Raising the Power Bar: The Brian Maxwell story

Dan Hill's first-person account of the life of world-class Canadian marathoner and PowerBar founder Brian Maxwell.

Canadian Brian Maxwell, ranked third in the world in marathon running in 1977, completed the final run of his life one morning in March 2004. From his sprawling Bay Area mansion in California, his running route was winding and hilly-demanding by ordinary standards for any 50-something man to walk, much less run. Brian’s plan was to mail a package at the post office along the way. He’d always regarded time as a precious, non-renewable resource, jamming the “multi” into “tasking” long before the term came into fashion. Brian figured that he could drop off a package and squeeze in a round-trip run, all in the same carefully calibrated time frame. But his run would conclude 3k later, along with his extraordinary life.

Shortly before leaving home for the last time, Brian did something out of character: he asked his wife, Jenny, to spend some “alone time” with him. While a devoted husband and a loving father to his six children, Brian was generally guarded-anything but clingy. Yet on his final morning, he appeared to let go of his stiff-upper-lipped British upbringing and his unceasing drive to conquer. Could he have had some unconscious inkling of what little time he had left?

Less than an hour after leaving Jenny, while waiting in line with his package in hand, Brian simply fell to the ground. Game over, race finished. Brian, at 51, died as he lived-dramatically, unexpectedly and on his own terms.

In the afterflame of Brian’s burnout was a legacy that was almost incomprehensible in scale. After retiring from a celebrated career in competitive running, he had gone on to invent the PowerBar, a high-energy sports nutritional bar that by the year 2000 generated $150 million in annual sales. Incredibly, Brian had considered this entrepreneurial success something of an “encore,” a second act on the heels of his greatest personal triumph: qualifying for the Canadian Olympic marathon team in 1980.


Following Brian’s death, the usual knee-jerk articles appeared about the alleged dangers of long-distance running and the correlation between marathon training and heart attacks. But the truth in Brian’s case was this: he was born with a defective heart valve. The problem was undiscovered until he was well into middle age, but even then he was advised by his doctors to continue exercising, provided he didn’t push his workouts to the extreme. Extreme. How does one define that word? And how does a person whose entire life was the embodiment of “extreme” begin to live cautiously? While a congenital heart condition may have led to his death, his passion for exercise likely extended his life.

I was holidaying in St. Lucia with my family when I received the phone call. March 19, 2004-one of my oldest, most inspiring friends was gone. He’d been a fixture in my life for 35 years, larger than life, seemingly invulnerable. The news of his passing struck me as surreal. Still reeling from the recent death of my father, I felt the loss of my childhood friend in waves. They washed over me gently at first, as my defences kicked in to absorb the reality. They hit me full force only months later, while out on a 10-mile run. On a route I’d hot-footed countless times with Brian, I suddenly remembered a trick he’d taught me: how to relax while kicking up the pace. That’s when I started sobbing. I could almost hear him next to me: “Keep your arms low, let your pinky finger graze your thumb-it’ll trick your body into easing up. Hey, watch the feet! Stay light, don’t clomp …”

As Brian’s advice spun through my brain, I flashed back to the last time I’d seen him, the previous summer. We’d been sitting on a restaurant’s outdoor patio, taking in a perfect Toronto night.

“How are you doing with your diabetes?” Brian had asked, his intense brown eyes burning into me.

“It’s under control. Fifty-plus miles of running each week really burns through my blood sugar,” I answered, my tough-guy act modelled on Brian’s own. Brian could pick out one of my bluffs almost instantly, so I decided to come clean. “Watching my father endure diabetes, all those amputations, really shook me up. So I’m working out now as much as you and I did when we were kids, sprinting up those ski hills in Don Mills.”

It was typical of Brian to ask about my well-being, while revealing nothing about his own, but he was uncharacteristically candid that evening. Without prompting, he started talking about his defective heart. “If I get a valve transplant, I have a one per cent chance of dying during the operation. If I don’t get the transplant, I also have a one percent chance of dying.” Brian’s tone was matter-of-fact, as though predicting the chance of rain during one of our runs. “It’s a no-brainer,” he continued while triple-salting his steak, a habit he embraced for competitive running to keep his sodium levels from dropping. “I’m passing on the operation.”

