Dos and Donuts: Alex Varner’s Journey To The Trails
Alex Varner has been making a bit of splash so far in 2014–his second place at the Way Too Cool 50k after battling it out with Chris Vargo for the whole race being an early-season highlight. He then went on to break into the top 10 at Western States in June, finishing seventh at the iconic 100 miler in his first tilt at that distance. I chatted with Alex about growing up in California, his rise through the trail ranks, and his Krispy Kreme Challenge success.
iRunFar: Alex, seventh at Western States in your 100-mile debut—awesome. What did running 100 miles teach you that you didn’t know beforehand?
Alex Varner: Western States taught me a lot about my ability to survive, and even thrive, in the unknown. When I ran the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, it was 19 miles farther than I‘d ever run. I ran my own race and came away very pleased with the result. Western States was twice as far as I’d ever run—the previous longest being Lake Sonoma—and instead of getting worried about what might come in the later stages of the race, at distances that I’d never run, I simply concentrated on the task at hand and took each step as it came. My mindset was just focus on what you can control–eating, drinking, pacing–and the rest will take care of itself. If you let yourself think about the possible scenarios—good and bad—that might play out in the latter stages of a 100 miler, you can really freak yourself out. So concentrating on the task immediately at hand—left, right, left, right—prevented me from getting too far ahead of myself.
iRunFar: You looked pretty fresh from the finish-line photos I’ve seen. Were there any really bad patches for you mentally or physically during the race?
Varner: The toughest mental part was after I’d run a couple of miles with my first pacer, Chris Vargo. I realized that I still had 14 or 15 miles to run with him and then another 20 to run with my second pacer, Magdalena Lewy-Boulet. At that point, it just didn’t seem like I’d ever reach the finish line.
iRunFar: Great. After such an incredible result at your first try, does it change your perception of where you want to take your trail running career?
Varner: I’m not sure yet. I really liked my experience at Western, but 100 miles is a really long way to run at once. My body is still recovering and I’m not sure I like the time that it’s taking to get back on my feet. So while I know that I will continue to run ultras, I may stick to the relatively shorter distances and only run the really long stuff sparingly.
iRunFar: You say you’re still recovering, how did the body feel directly afterward and in the days and weeks since, compared to, say, Lake Sonoma?
Varner: Everything hurt more. My legs were more sore–both muscles and joints. My knees are still bugging me a bit. They hurt for the last 60 or 70 miles of the race, so finishing was a huge relief because I could simply get off them. At Lake Sonoma, my right hip flexor was the only real problem area. At Western, it seemed like everything was a problem area. Calves, hamstrings, quads, ankles, knees, everything was sore. It’s taken me a lot longer than I had anticipated and it’s frustrating because I don’t know what to expect. But things are improving each day and I’ve gotten some use out of my bike.
iRunFar: Okay, so, tell me about where you grew up in California. What kind of place it was and what kind of child were you?
Varner: I grew up in San Rafael, California. It’s located in central Marin County, so I grew up with Mount Tamalpais always in view. I’m an only child but grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of other kids, so most of my afternoons were spent outside playing in someone’s yard. As for the kind of child I was, you’d have to ask my parents. I probably wasn’t the most well-behaved and I had a lot of energy, but I managed to stay out of trouble for the most part.
iRunFar: So you grew up near the Marin trails. Did you have adventures there as a kid?
Varner: I had some field trips into the parks around Marin, hiking and backpacking in various areas of the county. Other than that, I didn’t spent a ton of time on the trails like I do now.
iRunFar: Cool. Have you always been into sports? What was your earliest passion for with regards to competing?
Varner: I’ve always been active but only started playing organized sports at the urging of my parents. I played baseball, basketball, and soccer in elementary school and started running cross country in high school. I didn’t run track until my senior year of high school, as we didn’t have a track team until then. I always liked the team aspect of sports, but as an only child was also used to entertaining myself, so I found the dual team/individual aspect of cross country especially appealing. I was above average in high school, and average to below average in college, so I didn’t think I’d have the success I’ve had the past couple years.
iRunFar: Tell me a little about your parents. Were they runners or did they influence your path into athletics?
