Alex Varner, 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Champion, Interview
Alex Varner ran his best ultramarathon performance yet in winning the 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. In the following interview… well, I’m tempted not to say what Alex talks about. I’ll just say Alex talks. A lot and enthusiastically… and it’s kinda awesome. I hope that works.
For more on the race, read our 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile results article.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Alex Varner, 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Alex Varner after his win at the 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. Holy shit, dude, that was a good run.
Alex Varner: Thank you. Yeah, it went really well. It went about as well as it could have, I think.
iRunFar: When you win that’s generally what happens. You also set a course record.
Varner: Yeah, that was less on my mind especially in the last mile. My old roommate, my high-school buddy, shows up. He runs a bit, and he’s started running more now. He was sitting out there and was like, “Go, Varner!” I was like, “Fuck you, Paul.” Can I say that?
iRunFar: You can say, “Fuck you, Paul.” “Fuck you, Paul.”
Varner: So I said that to him and he just starts laughing even more, and then he sprints away and takes the short cut that I can’t take on the road. Billy Yang is there, and I hear Paul yell back on the road, “Go for the course record!” “Fuck the course record.” I have no idea why, but I thought it was 6:10 or around there. I wasn’t really looking at my watch. I looked at it with a mile to go and it said 6:02, and I really wasn’t worried about it at that point. At that point, by 49 miles in, you’re just like, “I just want it to be over.”
iRunFar: Preferably win, but yeah…
Varner: That was the other thing–[Rob] Krar passed Sage [Canaday] in the last kilometer last year. So I was sitting there, “Please don’t! Please don’t! Please don’t! Please don’t!”
iRunFar: Because you didn’t know Krar had dropped.
Varner: No, I had no idea. I’d heard nothing. All I knew was that at mile 38, D-Bo had the sat phone for—was it for you guys?
Varner: Yeah, he’s on the sat phone and I just heard, “You’ve got at least three minutes. Nobody has gone through up ahead.” That was the only time check I ever got. I was like, “Alright, three minutes. Worst-case scenario, that’s what I’m assuming.”
iRunFar: You had nine or 10 minutes there.
Varner: I had no idea. So, unfortunately after that, literally a mile later, my hamstring decided to get really angry and it went from, “Oh, this is great,” to “I might walk the next 12 miles in.”
iRunFar: Which would not be ideal.
Varner: No, I was like, “Oh, shoot. Alright.” I didn’t really make a move off of [Ryan] Bak, but his first 50 mile on that course? It’s rough. I was here last year.
iRunFar: He didn’t blow up.
Varner: No, he didn’t blow up. It’s just a hard course especially if you don’t know it.
iRunFar: It was your first 50 last year so you know what you’re talking about.
Varner: Exactly. Exactly. I was like, I know how that goes. I know right where he is mentally and physically. I was like, Oh, shoot. I was okay with it because I wanted to win. My goal was to put myself in a position to do so. I was clearly there. I was like, You can’t do anything more than run for it if you’ve got it. I was like, Alright, if this happens, it happens. Life was meant to go that way. I took a Gu. I ate about 10 salt tabs at Wulfow—just five and then took another five and just washed them down.
iRunFar: So like with 17 or 18 miles to go.
Varner: Yeah, that was the problem. Well, that wasn’t the problem, but that was what kind of vexed me was not six miles later my hamstring was cramping. I thought I took some salt. Maybe that didn’t help. Then I took a Gu, and then it cleared up. Then my quads, both quads, started threatening, and then I kind of got them under control, and then the hamstring started barking again. So it was very touch and go towards the end. The last eight or 10 miles, all the downhills were just awful.
iRunFar: Excruciating pain or was it more the worry of cramping?
Varner: The worry of cramping. I could deal with this pain as long as it didn’t turn into a cramp. I stopped to stretch out a couple times, but the problem was that the hamstring was so tight that I’d go to pull my leg up and the hamstring would start to cramp as I was stretching my quad out. So it didn’t work very well, but I had enough time banked. It was reassuring to see, to go down to Island View and to come back up and to not see anybody.
iRunFar: It’s a little out and back going into mile-45 aid station.
Varner: It’s a quarter mile out and a quarter mile back.
iRunFar: But then you know you have four minutes.
