Folks from the Bay Area are talking up Alex Varner as this year’s Rob Krar, that is, someone with loads of talent and a short ultra resume who might just nail his Western States 100 as their first 100 miler. Of course, that’s a longshot to happen for anyone, but Alex has a long and impressive running resume and has seen success since he started running ultras in the past year. In the following interview, Alex talks about his running history, how he happened upon trail running and (much) later ultrarunning, and what his goals are, as well as his sneakerhead tendencies.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Alex Varner Pre-2014 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Alex Varner before the 2014 Western States 100. How are you, Alex?
Alex Varner: Good, thanks. How are you?
iRunFar: Alright. This is your first time chatting with iRunFar. So how long have you been running?
Varner: I guess officially fourth grade P.E. [physical education] when they made us run the mile, but I started running cross country in high school.
iRunFar: Freshman fall?
Varner: Yeah, freshman fall. My parents said, “Hey, you were decent in P.E. and you’re not going to play soccer or football, so why don’t you try cross country?” I fell in love with it immediately.
iRunFar: You also had some pretty good training grounds to start out on as a trail runner.
Varner: Yeah, my school was at the foot of Mount Tam on the north side kind of on the other side of Mill Valley from where I live now, but yeah, we were up on there just every day. So I got very spoiled and it was very easy to get pulled in.
iRunFar: I’m assuming you were pretty competitive eventually in the high-school scene?
Varner: Yeah, I was okay. I qualified for State a couple of times. We went as a team for the first time my junior year ever in the history of the school. That was really fun getting to go with a bunch of my friends. For the high school, I went to a tiny high school, so ‘success’ is a relative term there.
iRunFar: You went on to run in college?
Varner: That was a much looser definition of success. I had a couple of big injuries—a stress fracture and a knee surgery. I spent a year abroad. I think I had about three healthy seasons amongst I guess if you count cross country, indoor, and outdoor track—so that would be 12 total in four years—I think I had about three healthy seasons in there.
iRunFar: Where was that?
Varner: Davidson College in North Carolina.
iRunFar: Is that a D-3 school?
Varner: It was actually D-1. Despite having 1,600 kids, it’s D-1. Everything except football is D-1. S0 they just moved into the Atlantic 10, I think, which will be a large challenge.
iRunFar: For a 1,600-person school. So after all the adversity in college, what made you want to continue running competitively afterward?
Varner: I took about a year off after college. I was living in Washington, D.C. I’d run around the monuments on a daily basis just a couple miles. I was pretty burned out from it. Then Dipsea came around the following summer.
iRunFar: You’d moved back?
Varner: I was planning to move back. I was going to go back and run it either way, but I ended up moving back about a month earlier. As soon as I knew I was going to run it, it was, Alright, I need to get in shape for this because this race is not fun to run out of shape. So that kind of got me training again. Then I had a buddy who convinced me to join a local running club based out of Sacramento, so a little ways away, but all the Pacific Association races happen in the Bay Area. So I did one race and thought, This would be a lot more fun if I were faster and fitter, and kind of just jumped back into it.
iRunFar: So it wasn’t the normal progression of working your way up in high school and then in college and being more and more competitive and just continuing on that path. You took some time off and you were excited to run Dipsea.
Varner: Yeah, exactly. It took something that I really needed or really kind of had a deep connection with to pull me back in. I think maybe if it hadn’t been for that race, I probably wouldn’t be back doing what I’m doing now. But luckily it was there and brought me back into it.
iRunFar: How long were you running in that competitive scene for a road and some trail stuff?
Varner: I still am. I did that seriously for, I guess, truly until last summer when I did my first ultra.
iRunFar: How long of a period was that?
Varner: That was 2008 to now, so four or five years. I took down some PRs on the track; I ran my marathon PR last year; got some road PRs. I was getting fitter and fitter. I realized I liked the marathon more than I thought I would. So I figured I would sign up for the Headlands 50k as kind of a… well, it wasn’t planned as a stepping stone, but I just wanted to try it out. I liked trails. Cross country was always more enjoyable than the roads for me. So, yeah, jumped into that and loved it. It was just awesome. It was one of the funnest races I’d ever done. I figured I’d try… I ran a couple more 50k’s and then signed up for Lake Sonoma, and ended up here.
iRunFar: How did Way Too Cool and Lake Sonoma go?
Varner: Cool was great. Cool was a ton of fun. I got to run with Chris Vargo the whole time. I had some stomach issues but that’s racing. It is what it is. Anybody who’s run over probably five miles has dealt with that sort of thing. So, yeah, it went about as well as it could have. The goal was to run fast and we did. Sonoma went really well. Again, it was sort of testing my boundaries. I’d never run more than a 50k, so four hours in I kind of thought, Okay, let’s see what happens. I held it together well enough and got a slot for this race.
iRunFar: What made you want to? Was Bootlegger last November your first… no, Headlands was.