Varner: My parents are not runners. My mother was a ballet dancer for 40 years and my father has played tennis all his life, so they encouraged me to be active when I was younger and were responsible for convincing me to start playing organized sports. They also pushed me to go out for cross country when I entered high school and that’s easily one of the best things they’ve done for me. As an athlete, they’ve always been the most supportive people and have done anything and everything they can to help me succeed.
iRunFar: So when did your running career start? Do you remember when you first realised that you had a talent for it?
Varner: My running career really started my freshman year of high school when I joined the cross-country team in the fall. My parents suggested it would be a good idea and I had some success in middle school running in my P.E. class, so I figured why not. Plus, it was a great way to meet kids in all grades before even starting school.
iRunFar: Sweet. You mentioned that you enjoyed the team aspect of cross country. Were you a close-knit group?
Varner: Yeah, we were a very close-knit group. I’m still friends with several of the guys who were on the team and see them regularly. Sharing so many miles with the same group of people really lends itself to long-term friendships.
iRunFar: Cool. So how did your running career progress through school and college? Can you give me some of your highlights and lowlights?
Varner: I had moderate success in high school. I qualified for the state meet three times, which was a first for someone at my high school. And one of my really good friends and I led our boys’ team to the state meet as a team for the first time in school history our junior year. That team accomplishment is probably the highlight of my high-school career.
After high school, I went to Davidson College, which was a draw because it was far away from home, had strong academics, and was a Division-I program despite being only having 1,600 students. I walked onto the team and was middle to bottom of the pack while I was there. I dealt with a stress fracture and a knee surgery during college and took a year off to study abroad, so I certainly didn’t meet my full potential while I was there. Probably the low point was feeling burned out on running during my senior year and upon graduating. For the first time in a long time, I just didn’t want to run. I’d lost my love for it. So it took me about a year of running really low miles before I realized it was time to train for The Dipsea Race. Having run the race a couple of times prior, I knew how painful it could be, so I wanted to be in decent shape for it. That’s what really kicked my training back into gear and I haven’t looked back.
iRunFar: You studied French in college. Why French?
Varner: At Davidson, any classes that you take toward your major have to be for a grade, meaning you can’t pass/fail them. But, if you study abroad, then there’s a loophole that allows pass/fail classes to be counted toward your major. So I realized that if I went abroad for a year, not only were the classes easier (because the immersion factor is so important on top of class), but I could count them toward my major. So I went abroad, had a fantastic time studying in France, and ended up a French major. My senior year, all I had to do was take one class on the presidential elections, write my thesis (in French), and I was good to go.
iRunFar: Smart move! So where did you go in France? What was it like to experience student life in Europe?
Varner: I lived in Paris for the month of September and then moved to Tours, in central France, in the Loire Valley, for the next seven months. I traveled a lot during those months and saw a ton of cool places. Some highlights were Nice, Avignon, Bordeaux, and Mont Saint-Michel. I had a great time as a student. Classes were definitely easier than at Davidson because the immersion factor plays a big role in the learning experience and they don’t want to overwhelm you with coursework on top of having to get by in a foreign country, so I had a lot of time to explore and run.
iRunFar: Your French major could come in handy for a future tilt at TNF UTMB. Have you thought about that?
Varner: Not really. I’ve heard good things about the race, but racing in Europe hasn’t really crossed my mind yet. I see the amazing photos from the races over there, but it’s not something I’ve given much thought to, other than a fleeting interest.
iRunFar: I guess there’s plenty of time for that. Going back to college, you’ve said that you resented running in college from time to time and had become perhaps a little disillusioned by it. What was it about the set-up in college that made you feel that way?