Varner: Yeah. Last year I saw Krar there just as I was going down and he was coming up and I was just so out of it. If I could have said something to him I would have said, “Do not worry about me. I’m going backward.” I think he put five or six minutes on me in the last five miles last year.
iRunFar: He had a pretty good close actually.
Varner: He did especially with that kick down.
iRunFar: Which is funny because you say you had four minutes and you know he put five or six minutes on you last year from there to the finish.
Varner: I know. I was like, Oh, gosh, I’ve got to go! So my goal was to get out of there and get around that first turn.
iRunFar: So no one could see you.
Varner: Yeah, that way they’re wondering where I am and they don’t see me, “Oh, shoot, he’s not here. He must be up ahead, further up ahead than I thought.” So mentally, that was a little bit of a boost to get around that. Yeah, I knew what the last couple of miles were like which helped a lot, too, just knowing that it’s this steady grind up. That last mile is exposed and rocky. I was not running vertically at that point. I was kind of stumbling over my feet—Just don’t trip, just don’t trip. Billy was out there catching me swearing on camera. I was just not a happy camper at that point.
iRunFar: Did you ever think back to casually chatting last Wednesday morning, “I’m going to hurt the last 10 miles; everybody hurts the last 10 miles.”
Varner: That was in there. Yeah, hitting 38, going through here, I was like, Alright, this is it. You go through here, and you’ve got 12 miles to go. Everybody is in the pain cave.
iRunFar: So is that reassuring somewhat knowing that?
Varner: Yes, exactly. My thought was, It hurts enough. I’ve been fourth or fifth and been hurting, and I’d rather have a couple minutes and be hurting. Everybody is hurting. Maybe I can eek it out if I hurt a little less. It worked out.
iRunFar: You’ve got to be pretty happy with this.
Varner: I’m stoked—just over the moon with this. It definitely hasn’t sunk in yet, but it’s fantastic. I couldn’t have asked for a better day or a better race.
iRunFar: So when we talked on Wednesday, you said your first 50 was here and your first 100 was at Western States, you had to play it wisely conservatively. You were a little less conservative today. You weren’t balls-to-the-wall, but you know…
Varner: Yeah, I made a conscious decision to kind of do that. I thought coming off the road with two-and-a-half miles to go onto that singletrack, I wanted to put myself up toward the front. Everyone is running the same pace, but there can be a 100-meter difference. That’s a big difference if somebody moves off the front and you’re at the back, you’ve got to fight your way past six or seven guys if you want to cover it. So it was nice being up there. [Mike] Aish, Bak and I… [Jim] Walmsley was off the front immediately.
iRunFar: You said, “Let him go?”
Varner: Yeah, I mean, he won JFK, so there was, “Oh, shoot. Maybe we’re getting Zach Miller-ed again. It might happen.” But he was out of sight for 15 to 17 miles and then we heard… at one point I was kind of looking at my watch and seeing him up ahead while he was still in sight and it was 30 seconds. All of the sudden we hit 12 miles and it was a minute-and-a-half. “Okay, let’s see what happens.” Coming out of Wulfow at 17 or 18 up that big climb he was just coming back on the climbs. He was just bombing it downhills. We started to see him and he was kind of running slower on the uphills and he would hit that downhill and he would just take off. He would put… at one point we got within 20 seconds of him, and then I looked at my watch again and he pushed it out to 40 or 50 seconds within a quarter mile just on the rolling…
iRunFar: A bit aggressive.
Varner: But he went out and wanted to go for it. We kind of went by him—you know, he held up really well for fifth. I was really impressed with that.
iRunFar: That’s a really good point. Seeing him at…
Varner: When we went by him I just thought his goose was cooked.
iRunFar: He was the full Christmas dinner when I saw him at 30.
Varner: To rally, he rallied. It’s just fantastic. It’s an impressive run to go out that hard and to hang on in this field.
iRunFar: There were a lot of people who went out in that lead group with experience like Rob Krar, not a decade of experience, Rob Krar, Mike Aish, and the day turns around and they’re sitting at Warm Springs and Walmsley is racing to the finish.
