Alex Varner Pre-2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Interview

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.

Find out more about the race with our men’s and women’s previews. Follow our live coverage of Lake Sonoma on Saturday.

[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]

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…

Varner: Certainly.

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.

Varner: Yeah.

There are 28 comments

  1. tiboux123

    Lets go Alex! NorCal for a sweep of the podium!! Is he going to be wearing the kigers? Any truth to the rumors of the wild hoarse becoming more pegasus like?

  2. @SageCanaday

    Thank you for bringing up the drug/drug testing issue! I actually believe (and I may be wrong) that there is only a 2-year ban for using something like EPO (slap on the wrist!) as there are MUT Runners who are currently competing that were formerly caught not that long ago (or so it seems)….
    for HGH/steroids I honestly don't know what the ban is (maybe it is 4 years like what Alex said?)? IMO it should be a lifetime ban. No second chances.

    Also as far as company contracts that tell athletes not to use PEDs and/or illegal drugs (and in general to be a consciencious citizen/role model in the running community) …I thought that was always explicitly stated!

    On a more positive note. Best of luck out there Alex! Looking forward to following along with the race/results from behind my computer this year!

    1. nevtrik

      Just curious – why would runners use steroids? They lead to mass growth, and isn't that something you have to avoid to be faster?

      1. tiboux123

        The "steroids" they are talking about are EPO and other PEDs. These drugs increase the number of red blood cells which will improve the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry to the body’s muscles. In short, taking substances such as EPO will make you faster and stronger because you will have more oxygen to breathe!

        To stick with the bike theme: Imagine you are riding a super fast road bike and your friend is riding a 50 pound huffy mountain bike. Which one of you will go faster up hill?

        Alex and Bryan brought up cycling because EPO and cycling have a long history of being secret bed fellows.

      2. mjlaye

        Steroids themselves don't lead to muscle growth (for the most part). They only work in the context of the physiological stress. Specifically, they accelerate the recovery process through faster repair of the muscle microdamages that we all induce through intense training. This will not lead to (much of) an increased muscle mass, but allow an athlete to recover and continue to train hard. For all the cheating dopers do they have to work hard to get the benefits of the drugs.

        Also endurance activity can suppress testosterone, which is critical for recovery as well. This is why you should always lift AFTER you run. The lifting will increases endocrine response to help you recover, doing it the other way around and you are asking for slower recovery and less adaptation to the lifting.

      3. @SageCanaday

        I don't know why I said steroids (I don't really no a whole lot about this kind of stuff). But HGH maybe?
        I'd think the pounding from lots of elevation change in training and racing is usually a main limiting factor (as is sheer muscle strength) rather than any lactic acid. So EPO would likely help Vo2max/Lactate Threshold, but I think the reason guys would take it mainly is to recover faster so they can train/race harder and more often.

        1. afvarner

          Yeah, that's what some of the cyclists who had experience with the matter said about it. They took it not necessarily to get stronger, but to recover faster. During the cycling Grand Tours when you're racing 19 out of 21 days, recovery is the key and steroids/doping/PEDs (whatever you want to call it) allow for faster recovery between hard efforts. Same idea applies in training… less recovery time between workouts –> more workouts than a clean athlete –> faster than a clean athlete.

    2. totops1

      I actually totally agree with you, it should be a lifetime ban. Zero tolerance. No second chance, that would make an athlete think more than twice before using PEDs.
      Is there a unified database/organization that is in charge of that ? If yes, who pays for it ? is it independant or will we see conflicts of interests such as the ones we saw with Lance Armstrong at The Tour?

      It's sad that we have to think about all that but there are definitely some people that are/will try to take advantage of the current situation where no or few testing is being done.

    3. afvarner

      Here's what I found on the WADA website re: doping suspensions:

      Page 17 has the most relevant info:
      For the violations of presence or use of a prohibited substance, the basic rules are as follows:
      If you intended to cheat, whatever the substance, the period of ineligibility is four years.
      Otherwise, it is two years – unless you can show you had no significant fault or negligence, in which case ineligibility may be reduced by up to a maximum of one year (that is, to a minimum ineligibility of one year).
      If the violation involved a specified substance or a contaminated product and you can demonstrate you had no significant fault, ineligibility may range from two years to a reprimand (depending on the level of fault).