Varner: It wasn’t any one thing in particular I don’t think. In my first year, I dealt with a stress fracture that kept me out for six months—I erred on the safe side to be sure it was all good. My sophomore year was spent getting back to being healthy and by the time I got really fit, it was summer again and I was going abroad the next year. The team dynamic was a bit tense at times during my first two years as well, which detracted a bit from the experience. When I returned from my year abroad, things had changed completely for the better. But again, since I didn’t run a lot while in France, I spent a good amount of the fall getting fit and then had a weird knee injury which required surgery come December, so that put me out for two months. I spent the rest of the spring getting back in shape for outdoor. So the constant rushing to get back into shape took its toll as I never was as fast as I felt like I could/should have been and it was disappointing.
iRunFar: Do you remember specifically when, after college, the love came back for running? Was it a eureka moment or was it more of a gradual process of finding the passion again?
Varner: It wasn’t a moment, but I started training for The Dipsea about a year after graduating because I knew I really needed to be in shape to run well. Being back on the trails in Marin and running for a goal and seeing results really helped me want to keep training after the race. A friend recruited me to a local running club as well, and I got involved in the San Francisco Bay Area running scene, which only increased my desire to get back into shape and keep racing.
iRunFar:The Dipsea race you mentioned, this is a race that you still have a close association with, right? Tell me when you first heard about it and what makes it special in your eyes?
Varner: Yeah, I have a very strong connection with that race. I’ve run it every year except one since high school. I like it so much because it’s such a unique event. Rarely do you get to start a race where basically everyone has an equal shot at winning. The handicaps give everyone hope that they might be able to win and I think that’s really different from most other races where the fastest start at the front and lead the whole way. The handicapping system makes it really interesting on the trail as well–you have to be a fast runner but you also have to know how to pass people on a singletrack without you or them ending up in the bushes. And the trail itself is just beautiful. It’s relentless. There are hardly any flat parts which is what makes it so challenging despite being only 12k in length. You’re either climbing or descending and if you’re not a bit careful early on, you can find yourself in a deep hole in the final miles. Overall, it’s just a fantastic event and everyone involved understands that this race is so much more than the people in it which makes it quite special.
iRunFar: Your Krispy Kreme Challenge PR that you mentioned to me, I’m greatly impressed! Can you tell me a little about it?
Varner: I did it twice, in 2011 and 2012. The race consists of running 2.5 miles, mostly downhill, to the eating zone outside of a Krispy Kreme restaurant where you eat a dozen glazed donuts, and then running the mostly uphill 2.5 miles back to the finish line. In 2011, it was freezing cold and rainy and the donuts were basically congealed, so it was pretty gross and I didn’t really have a good time. Plus, I wasn’t very fit so the running hurt quite a bit more than it probably should have. In 2012, I made the race a bit of a goal, so I trained for it—running, not eating—and was the first guy into the eating zone by quite a bit. I had observed some eating tactics the year before and put those to good use that year, mashing the donuts together and dunking them in water to make them require less chewing and go down faster. I was second guy out of the eating zone—there were definitely other guys who ate faster than I did, but I had a big-enough lead before eating that I finished eating ahead of them—but managed to make up the gap early and held on to win. The last half mile was pretty painful and I tried to kick it home but my stomach threatened to throw everything up so I had to ease off a bit. The hardest part was probably the spitting on the way back–it was all glaze. Pretty gross.
iRunFar: It sure sounds it. So people take the race seriously, do they?
Varner: Yeah. People train for the eating part as well as the running part. It’s become a really big race with over 3,000 people finishing the original Raleigh, North Carolina race alone…
iRunFar: Wow, that’s a lot of donuts! Let’s talk about the trails. You ran some cross country previously but The Dipsea was your introduction to the trails. How did you move onto trail ultras?