Varner: Exactly. Exactly. When we’re out there, we have no idea of any of the drops. It’s one of the… you’re kind of running blind off the front which is a good problem to have. If you’re trying to win, it’s a good problem to have. It was kind of surprising to cross the finish line and see Krar, and I had a text from Aish, and I was like, Oh, alright. I guess several people dropped out. It was funny because Tim Tollefson was running with Max [King] and seven miles in they both just went, “This is going to be a long day.” Max said it was just eternal to get out to that…
iRunFar: Max walked across that first stream crossing at mile 12. Literally… sometimes you have those days.
Varner: Some people decide to pull the plugs, and some don’t. More power to them for powering through.
iRunFar: On the “running a little more aggressively and more confident side,” where does this leave you—it’s still a couple months out—for Western States?
Varner: I plan to do or have a similar tactic. I’ve got the Worlds (IAU World Trail Championships) four weeks before which is 52, 53 miles with 17,000 feet of climbing.
iRunFar: Yeah, it’s kind of flat and real steep ups and downs.
Varner: Yeah, so we’ll see how that goes. As a result of that, it’s like, how many times do you get to qualify for worlds team? So that’s kind of became the priority when I got on there. I want to run well at Western, but if I don’t, I’m not too worried about it. The longer-term goal is that I’m going to CCC in August, so I’d like to be full strength for that even though I’m treating it like a course-scouting run because I want to run UTMB in 2016.
iRunFar: You’re still… last year you were conservative in your races. This year you’re learning more.
Varner: Yeah, I have a little bit more confidence. Working with [Jason] Koop has helped a ton, just having some of these workouts under my belt. I was running track and cross-country workouts a year ago at this point, getting on the track on Tuesdays and running intervals and then Friday tempo and Saturday long run. It was kind of the collegiate system. That’s completely changed.
iRunFar: You’ve gone from the VO2 max sessions to the tempo sessions. What’s next?
Varner: I don’t know. I haven’t gotten my schedule yet.
iRunFar: Koop, what’s next?
Varner: I know there’s probably some steady-state stuff in there—one- or two-hour runs that just kind of is not a tempo but just a step faster than an easy run.
iRunFar: So like marathon pace?
Varner: Yeah, no probably not even that fast, maybe a little more comfortable than that and on trails.
iRunFar: Which is interesting because it’s a reverse sharpening system.
iRunFar: So you’re at the finish. You’ve just won. Regardless of the past in roads and track, your biggest win. Not only your biggest win, but it was your best race.
Varner: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, my Krispy Kreme challenge is no longer my strongest PR.
iRunFar: What was your Krispy Kreme PR?
Varner: Five miles and a dozen donuts in 20:35.
iRunFar: Fuck you, Alex.
Varner: It was 2.5 miles out, a dozen donuts, and 2.5 miles back. That was my strongest PR until today.
iRunFar: Yeah, that’s pretty impressive. So what are you going to do to celebrate?
Varner: Hang out with some of the Nike teammates and whoever else is around. I think some of the Hoka folks are sticking around. If you want to come to Bear Republic, we’ll be there this evening.
iRunFar: Nice. What are you drinking right now? What’s the celebratory beer? It’s not a Picky brew.
Varner: It’s not a Picky brew.
iRunFar: But that’s a good idea. Lauren [Fleshman], get on that!
Varner: Picky brew! Sierra Nevada right now. I had a 395 on Thursday.
iRunFar: One of my favorite brews.
Varner: I had a Ninkasi earlier, and I had something else earlier.
iRunFar: What’s the over-under on the double magnum of Wilson wine making it back to an hour away from here?
Varner: Oh, it will make it home. I think the Gaylords have kindly offered their home because, Dakota, your magnum is there from two years ago and the statute of limitations is running out really quick.
iRunFar: That’s a wine that ages very well, but it’s not going to age forever.