Varner: Headlands was. Bootlegger was my second 50k.
iRunFar: So it’s less than a year that you’ve been running ultras. Why jump up?
Varner: I got the ticket. My original plan for the year was to train for Boston and use that as a stepping stone for mountain-running championships. But the Nike team came together. It turned out five or six of our guys were running Lake Sonoma. I emailed our manager, Pat, and said, “Hey, I’ve got plans for Boston, but what about Lake Sonoma?” He said, “You’re on the trail team. We won’t say no to Lake Sonoma. We’d love to have you there.” So, I said, “Okay, I’ll go to Lake Sonoma.” Yeah, it worked out.
iRunFar: You have some high hopes for this race.
Varner: I don’t know. I think other people have higher hopes than I do. I’ve read some of the previews and a couple people said some nice and flattering things about me. I have very low expectations for myself. I want to finish. I want a silver buckle. That seems doable assuming nothing goes horribly, horribly wrong. I’d like to finish in 20 hours. That’s kind of the initial main goal. But it’s 100 miles and that’s twice as far as I’ve ever run. We’ll get six or seven hours into the race tomorrow and it will be a third of the way through and it will be like, Okay, here we go.
iRunFar: How’s it going to be? You’ve been the fastest person at the Dipsea a couple times. How are you going to control yourself going up this first climb?
Varner: Well, I’ve run the climb once, so I know of it. I’ve found that I race stronger when I go out conservatively and save something for the end. That’s just kind of the race strategy I’ve had. My high-school coach really kind of drilled that into us in high school—if you’re feeling good, don’t use it all up in the first half of the race. I think it’s just going to be a matter of staying mentally disciplined.
iRunFar: So despite all your speed, you’re not going to be the first one to the top?
Varner: I don’t plan on it. If I do something has gone wrong and please stop me. No, that’s not the plan. I think it’s to stay comfortable until 50 miles in and then from what I’ve heard is, if you can really start moving in those last 40 miles, those last 20 miles especially, then that’s where the race is kind of determined.
iRunFar: You have so many strong runners with you in the Bay Area, or in Marin specifically. Are you going to key off any of those with more experience for the first section?
Varner: I’ll be looking at Dylan [Bowman] and Ian [Sharman] and Jorge [Maravilla], Brett [Rivers] as well. Gary Gellin is coming out; Topher Gaylord. Matt Laye is not starting now which is a huge bummer. Get better soon, Matt. So, yeah, I’m going to be keying off of those guys. I’ve run probably more with Dylan and Matt than I have with any of those other guys, so I’ll be looking at Dylan. He’s placed really well here the last couple years; he knows what he’s doing. I’ll be keeping an eye on him.
iRunFar: Is it something where if you’re ahead of Dylan and Jorge at 20 miles in is it going to be like, Simmer down.
Varner: Well, I’ll take that into account, but it’s also going to be how I’m feeling. If I’m feeling super relaxed and easy, then why not go with it? It’s a matter of balancing how freaked out I am if I’m in front of people versus how I feel inside. It’s going to be an interesting time finding that.
iRunFar: What are you most scared of? What worries you the most about tackling Western States this weekend?
Varner: I think just hearing so many stories of carnage that happens later on about people getting to mile 80 of 85 and dropping out there. I was talking with a guy up in Portland and he said he crewed for a buddy here. The guy made it 70 miles and then just walked the last 30. I think Jorge was in a similar situation. That terrifies me. But I want to get to that finish line so it’s kind of to the point where if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.
iRunFar: You’ve accepted that?
Varner: I was reading Matt Laye’s posts leading into this how he was saying, before today when he decided not to do it, he was saying, “I’m going to make it to the finish line. Stay optimistic. Even if it takes hiking two thirds of the race, so be it.”
iRunFar: It’s interesting because there’s been a lot of talk about that from people with maybe a little less experience and a lot of speed background, like a Max King. He’s saying the same thing. He wants a silver buckle. If he gets to Foresthill in eight hours or whatever—he didn’t give a time—and you’re leading and you have to end up walking it in…
Varner: Yeah, so be it. I think it’s truly kind of… this is more a test of my limits than anything else. I think it’s easy to hear what other people are saying. You have all the previews going on. But ultimately it’s, Can I live with what I do at the end of the day? It’s the most important thing. For me, it’s go out there and get to the finish line, and if that happens, I’ll be okay.
iRunFar: But surely you dream. What do those dreams look like?
