking back on the experience, Cooper doesn’t dwell on the achievement as much as the daily effort that went into the training and the support he received from others. “This was my way of living out the message we’re sharing with others.”