Varner: Two years is pushing it especially when you just said, “Hey, hang onto this for a little bit.” Last year I was lucky enough to get Zach Miller’s magnum because he stayed with me the two nights before and the night after the race. He doesn’t really drink but he wanted the bottle. He said, “Hang onto it for me for now.” I think the Fourth of July came around and we were at my buddy Mark McManus’s place which is now where I’m living. He lives upstairs and I live downstairs. We called him and I said, “Hey, can we drink this?” He said, “By all means go ahead, just save the bottle.” So the bottle is gathering dust, but it serves like 40 people. It’s remarkable how many people can get a solid cup of wine out of it.
iRunFar: If you’ve never seen a double magnum…
Varner: It’s like half my torso, probably bigger, I’m not a very big person.
iRunFar: You are a tiny person. It is a big bottle of wine.
Varner: So we have two of those to go through unless Dakota shows up…
iRunFar: You really don’t need to take one home is my take away from this discussion.
Varner: We’ll see how it goes. Apparently the tab’s on Pat Werhane tonight.
iRunFar: Pat Werhane, thank you.
Varner: Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Never mind.
iRunFar: You didn’t hear that. Speaking of Nike, Nike team seems to come out in force. Is it a particular set up on courses that just suit the runners or is it Nike saying, “Let’s go run Sonoma and worlds and Way Too Cool?” What’s the set up? It differs on different teams.
Varner: Yeah, there hasn’t really been a push towards any one race. I think last year, I know [Chris] Vargo and I both ran Cool last year. That was my first race on the team and close to if not his first race on the team as well. Then they made a push to get, “You guys can race Sonoma. Do it. Let’s try to get a presence there just to kind of announce our entry into this.”
iRunFar: It’s kind of like a little flash.
Varner: Yeah, I wouldn’t have signed up for Sonoma if I hadn’t been on the Nike team and I emailed Pat. Last year I think Matt Laye won Rocky Raccoon. I just got super pumped at 9 a.m. on Saturday, and I was like, “I’m signing up for Sonoma.” I texted Pat, “I’m running Boston the week after, but I’m thinking of signing up for Sonoma.” Pat goes, “Well, you’re on the trail team.” Done. I signed up for Sonoma. Let’s do a 50 miler! So it worked out that we got a group of guys out. I think it just kind of… certain races… they don’t specify, “You should be here,” which is kind of nice that we get to kind of…
iRunFar: Like UTMB this year.
Varner: It literally just kind of came together. Pat went over there last year to kind of scope it out. He came back and said, “Hey, this is awesome. You guys should do it.”
iRunFar: It wasn’t like, “You guys SHOULD do it.”
Varner: It was like, “This is fantastic. You guys should experience this.”
iRunFar: “If we can make it happen, let’s do it.”
Varner: Yes, so a bunch of us got kind of excited. “Let’s sign up for it.”
iRunFar: There are definitely teams who are like, “You two guys go there. You two guys go there.”
Varner: There’s none of that. I’ve never been told, “You should run this.” Again, the choice I had last year with Western was mine. They said, “Obviously we’d love you to run it. [David] Laney is in, Sally [McRae]’s in, but it’s 100 miles and it’s really far (not according to Karl Meltzer, but…), but it’s really far and it would be great if we had a good presence. I said, “Okay, I might never qualify for Western States again. I’ll take the ticket.” Yeah, they’ve been very gracious about where you want to race. I think Sally did that race in Cinqueterre last week or two weeks ago.
iRunFar: Yeah, she’s not racing here because…
Varner: Exactly, because she did that. They’re very open about what you want to do.
iRunFar: What did you end up racing in today?
Varner: The Keiger 1’s.
iRunFar: Why run in the Keiger 1’s when the 2’s are out and the 3’s…?
Varner: We have the 3’s, so… a little bit of superstition. I hadn’t won a race since I stopped wearing the 1’s. I broke these out because they were sitting in my closet. I had a pair of 2’s that I was wearing, and I just thought, I’ve raced in the 2’s. I’ll race in the 1’s again. And I did, and that was it.
iRunFar: And you won.
Varner: I wore these two days back-to-back and these just kind of called to me.
iRunFar: Aside from “calling,” this course is pretty non-technical. Personally, I do a lot of my trail running, period, and my trail racing in my road flats. You’re on the Nike Trail team. Do you have to run in trail shoes?