Varner: I first heard about trail running in high school when my coach urged me to run The Dipsea. After that, I didn’t run many trail races outside of The Dipsea, but knew I wanted to. So once I graduated college, I was able to run a few more local trail races. I finally decided to sign up for the Headlands 50k last February, and that was my first ultra. I had heard good things about trail ultras from friends and figured 50k wasn’t a huge jump beyond the marathon. I had a great time and was hooked almost immediately.
iRunFar: Tell me about your first experiences with trail running and what, for you, is the main difference from running road and track—both the physical and mental aspects?
Varner: Trail running is unique because the terrain is always changing and might be totally different from one race to another. A road race is always on roads. Even if one course is hillier than another, you’re still on the roads. A track race is always on a track. It’s easier to prepare for road and track races because you know what’s coming. You can drive the road course beforehand if you really want to, and tracks generally don’t change, so getting mentally prepared is usually easier, for me at least. With a trail race, you might run on singletrack, or fire roads, and it might be in the desert or a forest or the barren mountains. You really don’t know what’s coming, unless you’ve run the course before, and even then the weather can completely change a course. Weather can only affect the road or track surface so much, but it can render a runnable trail completely impassable. So mentally, you have to be prepared for anything. Physically, too, for that matter. But the mental aspect plays a much larger role I think, because you often don’t know what’s coming, but you’re also out there on your own for the most part. You don’t have people cheering you every lap or on the roads. It’s really up to you to motivate and push yourself and if you’re not ready for that, it can be really hard. But the beauty offered by trail races makes it totally worth it, in my opinion.
iRunFar: When did Nike come knocking? How stoked were you when you read the mail or took the call?
Varner: I think it was I who initiated the Nike connection. I read about Patrick Smyth running for the newly formed Nike Trail Team in a running magazine and promptly emailed a friend who works for Nike up in Portland and asked him about it. He told me to send him my running resume and that he’d try to get it in the hands of the right people. A couple weeks later, I got an email from our now manager, Pat, asking what my race schedule for the rest of the year was looking like. So I sent it back to him and he then asked me if I’d like to run for their trail team. I was beyond pumped when I got that email, as I’d never really considered the possibility of running for anything beyond my local club team. I was and still am honored that they were willing to take me on and let me be a part of the awesome team they’ve assembled.
iRunFar: You tried for the U.S. Mountain Running Team in 2013 too but missed out. Are you going to give it a shot again?
Varner: I will give it a shot again. My original plan was to go back this year, since I think the all uphill years definitely favor my running abilities more than the up-and-down years—I lost a lot of ground on the descents last year. But when I got the ticket to Western States, I really couldn’t turn it down. So I switched my focus for this year, but as of now, the plan is to go back at some point in the future… probably, hopefully, several times, and try to get on the U.S. Mountain Running Team. I really want to represent the USA at an international competitions.
iRunFar: Sweet. So, away from running, you work at an investment-management company, right? What’s a normal work day for you entail?
Varner: Normal work day starts at 6:30 a.m., when the markets open. I spend the bulk of my time looking at a wide range of economic data that I keep track of and we use in building the portfolios for our strategies. I present data that I think is relevant and material to our strategies and may provide a different point of view from what the portfolio managers are thinking. I’m looking at wide range of data points from oil prices, to jobs created, to GDP numbers. If I see anything that’s a big change from the previous data point, whether it supports or contradicts a position we’re holding, I’ll bring it to the attention of the portfolio managers so that they can consider it in the context of our strategies. I basically get to learn for a living which is pretty cool.
iRunFar: And do your colleagues know they have a Nike-sponsored trail runner in their company or do you keep that side of your life low key?
Varner: My colleagues are aware of what I do in terms of running. I’m the only runner in the office, but most of the guys are pretty active, so they have an appreciation of what I’m doing. They’re very accommodating when I need to take time off to travel for races, which is a big positive of working for a small firm. There are only seven of us. And I try to make it worth the time off by running well.