Last year was Alex Varner’s first full year as an ultrarunner. This week, he’s returning to the scene of his 50-mile debut at California’s Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, where he happened to finish fourth last year. In the following interview, Alex talks about his 2014 season, what he’s learned from it, and his thoughts on doping and ultrarunning.
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Alex Varner Pre-2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Alex Varner before the 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. How are you, Alex?
Alex Varner: Good, thanks, Bryon. Good to see you. Welcome to San Francisco.
iRunFar: Thank you. It’s a beautiful day here. I know there was some rain yesterday, but it is 60 degrees and sunny.
Varner: Yeah, it cleared up nice. It was just a little rainy last night as well, I think. We’ll see. Maybe that will keep some dust off the trails tomorrow or Saturday.
iRunFar: Yeah, looks like pretty good conditions all around, high in the low 70s and no rain.
Varner: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. It will be nice. We have a decent amount of races around here that are high profile, but always staying local is an advantage I think.
iRunFar: Totally, and not having to travel…
Varner: Not having to worry about altitude or strange inclines or what-have-you.
iRunFar: Or flight delays or missing shoes or…
iRunFar: You had quite the… last year was more or less your first full year of ultrarunning. You’d done Bootlegger the year before. Now that you’ve had a couple months to reflect back on getting second at Way Too Cool, fourth here, seventh at Western States, third at The North Face, what do you think about your first year as an ultrarunner?
Varner: It went pretty well, probably about as well as I could have hoped for. No complaints. There’s some room for improvement, so I’d like to do the best I can to take advantage of that. Yeah, training has gone well, and I’m looking forward to being out there. I think I’ve gotten a little bit smarter at picking races. Last year at this point I’d already run two 50k’s. I kind of decided not to do that this year and kind of take it a little bit easier on the racing side. That’s soon to change.
iRunFar: You think there’s room for improvement. Is that just with experience? Is it changes in training? Is it changes in racing? What are you going to do differently this year to make yourself a better runner?
Varner: All of the above. I think having run my first 50 miler and 100 miler last year, there’s a lot that comes from that that even training can’t duplicate—just learning what your body is able to do and what it can’t do, what works and what doesn’t training-wise. I started working with Jason Koop in September, and he got me in good shape for The North Face. We’ve had a solid training block here heading into Sonoma and kind of getting ready for some of the summer races, so I’m excited to see what that brings. Yeah, I’m kind of firing on all cylinders hopefully.
iRunFar: In terms of racing, do you think having that experience will make you go out more conservatively early on or does it just give you more confidence to push the entire race harder? How will you change that up?
Varner: I think going in… Sonoma last year was my first 50 mile and (I’m just laughing at the sirens) at Western States I really played it conservatively because I didn’t know what was coming. Beyond the marathon and 50k, everything was unknown. So having done that, having seen that distance and kind of having almost a different type of fitness under my belt with the new training plan, it gives me a little bit more confidence to go out maybe a little bit harder than I have in the past. I still like running races where I’m comfortable in the first half to two-thirds and then being able to push it in the later parts. But I was actually thinking this on the way in, everybody is pretty shot in the last 10 miles of a 50 mile or 100 mile. Realizing that that’s going to come either way, whether I start conservatively or not, they’re just hard distances to run no matter what pace you’re at. So, being able to take it out a little bit harder and just know that that’s going to happen regardless.
iRunFar: You say you’ve changed up your training a little bit, so how is that? From what I know of Jason Koop’s training, it would be more like what you’ve done in college as opposed to some of the guys who didn’t come from that background.
Varner: Yeah, I think… college was its own system. Every school kind of has their own thing. My coach was great and switched around philosophies every couple of years, so I don’t think we ever had the benefit of getting a consistent program over a couple of years. Coming out of college, I was running the last couple of years with West Valley. We have a coach who trains us more like 5k, 10k, marathon, and cross country. So I was doing all my ultras on those workouts. I think I’ve run Headlands and Bootlegger off cross-country workouts with some longer runs thrown in there on my own. The Koop stuff is more specific. In the college and even in the West Valley program, you do Tuesdays are track intervals, Thursday and Friday are more of a fartlek or a tempo. With Koop it’s all one phase for five, six, seven weeks. So it was all VO2Max. I was doing three workouts per week of three minute intervals. That was the longest workout I did or the longest interval I did was three minutes for about five weeks. It went from 6 (reps) x 3 (minutes) to 7 x 3 to 8 x 3 to 10 x 3. Then it switched to tempo intervals. I’ve done everything from 8, 10, 12 minutes at a time for three or four intervals of those per workout and doing those three times per week. I was trying to vary up the terrain whether they be all uphill or flat or rolling or down. So while the idea or the workouts are more similar, it’s the way that they’re grouped that’s changed drastically.
iRunFar: One thing with Jason Koop, he works with Carmichael Training Systems and there’s a couple degrees of separation from the whole Lance Armstrong thing and the doping. You’ve engaged in some conversation with some folks on iRunFar about this. How do you sort of work with that? How did you come to work with Jason Koop knowing that there’s this sort of a cloud with it.
