Getting Busy: An Interview With Chris Vargo
If his recent performance at the Way To Cool 50k is any indication, 2014 could be a bonanza year for Chris Vargo who is currently based in Colorado but planning a move to Flagstaff, Arizona. From battling the booze to battling for the win bonus, it’s been a wild ride for the new Nike Trail Team athlete. I chatted with Chris about his blurred past and bright future.
iRunFar: Chris, congrats your recent Way To Cool 50k win. You crushed it! As far as results go, is that up there with your best so far?
Chris Vargo: Yeah, it is. I got second to Max King there last year. One of my Nike teammates, Alex Varner, was running this year, too. We knew it would be one of us who was going to win and we literally ran 31 miles together. I outkicked him with about 200 meters to go.
iRunFar: That must have been a good feeling!?
Vargo: Yeah, he’s the US[ATF] 50k [Trail] Champion, so he has wheels! I dropped at Sean O’Brien at the beginning of February, I was sick going into that, so at this race it was good to feel good—I felt strong. Now, rolling into Lake Sonoma, I think I can do well there.
iRunFar: You mentioned online that you felt amazing straight after the race, that your recovery was excellent. What do you think changed or have you tried something different to get that effect?
Vargo: I think I’m just getting more and more fit. With each race, the fitness just gets better and better and better. I’ve been better about my nutrition after races, too—it’s very hard for me to eat for like a day after a race. Now I force myself to take something in. If I can’t eat anything, I’ll drink protein drinks and Hammer Recoverite… just as long as I can get calories in, that makes a big difference. I woke up the next day [after the WTC 50k] and I was like, ‘Holy shit man, I feel good!’ I had a bit of DOMS, the delayed onset muscle soreness[, for one day.]
iRunFar: Maybe your new shoes have something to do with it?
Vargo: [laughs] I’m fortunate enough that I can run in just about anything. As long as it’s not posted or super stable. Having said that, the new shoes have been working out really well. I was originally running in a lot of Adidas stuff, like the Adidas Adios—that thing is badass—but I had run with the Nike Kiger because I work in a running store so our rep gave me a pair and I ran a bit in that. So when [Nike] contacted me, I was like, ‘Shit, yeah man, I can run in that shoe!’ At the Way To Cool race, it was really muddy and Alex and I were fine in the Kiger. I was also surprised with how well they dried off—super quick.
iRunFar: Sweet. So, Nike, how did that happen?
Vargo: It’s funny actually. I raced well last year and, like I said, I was always running in Adidas stuff. There was a rep here and he just hands off all Adidas stuff to me. So I was kinda’ supporting him and everybody just thought I was running for Adidas. So when Sally [McRae] got signed to Nike, I was super pumped for her but I was also like, ‘Shit man, why isn’t anyone signing me?’ Sally’s amazing and has had some incredible results and is an amazing ambassador for the sport—anyone would be super happy to have her. So she gets signed and she contacts our manager, Pat, and is like, ‘Do you know who Chris Vargo is?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s running for Adidas, right?’ So she told them no and he put something together. He thought that the contract was going to be lame for me, so he was a little apprehensive about giving it to me. In reality they could have just given me free shoes and travel and I would have been fine! It’s just such a grassroots thing that they’re doing. It’s going to turn into something pretty big but I think they’re doing it right. They’re not just coming in like, ‘Hey, we’re Nike, we’re going to take shit over!’ They’re taking the backseat to us and are letting us go out there and promote it.
iRunFar: It’s interesting what you said there, Chris, that Nike is doing it the right way. Seems like there’s a genuine camaraderie on the team?
Vargo: Yeah, it’s been great. We shoot a lot of tweets and Facebook messages back and forth. I’ve raced with a couple of the guys before but never chatted with them. It was cool meeting Alex [Varner]. It’s funny when you think someone’s going to be a certain way and they turn out completely different… he’s a lot like me, we shared a lot of the same jokes and things like that and we instantly had this cool bond with each other. Then running with him was awesome, too. I think we’re all looking out for each other as well. We’re all super supportive and it’s turned into a really good group of people—a decent-size, legit team. Alicia Shay has just joined too, so that’s really cool to get her on board, you know, because the women’s trail scene is just as important as the men’s. I’m looking forward to Lake Sonoma when I think their will be six of us racing… it’s going to be solid. If you want to come in and dominate something, I think results is a positive way of doing that. Lake Sonoma is stacked, so who knows…
iRunFar: It certainly is the rise of the teams, it seems. Do you feel it’s good for the sport? It seems like it’s pushing you guys on to lay down more and more amazing performances with the depth of talent that’s involved these days?