Silence fell as we dug into our dinners. We’d looked at food the same way for nearly our entire lives: Fuel for running. For recovery after the finish line.

“I’m still running and biking,” Brian said, once he’d vacuumed up his meal-he always ate as though his survival depended on getting calories in pronto. “I just don’t push it.”
I smiled, knowing that Brian running at 50 per cent could beat the pants off me being chased by wild boars. It had been that way since we first met in our early teens, running for Toronto’s Victoria Park Athletic Club (VPAC). Before I joined, I knew only one kid in my junior high school who could outrun me. But the track club included a whole other order of talent, leaving me close to the back of the pack. Brian, on the other hand, demolished the competition. Yet even with his competitors 200m behind, he’d drive himself to exhaustion, collapsing at the finish line to writhe on the ground in agony, violently sucking in oxygen and clutching his stomach, his breakfast usually chucked on the grass beside him.

“Are you OK?” I’d ask, finishing several minutes later, anxiously circling his splayed-out body. “Maybe you should walk around before you stiffen up.”

“Just leave me alone,” Brian would moan. Suffering was a private affair. Sharing his pain would be showing weakness.

Several VPAC runners won scholarships to U.S. colleges; some went on to the Olympics. Among these elite athletes, I had but one dubious and rather embarrassing record-during interval training, my heart rate was the highest.

We were coached by a man who changed the lives of everyone fortunate enough to run under his guidance. Dave Steen, our adopted father figure, had smashed the Canadian record for shot put while attending the University of Oregon in the early ’60s. Twice the British Commonwealth Games shot put champion, Dave was as huge (6’5″, 285 lbs) as Brian was small (5’6″, just under 140 lbs). Yet the two of them were similarly wired. Intensely original thinkers, they questioned everything-from politics to pop culture-the more controversial the better. Charged discussions on every subject ensued, especially during our long drives to track meets.

My younger brother Larry and I would join Coach Dave and Brian in protracted debates, taking turns choosing the subject. We would argue until our voices gave out, smashing our fists on the upholstered seating and waving our arms in the air, as if our frantic gesticulations would hammer home our points. Then we’d change sides-going from, say, pro-life to pro-choice, or from pro-Vietnam War to non-interventionism. It was more about mastering the power of deductive reasoning than establishing which viewpoint was correct. Hell, arguing was just another form of competition, and we lived for competition.

Through my adolescence, the track club served as a metaphor for life. And life is all about pushing yourself, both your brain and your body, to your limits and beyond. Running meant conditioning my mind to deal with pain, forcing myself through that sick sensation that rocked the pit of my stomach, seeping like cement into my legs and spiking my heart rate until its thumping felt like a fist-sized alien in my chest. But I knew from Coach Dave that if I could maximize my running ability, break through my personal and emotional barriers of suffering and fear, I could apply that discipline to anything.

Dave had picked up a wealth of running tips from his training at Oregon under the much-respected Bill Bowerman, who had developed some of the world’s greatest runners, many of whom dominated U.S. track in the ’50s and ’60s. Bowerman’s “hard-easy” training philosophy – an all-out-til-you-drop workout one day followed by a relatively easy one the next – combined with his gut-busting interval running programs, resonated with Dave, who was enthusiastic about testing these ideas on a new generation of athletes.

Brian greedily absorbed Dave’s scientific approach, understanding that training-the right training-was like preparing for an athletic chess game: to win you had to think several moves, or workouts, ahead. He determined the perfect diet, pre- and post-run; the ideal warmup (slow jogging followed by quick strides before racing); the best cool down stretches; and, above all, the necessary mental framework for mowing down competitors. Though unfailingly supportive of his fellow club members, Brian exhibited a disquieting, primal hatred of his opponents come race time. His notorious glare at the starting line intimidated anyone foolish enough to challenge him.