Varner: Yeah, I can see that. I learned of him through Dylan Bowman who spoke really highly of him. I kind of talked with a couple of people about coaching opportunities in terms of what I was looking for and what I was trying to find in someone. His philosophy just kind of fit well with me. I liked the results he got with Dylan. The workouts he was running kind of seemed like the sort of thing that played to my strengths a little bit more. That was the main reason for choosing him. The Carmichael thing—there are probably a lot of reasons that nobody knows. That’s kind of where it sits with me. Ultimately what it comes down to is I’m the one running the workouts, and I’m the person who’s putting in the work. That’s what matters.
iRunFar: You’re choosing Koop because…
Varner: Because of personal recommendations and what I know of the guy. I know the guy, and I’d readily go to bat for him. That’s kind of what matters to me. There are always, not always but, there are a lot of organizations that might not have the best overall image, but that doesn’t mean it’s every person within them.
iRunFar: I guess that brings up a broader question. Obviously, cycling in general, we just all sort of roll our eyes. I was driving in past Candlestick Park, and there’s the whole steroid era in baseball. Right now we really haven’t had that scandal in American ultrarunning in terms of drugs, but we also aren’t naïve. This could be a problem in the sport. There’s a lot of tangential, “Oh, this person is three degrees separated from x,” and that raises questions, but there’s no system in place to…
Varner: Yeah, that’s the unfortunate part. People are raising questions that need to be asked, but the problem is we have no way of answering them. The obvious answer is, “Ok, let’s start drug testing.” I think 9/10 if not 99/100 of the people in the ultra community would volunteer to be tested and will be clean. There will be that one person where, “Oh, shoot. That really stinks for the community.” But there’s no way to implement that. It’s expensive; it takes a lot of time; you need manpower. Right now, that’s just not where it’s at. I think as more sponsor dollars come in, it’s probably headed in that direction. I’d be surprised if it isn’t, but until then, the questions will probably remain largely unanswered.
iRunFar: Probably both are heading in that direction in terms of usage and testing. Maybe it’s the point that in a few years the corporations with more sponsor dollars whether it’s to athletes or toward events or toward promotion in general, they’re going to want a clean sport.
Varner: I think it will start getting written into contracts and stuff like that. People I’ve talked to… I don’t think a lot of guys have drug testing written into their contracts, which doesn’t surprise me in ultrarunning, but at the same time, it’s not hard to write in and it seems it would be something that would kind of cover your bases.
iRunFar: It’s a character clause. That covers doping or don’t act drunk and go on methamphetamine rage.
Varner: Yeah, that’s true. I think it’s something that’s coming. It will be… I’d like to see how it plays out.
iRunFar: Yeah, because at the moment there are a couple races in the world that have testing, but nothing resembling a testing regimen unless you’re on the podium or win an IAU event.
Varner: Yeah, and even then, I was looking at Ellie Greenwood’s Twitter and she said, “Oh, I’m back on the IAU ‘where are you four hours a day?’” I’m just like, “Oh, they’re not going to knock on Ellie’s door. Let’s be real.” They’re worried about the guys who are running in the Diamond League and making tens of thousands of dollars.
iRunFar: WADA is not a priority.
Varner: No, Western States is not high on their radar despite it being high profile. They’re not breaking down any doors.
iRunFar: In May you’re going to the IAU Trail World Championships in Annecy. I’m assuming there will be some sort of testing. You know too well in advance.
Varner: It’s like the NFL marijuana policy—“We’re going to test you in this window.” If you’re dumb enough to get caught there…
iRunFar: Shave your head.
Varner: It’s very obvious if we’re going to be tested and when we’re going to be tested not that that’s something we’re concerned with. It’s there. It will be interesting when it happens. It happened some in college. NCAA would do that, but it was always at the coach’s discretion and it always seemed the kid he liked the least got picked. We’ll see if that’s the case with this.
iRunFar: It’s interesting in that there have been more and more studies showing that when there has been doping in running or cycling that those effects are permanent and lifelong. Italy, I believe their athletic federation, may have enacted late last year that you can’t represent Italy anymore if you have one ban.
Varner: I think that’s what’s been surprising to me is that it’s proven that you get the benefits years and years after you dope. Also, I’m pretty sure, well, I might be wrong in this, but it doesn’t seem like they test as rigorously when you’re banned. So you get caught doping, “Okay you’re banned for four years.” “Okay, well I’m going to go train with steroids for four years, and then half a year from being reinstated I’ll get clean.”
iRunFar: Regardless of the actuality, that brings a question of Justin Gatlin.
Varner: I think Paula Radcliffe put it well in that tweet she sent out where she said that the people she works with at Nike, it’s an interesting choice or decision. I’d love to hear their reasoning behind it. I’m sure there is reasoning behind it, but the guys on my team, people are kind of… everyone is scratching their heads and it’s just kind of a weird position to be in.
iRunFar: I didn’t mean with respect to Nike specifically, but as a general point of…
Varner: Yeah, it’s good, but it’s kind of a head-scratcher. If you believe that… people kind of make the prison system analogy where if you did your time and you paid the price, you should be fully reinstated.
iRunFar: But in a way, say if you stole somebody’s car and you eventually paid it back…
Varner: It’s going to drive, whereas this doping you can benefit from indefinitely.
iRunFar: Yeah, it will be interesting to see if it ever becomes a problem or when it becomes a problem in our sport…
Varner: Yeah, I think the biggest advancements will be in the biological passport.
iRunFar: How does ultrarunning or trail running…?
Varner: I think ultrarunning will always be a step behind.
iRunFar: The cost of a biological passport…
Varner: Oh, I know. Absolutely. It’s prohibitive.
iRunFar: Yeah, and it’s a small enough sport where plenty of people can jump into the sport and compete at a top level. You can’t test all the possible legitimate contenders.
Varner: Oh, yeah, you see that happening in all these races where there’s a couple of names in the top-5 or top-10 where you’re, “Who the heck is that? Where did they come from?”
iRunFar: Yeah, and they’re up there the rest of the time.
Varner: Exactly. Exactly.
iRunFar: Thanks for chatting. We sort of went off on a tangent, but thank you for answering.