Vargo: Yeah, you notice the trend with mountain running now is not to just go out training and run big, easy miles with tons of vert. Now it’s like specific training. I think if you want to be fast, you have to be pretty specific with your training. I think people are starting to ‘get’ that side. I was surprised too, at Way to Cool, there were 1,100 people that raced—it’s a big 50k—afterwards we had a little Nike tent set up and we we’re hanging out in there and there were tons of people coming by and chatting with us. It’s been cool. We’re trying to make our presence known and be like, ‘Come up and chat with us!’ This is turning into something pretty cool, I think. I’m happy to be a part of it.
iRunFar: Can you tell me a little about where you grew up, Chris?
Vargo: I was born in Indiana… so I’m a Hoosier! I went to school there, Indiana University. That’s when I raced bikes.
iRunFar: You also swam, too?
Vargo: Yeah, to an extent. Most of my friends who swam in college were big dudes… I wasn’t built for it. It’s funny, I was a sprinter, too, and I’m only like 5’9”. I’m not a big guy. I did weigh more when I was a swimmer, though. I was around 155 pounds and now I’m 135 pounds. But, yeah, back then it was swimming and baseball, those were my two sports that I always played. Then I got into cycling before college, right through college, and then post-college. Then I took a break from everything when I had my problem with alcohol.
iRunFar: I was going to ask you about that, Chris. How bad was that? What kind of level was your drinking at?
Vargo: Bad, like I should be dead. It was full on alcoholism…
iRunFar: But you were still doing sports at the same time, at least for a while?
Vargo: I ran pretty well actually. I’d moved to California for a chick in 2010, I think it was, and that’s when it started getting bad because she was just as bad, too—we kind of fed off each other. Then she left and I got really, really bad. You know, I was drinking in the morning, drinking throughout the day, going to work and drinking, I’d run after drinking. I actually raced and ran pretty well when I was drinking, too… it was weird. So then one day I woke up and felt sorry for myself and that’s when I stopped drinking—two years ago.
iRunFar: You knew that you were an alcoholic and had to stop?
Vargo: Yeah. I [had] tried to quit drinking, like 10 times. I’d go to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] and stuff so I knew I had a problem. In college it’s accepted because you wake up on Saturday morning and you go tailgate at a football game—you’re taking shots at 6.30 a.m. It’s accepted alcoholism. I went to a really big party school and then some people after that kept going—they’d graduate from college and keep going and going with the partying and the drinking. That’s one of the reasons why I quit cycling—I was a good cyclist but I wanted to party a little bit more. That’s one of the biggest regrets I have because I could have gone on to be a decent domestic pro. I was getting strong, I was racing well, and I had some good opportunities, but I jacked those up. I lived in this regret for a really long period of time and once you get so out of shape and you’re in this hole… you just stop.
But I ended up working in a running store in Sacramento and it got me going again. So I woke up that morning, felt really sorry for myself, and that’s when I quit drinking. I used to chew tobacco too, and I stopped that that morning as well! There were three days where I was on the couch, sweating and convulsing. I was drinking green smoothies, green tea, and trying to eat as much as I could. Once I got past that point, I was like, ‘Alright, I need to be honest.’ I opened up to my employers, Fleet Feet Sacramento, about it because I used to miss work. I told them and they were just so supportive of me. I owe them a lot. The same for all my friends and my family. For me, it was an easy year of transition because I have that support group. I know people out there that don’t have that and it’d be so hard to break that habit.
iRunFar: Do you think that you’ve always had an addictive personality, Chris?
Vargo: Oh yeah, for sure!
iRunFar: Is running your newest addiction?
Vargo: It is, yeah. I owe running my life, you know. On a daily basis, I have a fix that I need to meet somehow. I get it from drinking green tea, too—it has enough caffeine in it to make it feel like it’s waking me up. I have to be busy all day, too. There’s times where I will chill out on the couch and watch a documentary but if I get into a really bored state of mind I have to do something. I’ll take the dog hiking or something… I’ll just have to get outside and do something. So there’s always a fix that needs to be met, every day of my life. Me being public about it has been great, too. It holds everybody else accountable for me. [laughs] My friends have been super cool. If you’re a new guy that comes into our group and you’re giving me shit about not drinking, you’re gone! [laughs] I can go to a wedding now and not drink and still have fun, so I’m so far past that point that I’ll never go back to it.
iRunFar: It’s so cool to hear that you came out the other side and are now doing so well, Chris. It’s obviously opened up this whole new world of trail running at an elite level to you, too. And your clean years have seen you really step it up. You’re getting faster right!?