As he matured, Brian would bear an uncanny resemblance to Steve Prefontaine, America’s foremost 5000m runner in the early ’70s. Not only did he share Prefontaine’s height, build and symmetrical features, Brian’s straight sandy-brown hair was similarly parted on the side, flying across or to the back of his head, depending on the wind, as he ran, as if dislocated from his body. And run he did, with a ferocity that vibrated like a force field. Usually at the back after the starter’s pistol rang out, Brian would measure his energy as if it were part of a calculus equation, weighing each stride, picking off stragglers, until he was in the lead. Watching him calmly decimate his competition was as riveting as it was vaguely unsettling.

Our dozen-member track club lasted just six years, but it functioned as a tightly knit family. This harmony was all the more striking because individually we were a wary bunch of loners, outliers and misfits. Never part of the popular crowd, we eschewed high school clubs and were absurdly clueless about girls. We came to life when we ran or shared ideas, discussing our dreams for the future.

Coach Dave was usually with us both on and off the training field, inspiring us to nurture our potential. He wasn’t simply our coach, he was our gateway to navigating the bewildering outside world.. Dave treated my songwriting the same way he treated my running, alternately encouraging and challenging me. When he felt I went for the “easy rhyme” or a predictable chord sequence, he’d call me out. He’d accompany me to my early gigs, coaching me through my performances as though they were another form of racing. At songwriting competitions, I usually snagged the gold. Meanwhile, my teenage brother was writing fiction with the same devotion that I poured into my music. Dave, a Toronto Star staff writer then, edited Larry’s stories, interlacing supportive remarks with sometimes withering criticism.

At the same time, Brian committed more deeply to running. In training harder and smarter than anyone Dave had coached, he reinforced Dave’s edict that without dreams, without purpose, there was no reason to live. So we pursued our individual passions with relentless dedication, Brian shattering provincial track records and Larry writing countless stories, while I composed and performed my songs all over Toronto. Even though the three of us were obnoxiously competitive, because our respective talents fell in such different areas, we didn’t view each other as threats but rather inspired each other. Despite being the journeyman runner, I was always accepted-even if I was invariably the final finisher in our famous Christmastime “dog jogs.” Shrugging off the wintry chill, we’d set off on our undulating 13K runs with more to fear than half-frozen lungs and the constant swoop up and down hills. As we ran, vicious dogs lunged behind us while we jabbed at them with pointed sticks.

The more I ran, the more I discovered how similar running was to singing. Both were all about breathing, about letting go when kicking up the pace or when going for those sustained, operatic notes. Both pursuits revolved around training, building up lung capacity, knowing when to push and when to let the body recover. I gigged and rehearsed, becoming incrementally stronger vocally, not unlike a seasoned runner developing a more efficient stride and a better VO2 Max.

In the evenings after our exhausting runs, we’d all limp back to Dave’s house, where I was usually called upon to perform my latest song. Dave and my running buddies treated me like the next Gordon Lightfoot, asking me questions: How long did it take to write that song? What triggered it? And through it all, the question I posed to myself never changed: if we all kept working hard what at we loved, could our dreams become reality? Might Brian qualify for the Olympic team? Could Larry top the bestseller lists? Would I eventually make it to the American Billboard charts?

In the late ’60s, neither running nor pop singing had woven its way into the cultural mainstream. In fact, long-distance running was considered downright weird. When we’d embark on our two-hour runs, toasty warm in our layers of clothes in the dead of winter, people would jeer, “You’re wasting your time”-this while they froze their asses off on bus-stop benches. As winter gave way to spring, the local toughs would add homophobic insults, cigarettes dangling from their mouths as we flew by in our red VPAC singlets and our dryer-shrunk cotton shorts.