Varner: No, Sally ran Sonoma last year in the Pegasus, and Tim ran The North Face in the Lunar Glides.
iRunFar: If you want to run in the Luna Racer, whatever the Lunar Racer is at the moment…
Varner: They gave us a couple pairs of those. They fitted us out with the Tempos. Literally any shoe that I want, I email Pat, “Hey, I’d like to wear these…,” as long as it has a specific purpose. I can’t just be like, “Oh, give me a pair of these shoes.” Then they’re more than happy to oblige. It’s great because they’ve got a huge range of shoes. They’re not pushing an agenda on you.
iRunFar: It’s not like, “You’re in the Keiger. You’re in the Wildhorse.”
Varner: No, obviously they’d love the trail guys to be in them, and we wouldn’t be wearing them if they didn’t work. It’s very nice that they’re very accommodating.
iRunFar: If you were running American River and you want to run in a road shoe…
Varner: Yeah, if I want to run in the Lunar Racer for that race, they’d be like, “Fine. Whatever works for you.”
iRunFar: On the other side, you had a bit of an apparel failure today.
Varner: Yeah, that was the one revelation we had.
iRunFar: Were they the prototype shorts?
Varner: These are the normal ones. They gave Laney and I these shorts. They kind of heat-sealed or ironed pockets into another pair they gave us for Western. We got another pair of short tights with pockets fit on the outside as well, but that’s just not enough room. There wasn’t enough pocket space. The pockets in these, when I started the race today, I had two full Picky Bars and 10 gels in my shorts. It looked a little funny. It made me look like I had butt implants. I got several comments. I said, “They haven’t taken yet. Just give it time.”
iRunFar: A little silicone…
Varner: Exactly. So I got about… I had a little trouble getting the second of two Picky Bars out because they had sunk down really low. Then I went to reach for some Gu and it was just impossible to get them out. I got to the finish, well, I got to mile 30 and one of my pockets fell out. It literally fell out of my shorts.
iRunFar: It wasn’t like you were ripping something out.
Varner: No, I reached in there and I hear this, “thunk,” and I turned around and there was my pocket on the ground. “Oh, shoot.” They were kind of starting to peel, but they weren’t sewn in, so I wasn’t expecting it. They were so nice to make them for us in the first place because they didn’t have to. But yeah, it was a little frustrating not being able to reach in there… but I had two front pockets with two Gus in each. Then I had the waist band cinched, so I could just slip the Gus in and they just sat on my hip.
iRunFar: So there’s perks to being on the pinnacle of performance, but there are also, “Oh, yep, we’ve got to revise that.”
Varner: Yes, so I think it’s funny because this year, they usually give out the uniforms at Boston which they will be doing. Last year, we got to wear the new ones the week before Boston. So we showed up in all neon green which is very loud and very obvious.
iRunFar: It was very loud.
Varner: And there were a lot of us last year. There were several of us kind of like this year. But we’re waiting a little bit longer this year. We’ve had several feedback sessions with the designers. “What do you need in the shorts? What do you want in the singlet?” They’re kind of realizing that the trail needs are very different from the road needs. They gave us these shorts, and it’s funny because only Laney and I have the shorts with pockets. Everyone else on the team is like, “Shoot, we don’t have pockets.”
iRunFar: I don’t have any Nike shorts, but I have New Balance shorts or other road-company shorts, and they don’t even have the forward key pocket anymore. They only have one little zip pocket on the side.
Varner: So ours, the Nike Distance shorts, have a key pocket which can fit three gels in which is pretty good size, and then they have a zipper pocket on the back where you can fit five in. So you can carry a decent amount of fuel in them, but they’re they retail shorts. So as a result, I don’t know if you noticed it, but Tim raced in the Race Day shorts which are available online, and Bak raced in the half tights. They both have more pockets than our race shorts do. They realized that, and I think it was just something they hadn’t accounted for yet. They came into it a little bit fresh, and they’ve learned very quickly. The feedback on the Keiger 3’s and the Wildhorse 3’s, they’ve taken a lot of our feedback into consideration. I think it shows with the uniforms when we get them. They’ll be very different… not very different…
iRunFar: Specific to trail running?
Varner: Substantially different from the road and the track pro kit—same color scheme, but there will be features that we have that will be different from those.
iRunFar: So you just joined the Picky Bar Team with Rob Krar, I believe.