Vargo: Yeah, this is my second year running ultras and it’s been getting better and better each month. I started that success when I quit drinking. I signed up with Ian Torrence [as a coach] and was open with him about what was going on. He’s been training my ass off and keeping me in check. You know, I have some other mentors on the side who are fellow recovering alcoholics that bust my balls on a daily basis. [laughs] A lot of them are AA guys and they really push me to go to AA but it’s really not my style—I’m not a very spiritual person and it’s based on that so it’s hard for me.
iRunFar: I think the most important thing is that you found your own way of dealing with it. It’s working for you. So how was your progression after you quit the booze? Was it a sudden improvement, like the shackles had been taken off?
Vargo: It helped dramatically. I could even notice my muscle tone and stuff was getting better. I used to go on these binges that were like two weeks long, and then I’d stop and be like, ‘I’m going to train!’ And [then I would] run well but then I’d go right back to the binging again. So there’s a huge difference, my body just feels amazing. I used to get hangovers that were just horrible. I felt like the world was going to end. [laughs] I don’t want to go back to feeling like that ever again, so I just have to get up in the morning and run, man.
iRunFar: Were you running mainly roads at the start?
Vargo: I hopped on the roads a little bit. I’d like to run another marathon right now—I think I could run sub 2:18 or 2:19 now…
iRunFar: You were supposed to run Chicago Marathon last year, weren’t you?
Vargo: Yeah I was, that’s right. I came down with an Achilles injury in the summer. It was actually a blessing in disguise because my last race was in June. Then I just trained and trained and hopped back into running and Ian decided it would probably best to just wait until the TNF 50 to race. So I had that long period of time where I built this great base going into that and it worked out pretty well for me. [He finished third.] But, yeah, my marathon PR is pretty light. I’ve run a 1:08 half marathon, and that was when I was drinking, too! My marathon PR is a 2:31, which is super soft. At Way To Cool, we through the marathon in like 2:43 or something and that’s with trail, mud, and water. I like to race against guys that are faster than I am because it makes me that much faster, too. I don’t think you can reach that potential unless you race the Rob Krars or Sage Canadays or Kilian [Jornet]s or those guys. When I was living in California, everyone runs trails out there. They got me into that. I started running decently well and I always wanted to be a professional athlete so I was like, ‘Maybe this is my chance to do that?’ So I moved to Colorado—I wanted to be at altitude, have trails out my backdoor. It was one of the best moves I’ve done. I’m actually going to move to Flagstaff and get up a little bit higher. My house sits at 6,100 feet and Flagstaff is at 7,00o feet.
iRunFar: Cool. Have you noticed a big difference aerobically with living at that altitude?
Vargo: I think it makes a huge difference. My breathing is never really hindered normally when I’m running. Here, every run I go on starts going up, so you can feel it everyday. One of the downsides of altitude is speedwork—it’s hard to hit those tempo times, track times. So Ian has me doing more fartlek-type stuff like three or four minutes on, two minutes off kind of stuff. That helps to offset that altitude.
iRunFar: Great. So you’ve been focusing on 50 miles and shorter trails so far, Chris. Is that your plan for this year, too?
Vargo: 100k will be my longest this year, UROC. I’m going to pace Sally [McRae] at Western States and my plan is to get a real good lay of the land. I’ve gone there and watched the race before but I haven’t helped crew or pace anyone. You can pace for the last 38 miles, I believe, so you get a good idea of the race. Then come back and race it next year. One hundred miles, though, it’s a different kind of race! You can run a 50 miler pretty fast… 100 miler you just have to train yourself to run a little slower!
iRunFar: All your races are U.S.-based this year. Have you any plans to get over to Europe and run some races there?
Vargo: I’d like to get over to Europe, but not this year for me. Next year I’d love to race Transvulcania, Tarawera… yeah, the plan is to take this and travel around the world and race.
iRunFar: Sweet. Would you call yourself a full-time athlete now, Chris?
Vargo: It’s starting to turn into that. I just launched my new website—Vargo Running—and I’m going to start coaching—online trail ultra coaching. I figure if I can pick up twenty athletes a month I can go and do whatever I want to do! I’m hoping that this turns into something big and that I race well this year and I’ll see how it pans out. It’s an exciting time to be involved with the sport. It’s like the golden age of trail running. [laughs] It’s cool with the European influences too, like Skyrunning. There are going to be some Vertical Ks over here as well.
iRunFar: Cool. That’s something that you’re into?
Vargo: Yeah, I think a lot of people don’t realise that I’m pretty good on all the techie stuff, too. A lot of people only know me and some of the other Nike guys as fast on not-so-aggressive courses but I love technical, steep stuff and I love descending too so it’ll be cool. You know, Speedgoat, The Rut, the VKs—I think it’s going to showcase what is possible to do here in the States. It should be pretty rad.