At 17, I was kicked out of the house for refusing to quit a professional rock musical. Convinced that performing in a three-hour show after school each day would hurt my grades, my dad told me to knuckle down on my education and “get my head out of the clouds.” The fact that my theatrical uniform consisted of a peek-a-boo pink loincloth, a red halter top, see-through stockings and ballet slippers might also have had something to do with it. I knew that skipping a paying gig might mean missing out on the exposure I needed to realize my ultimate dream, but Dad, a black, PhD-wielding scholar, believed education was the only chance for his bi-racial son to transcend the barriers of racism and find success. We both backed into our ego-inflated corners, unwilling to compromise. The summer before Grade 12, I packed my belongings into a pillowcase, scooped up my guitar and prepared to move into the local YMCA.

When I told Brian I was being turfed out, he said simply, “You can move in with us.” And just like that, I was living with the Maxwells. English immigrants, Bill and Phyllis Maxwell had arrived in Canada in 1956, with two young children and little money. Their story, not unlike my own parents’, was the classic tale of carving out a new life through hard work, frugality and slow but steady advancement. Something about my determination to be a musician resonated with them. They quickly grasped the similarity between my grit and drive and Brian’s and treated me like one of the family.

Bill Maxwell, impressed that I’d restrung his neglected Gibson guitar, mistook my rudimentary repair skills as a sign of musical genius. Phyllis Maxwell packed lunches befitting an Olympian for me every day. Many times I’d bring my guitar to the breakfast table, my sad songs making Mrs. Maxwell cry while an unnerved Mr. Maxwell begged me to write happier tunes. Then Brian would drag me out for a punishing run for claiming too much family attention.

It was absolute torture running with Brian, unless it was during one of his recovery days; even then, the runs would be brutal, and often spiked with drama. When a car would back out of a driveway and block the sidewalk, Brian would leap onto the trunk-ker-bang!-and then spring off, using the vehicle like a barrier in a steeplechase run. The driver would jump out in futile pursuit and I’d have to convince Brian to keep running. Fiery-tempered Brian would be so revved up on adrenaline that he’d happily exchange fisticuffs with some doughy, uptight “suit” moaning about his precious feet-indented Buick.

While Brian casually sprinted ahead, I thrashed and heaved to catch up. “Mom may go gaga over your singing,” he cautioned me, “but you know what she told me after my last marathon? ‘We drove all this way to watch you place third?’ I’m puking on the grass after my race and my mom’s complaining about how I let her down.” His parents weren’t so different from mine, I thought.

My summer of ’71 flew by in a blur of long-distance runs, coffeehouse gigs, theatrical performances and day jobs. Despite their modest means, the Maxwells refused my offers to pay rent, even though I had regular cash-paying gigs and was working full time at the Ontario civil service. “I have plenty of money,” I’d protest, waving a fistful of bills. “Then use that money to get a haircut,” Mrs. Maxwell would laugh, before offering to cut it herself, playfully chasing me around the house with a pair of scissors.

Despite our academic studies, Brian’s demanding running schedule and his hours spent searching for the perfect runner’s diet, the two of us always found time to talk about music. At night, I’d play him my songs, and he’d offer insightful encouragement, telling me which of my songs hit home and which ones didn’t. “Don’t be scared by people calling you a romantic songwriter,” Brian would say. “That’s what you are. Who you are. That’s what makes you special.” On my rare occasions of self-doubt, he’d remind me that we were both destined to succeed. That we were too good, too disciplined and too smart to fail.

At 18, Brian was preparing to go to Berkeley on a track scholarship. Dave Maggard, then athletic director of the California campus, was a former shot put rival of Dave Steen’s. With Dave’s letter of recommendation calling Brian the next Prefontaine, Berkeley opened its doors.

Just as Brian departed, I signed my first major recording contract with RCA Records. I had barely entered my last year of high school. Dad had recently done an about-face, overlooking my extra-curricular activities, demanding I return home. As for my RCA contract, Dad harrumphed upon scanning the fine print, “This isn’t a contract, this is a prison sentence.” But I didn’t care; I just wanted to bang out records that people would sing around the world.