Varner: Yeah, Krar is on there.
iRunFar: And a bunch of other folks. But the concept to me of racing a 50 mile in six hours, an all-out intense effort, and eating real food kind of blows my mind. Is that something you would have done in the past? For a 100 mile, I might want to have a little solid food.
Varner: Yes, I had two Picky Bars for breakfast, which I think they’re like 200 calories a piece. Then I cut them in half with a knife and then put them in the wrap so the halves are wrapped.
iRunFar: Do you use a piece of tape?
Varner: No, just put them straight into my shorts. That way I pull them out and pop the Picky Bar out and put the wrapper back in. I’m able to do that for the first two hours. I try to eat one… I ate a half of a bar every three-and-a-half miles. [off camera: Hey, DeNucci.]
iRunFar: Wow, we just got a…
Varner: We just got a show. Not as much as [Brian] Tinder gave us on the trail. Full moon.
iRunFar: Tinder, you are on probation.
Varner: I liked it.
iRunFar: You’re from San Francisco.
Varner: No comment.
Varner: Yeah, I’m able to stomach that for about two hours and then I switch to Gu.
iRunFar: Then you switch to Gu.
Varner: I’m an ambassador for Gu which is great because their very liberal with their product. It’s fantastic. That was one of the perks from last year was having Magda [Boulet] crew for me. She showed up when we were doing a training run, and she was like, “Here!” It was like a 20-pound bag of Gu that I’m like literally still pulling Gus out of.
iRunFar: Speaking from experience, they last at least five years.
Varner: They’re great. It’s all that I’ve wanted. Both Picky Bars and Gu are fairly sweet. At Western it got a little long in the tooth after eight or 10 hours. It’s like, “Alright, this is a lot of sweet.” That’s when I switched to the pickles at Foresthill.
iRunFar: Let’s talk to Magda or Lauren about a pickle flavor…
Varner: They’re just like, “Just do a pickle shot, man. It will make it better in all senses of the word.”
Varner: Yeah, I remember going up to Devil’s Thumb, and they had a bowl of sliced dill pickles. I took two of them, and it was like, “This is the best thing I’ve eaten.” Then I got into Foresthill and I said, I came up to the aid station and it’s a buffet, and they had no pickles.
iRunFar: Craig Thornley is right over there. [off camera: Craig!]
Varner: No, they had them. They had them. So, I asked, “Do you have pickles?” This lady produced the biggest jar of cornichons that I’d ever seen. It took of my restraint not to just tip the jar up and just start drinking the juice.
iRunFar: You’ve done it before, haven’t you?
Varner: No, I have not. I’ve not yet. I ate probably like 18 cornichons in 30 seconds.
iRunFar: Kobayashi, watch out.
Varner: It was delicious. It was amazing. But they have no caloric value which is a problem—three calories a pickle.
iRunFar: Man, it was good.
Varner: It was incredible. My crew, my girlfriend, Rachelle, got very angry. She goes, “What have you been eating?” “Pickles.” “That doesn’t count.” “But it’s so good.” “It will be the letter of the law if not the spirit.” “No, you can’t do that. You’ve got 35 miles to go. That’s not okay.” So I got the whip cracked on me after that.
iRunFar: It’s probably wise.
Varner: Yeah, it worked out.
iRunFar: Good crewing right there.
Varner: It was her first time crewing. She did a fantastic job.
iRunFar: Back for Western States this year?
Varner: Yeah, she’ll be back. Magda, fortunately or unfortunately, qualified.
iRunFar: Way to go, Magda.
Varner: Thanks for ruining our crew. So I’ve got her, Vargo, and Tim Tollefson. So, Vargo will pace me again from Foresthill to Green Gate.
iRunFar: At least you know Vargo isn’t going to drink your beer. Tim will drink it all.
Varner: Tim will have to deal with me to the finish. I’ll gladly buy him many beers for that. Vargo, I’ll buy him whatever he wants… within reason. He already has that nice truck and the nice bike. He’s pretty good on toys.
iRunFar: This has been an excellent interview.
Varner: Absolutely. Thank you.
iRunFar: Ton of fun. I’m going to borrow a line from AJW. Bottoms up.
Varner: Bottoms up.
iRunFar: Check you later.