Varner: Absolutely. I don’t know. I mean, seeing what Rob Krar was able to do last year—that was pretty incredible. I kind of keyed off of him at Lake Sonoma. He’s another guy who likes to start out conservatively and really kind of pace himself and then then kick it in at the last bit. I like that style. Top 10 would be freaking fantastic. I think that I’ve put in the work to make it a possibility. But again, it’s going to be 10, 12, 14 hours on my body and on my feet than I’ve ever done before. That’s a big window in which a lot of things can go very, very wrong. Things can also go right, so I’ve got to focus on it. Coming off of Lake Sonoma there was a little bit of a dark patch at the end. Running with Dylan, he’s talking about five-, six-hour dark patches and if I can only limit those dark patches to three hours. I’m sitting there just going, “Oh my gosh, what is that like?” But hearing everybody, they go into these dark places and they come out. I think I’ve got to remember that if, not if but when, I go there, there is another side to this. It will turn around. Hearing some of the Kim [Gaylord] and Topher stories of about Topher coming in and thinking he’s going to drop and all of the sudden 10 miles later, “I’m feeling great! Let’s go!” I’ve got to keep that in mind.
iRunFar: Do you have a crew and pacer or somebody that’s going to tell you, “Alex, you feel like crap right now and you’re going to feel like crap in an hour, but…?”
Varner: Yes, I’ve got my girlfriend, Michelle, coming up to crew for me. She’s never done it before, but she’s kind of in charge of… we’ve spent several hours in the past couple days dealing with logistics and all that. She’s with Chris Vargo and Magdalena Lewy-Boulet who are my pacers. So she’ll be with them. I’m assuming they’ll all work together for the first part. I pick up Vargo at Foresthill and then Magda at Green Gate. They both won Cayuga Trails a couple weeks ago, so they’re no strangers to long, suffering races. So they’ll know what’s going on, and hopefully they can talk me and walk me through it.
iRunFar: Best of luck out there and have fun at your 100-mile debut!
Varner: Thank you very much. We’ll see how it goes!
iRunFar: Bonus question. I seem to recall that you really like shoes. How many pairs of shoes do you have?
Varner: Probably 70 or 80. I’ve sold a bunch.
iRunFar: You have. You’ve pared down to 70 or 80.
Varner: It used to be triple digits.
iRunFar: Some of these are running shoes that you run in, but many of them… what would be the term… sneaker whore?
Varner: Sneaker head, I guess. Sneaker whore, however you want to go. For awhile I had 20 pairs of track spikes. I run one track race a year and I realized I should get rid of some of these, so I did.
iRunFar: What is your favorite pair of shoes that you don’t run in on a regular basis?
Varner: I’ve got a pair of Flyknit woven Chukkas that I got a couple years ago from a Tier Zero Nike store in Berkley. They’re multicolored woven and I get crazy amounts of comments on them when I wear them. So I’m a huge fan of those.
iRunFar: And you buy different shoes like colorways from other countries?
Varner: Yes, I’ve done that. Yeah. I’m not above it.
iRunFar: You like your shoes.
Varner: I do. I know what I want.
iRunFar: It’s going to be the Kigers this weekend?
Varner: Yeah, it will be a different version but a variation of the Kiger.
iRunFar: One that’s going to possibly coming out? Version two?
Varner: Yes. That’s probably the best way to put it. They’re still making some tweaks, but it will probably be as close to that as it can be—not like the enormous spikes that Ryan and David got for their, what was it, Mount Baker ascent. Did you see those?
iRunFar: I haven’t seen those, but I’ll have to check them out.
Varner: They have these and then three-inch long spikes.
iRunFar: Three-inch long spikes?
Varner: Yeah, there were two little pods of spikes for the snow. It was awesome. The spikes were [demos with hand].
iRunFar: If you could make any shoe—if you had the Nike design team…
Varner: All the molds and everything?
iRunFar: What would the shoe look like? What would it be?
Varner: The Kiger is probably about as good as I’d come up with for trail shoes.
iRunFar: But it doesn’t have to be trail shoes. It could be a three-inch spike.
Varner: Practicality, it would be a Kiger. Otherwise I’d probably want something along the lines of maybe a Jasari upper on the Kennedy plate would be nice for a track spike.
iRunFar: Going classic. The Jasari—hello 1998?
Varner: Yeah. I got a pair of those on eBay for entirely too much money a while back and ran in them a couple times and realized, I’m not running in these enough. I want someone to own these who is going to wear them.
iRunFar: So you sold the Jisari?
Varner: I’ve bought and sold… and four pairs of Kennedy’s.
iRunFar: But you keep those?
Varner: No, I just sold off my last pair. It was hard.
iRunFar: Well, you’ve got a good pipeline of good shoes coming your way, so not too many tears.
Varner: We’ll see. Exactly, yeah, exactly.
iRunFar: I ran in these last year or a version of these. They got a little small towards the end in my normal size.
Varner: I think that will happen.
iRunFar: I’m glad I’m looking at the camera because I can see what it’s doing right now. Do you see what it’s doing?
Varner: The white bar jumping?
iRunFar: It’s tilting up.
Varner: Oh, it is. You’re right.
iRunFar: There’s no camera man in my interviews, and it’s happened once in 300 interviews and I didn’t catch it.