While recording with RCA in 1972, I wrote a song a day. I performed in every club and broken-down bar in the city, taking Christmas off to hitchhike to northern California to visit Brian. After a Canada vs. America drinking contest with his roommate (I represented my nation poorly), we decided to return home for the holidays. En route to Toronto on standby tickets, we got stuck in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for three days. Broke and hungry, we took turns sleeping on the floor while the other guarded our possessions. To break the boredom and to stay fit, we ran laps of the terminal. Finally seated at the back of a Toronto-bound flight, we snickered at the first-class passengers, agreeing that if the plane crashed, we would be the only survivors. We felt invulnerable, suffused with life and swagger. We thought we would live forever.

Our lives continued in parallel over the next several years. In 1975, my first Canadian single became a hit and my debut album was released internationally. Meanwhile, Brian was recognized as an outstanding student and athlete, winning Berkeley’s prestigious Brutus Hamilton Award. When my eponymous debut record went gold in Canada and my second album, Hold On, became an international success, Brian was graduating from Berkeley’s renowned school of architecture and racking up truckloads of athletic trophies. In 1977, I cut “Sometimes When We Touch,” which I co-wrote with the legendary songwriter Barry Mann. It soared to No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard Top 100. That same year, Brian ranked No. 3 in the world in the marathon, running a PB of 2:14:43.

“Number three in the world,” we’d joke. “We’ve gotta kick up our game!” I pledged to come back with a No. 1 single and Brian vowed to break world records. Although “Sometimes” did go on to hit No. 1 around the world-and would eventually become one of the most played and covered pop songs of all time-by 1980 my career was a shambles. Derailed by cliché rock ‘n’ roll excesses and a record company about to go bankrupt, I was written off by the media as a one-hit wonder, a has-been at age 25. I’d already made and blown my first million and was being sued for twice that amount by my former production company (we settled) and for half a million dollars by the IRS (who eventually dropped their case). And Brian, who had qualified for the Canadian Olympic team, was crushed when Canada joined the U.S.-led Olympic boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games.

Broken-hearted but not broken, we got together over the Christmas holidays and ran from my house, on the edge of Lake Ontario, to our parents’ respective homes in Don Mills. It’s a tough, uphill 11km run, and we pressed hard against a biting winter wind. Dodging icy patches and uneven snow, we pledged to never give up: I would pick up the pieces of my shattered career and write more hits, and Brian would train harder than ever and dominate the ’84 Olympic marathon in L.A.

Alas, Brian endured a succession of injuries as his body rebelled against too many joint-crushing marathons in too short a time-the price of corporate sponsorship in the ’80s. He turned to coaching at his alma mater, helping four of his athletes become NCAA Division All-Americans in cross-country and track and field. Supplementing his income by working in a chiropractic office, Brian lived parsimoniously. While he found purpose in helping athletes heal their injuries, in his darker moments he’d ruminate that he’d sacrificed his life to running.

Like Brian, I was feeling my own brand of burnout. Despite making inroads as a songwriter, co-writing the international R&B hit “In Your Eyes” for George Benson and singing the title song to Sylvester Stallone’s landmark “Rambo” movie, First Blood, I watched a new crop of singer-songwriters-Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Tom Cochrane-take over Canadian pop. At the same time, Brian was watching Canada’s Jerome Drayton and America’s Bill Rodgers steal the marathon spotlight.

But as the late ’80s came upon us, we both regrouped.

“What in the world are you doing? Feeding the entire neighbourhood?” I asked upon arriving in Brian’s Berkeley apartment. Humungous vats occupied every inch of his living room, virtually overflowing with what looked like grossly discoloured pancake batter.

“I’m creating the perfect energy bar, to help athletes survive long-distance events without running out of glycogen.” (Jennifer Biddulph, Brian’s future wife, a formidable runner in her own right, had minored in nutrition. The two of them, similarly determined, proved an unbeatable combination.) Knowing that Brian always had one or more projects going, I assumed his energy-bar concoctions would soon be replaced by another idea.

Getting my career back on track, I signed with Columbia Records in 1986. I released five consecutive Top 5 Adult Contemporary (AC) singles in the United States over the next few years, including “Can’t We Try,” Billboard’s #1 AC Record of the Year in ’87. Meanwhile, in the mid-to-late ’80s, Brian found financial backers (his parents among them) and his business gained momentum. He contacted a candy factory in his neighbourhood and persuaded them to let him use their facilities on nights and weekends, transforming his vats of high-energy sludge into a hyper-nutritious snack bar. Convinced of their impending success, Brian and Jenny turned up at every race in northern California and beyond, handing out free, unlabelled, unwrapped bars to athletes. Affixed to each bar was a comment sheet, so people could provide feedback.

As their product slowly gained popularity, Brian purchased a van on which he stencilled the number 7 (to give the impression he had a fleet at his disposal.) His reputation as a marathon champion gave his PowerBar credibility, and high-profile athletes started endorsing it.

As Brian’s little business grew, my own credibility as a seasoned singer-songwriter found traction. I began to place my songs with performers such as Rod Stewart, Michael Bolton, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire. But it was Celine Dion’s recording of my song “Seduces Me” on Falling Into You that proved my once-in-a-lifetime break. The album sold more than 35 million copies, landing me-along with Celine and her other producers-a Grammy for Record of the Year. This success established me as a serious international songwriter-for-hire, the way that “Sometimes When We Touch” had galvanized my vocal career 20 years earlier.

South of the border, Brian also struck gold. The world-class cyclist Greg LeMond used PowerBar during one of his Tour de France victories and suddenly Brian’s product was in every athlete’s pocket. Janet Jackson took a supply of PowerBars on tour, making it as popular for singers as for marathoners. When Sylvester Stallone consumed a bar during a key movie scene, the tipping point was reached. Like a song played on every radio station, PowerBar became ubiquitous. Brian and Jennifer had launched an entire industry in energy bars, one that would shortly earn them a buyout from Nestlé worth nearly a half a billion dollars.

But the real test of a person’s character comes after a breakthrough, a lottery win or a game-clinching home run. Along with the crazy amounts of money and fame comes hellish pressure-everybody wants something: friendship, mentorship, a favour, a loan, donations to countless causes. Brian, amazingly, remained grounded. Indeed, his passion for life, his competitive fire, became all the more palpable. At college basketball games, he’d spend the whole three hours on his feet, yelling at the players, challenging the referee, arguing vehemently when anyone disagreed with his take on a particular play. In a sense there were two Brians: the introspective, analytical thinker and the spitfire warrior who sprang forth in competition.

Underscoring Brian’s dynamism came a deep sense of generosity that often slipped under the radar. He took many people under his wing, sharing his preternatural understanding of business and athletics quietly, avoiding fanfare. If he believed in certain individuals and their ideas, he would mentor them just as Dave Steen had mentored him. He sat on the boards of several startup companies, while coaching kids’ swim teams, basketball teams and soccer clubs. Throughout it all, he remained a stalwart support to his family.

A day doesn’t pass that Brian doesn’t inspire me. During a run, when I feel my energy fading, I can hear him urging me on. In that way, he’s like my father, the other central figure in my life. When my singing voice feels like it’s giving out, after three straight hours of performing, or when a diva demands that I rewrite a song for the umpteenth time, I find inspiration in remembering my dad’s galvanizing speeches on human rights. Or I think again of Brian, suffering from heat stroke as he gunned for the Canadian 10,000m record, and I dig in a little more.

I have yet to go on a run since Brian died where he doesn’t cross my mind, where I don’t feel him in my stride. I imagine him in a better place, urging me to aim for the stars and beyond. Brian set the bar pretty damned high, which is both wonderful and daunting-it makes me realize I can always learn, grow, improve. I still can’t fathom how, despite a heart defect, he once ranked third in his sport worldwide. Brian’s resourcefulness, toughness and independence of spirit sends a message to all of us: that we can rise above whatever roadblocks we face – whether they be disadvantages we are born with or impediments we encounter – and still rock the world, and leave our mark.

Dan Hill’s latest album, Intimate, features his first new material in more than a decade. He is also the author of I Am My Father’s Son: A Memoir of Love and Forgiveness.

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