  3. MountainRoche

    Alex is the man! The law degree in my past makes me have to clarify that Nike does have a drug clause written into athlete contracts. Nike reserves the right to terminate when an athlete commits any act that shocks or offends the community, including failing a sanctioned drug test.

    Either way, there needs to be so much more testing, especially at the national and international levels.

    Crush it at Sonoma Alex! And go Nike Trail!

  4. npedatella

    Thanks for the good interview, and bringing up the touchy subject of doping. Having given this some thought in the past, in addition to the monetary issues, it seems like it would be extremely difficult to institute testing without some sort of governing body. For example, say someone gave WS100 $30k to perform drug testing and someone tested positive. Aside from public shaming, without a governing body there is nothing preventing that person from participating in other events. Also, if they were to dispute the positive result I do not know who would be responsible. If it was WS then this could be detrimental to the race organization financially due to having to fight a legal battle. Given these issues I just don't see how any real drug testing can be implemented in the absence of a governing body. Someone may have an answer to this issue, but I do not see how it can be done.

    1. Ben_Nephew

      Nick, I completely agree. While there are examples of corruption with governing bodies, especially cycling, the motivation to drug test for races and companies who make money off top runners is extremely low. There is a major conflict of interest there. In contrast, given the growing financial advantages through sponsorships, the incentive to take PEDs is constantly growing. I thought the comments about Radcliffe, Nike, and Gatlin were interesting. What do we think Radcliffe would think about several top Nike sprinters working with a company owned by Victor Conte or Trevor Graham? How is that any different than an association with CTS?

  5. @WeiDe2014

    Great to see the first interviews of the season, excited to follow this on the week end!

    Concerning doping, i heard on the radio the other day, that scientists found a much cheaper way to test for banned substances, which would allow race directors to test all participants at almost no costs. It was on a German radio station, and i dont remember what it was called. The test is also almost instantly. They said, that due to the high costs of doping tests, most events only test elites or there are no tests at all.

    I used to be an active cyclists when i was 15 years old, and did lots of races till i was 17. Everyone was taking creatine and supplements. I felt i was well trained, but some guys were riding uphill at an inhumane pace. I knew nothing of doping back then (its 15 years ago, era of Jan Ulrich and Lance Armstrong), looking back i reckon there was a lot of doping in the hobby area as well. And there is still today.

    I would feel better knowing everyone is tested even at Ultras. I have started a course of Altitude Training with Altolab. I wanted to prepare for Angeles Crest this summer. I didnt think it would do any good, but my performance has drastically improved. I then read more about the topic, and it states that the body's own production of EPO is increased doing hypoxic training. I get no build up of lactic acid, i feel stronger and fitter and i am faster.
    It gives me an idea of what EPO doping, blood doping etc might do to a trained athlete, and it is shocking. You cannot really compete against someone who is doping with these substances. Even though i am no professional, i dont mind placing well. Hence i reckon there should be doping tests for everyone (if feasible and affordable).

    What is your take on equality in training? Is its fair to use expensive legal supplements, an expensive hypoxic tent, the best equipment etc compared to people that cannot afford it, but are racing with you in the same race?

    Just food for thought.

  6. Duluthian

    All right. As a hematologist who is fascinated by doping, I need to set some facts straight:

    In broad terms, ultra runners would benefit from:

    1. EPO and similar blood boosters
    2. Anabolic steroids (testosterone etc) and – to a lesser degree – corticosteroids (dexamethasone etc)
    3 Growth hormone (HGH)
    4 Possibly stimulants, like amphetamine, but I doubt they are commonly used. Caffeine is a weak stimulant. Consuming more than 10 cups of coffee before a race will bring your levels into illegal range.

    These are all PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs), by definition. Testing positive for these drugs will lead to a suspension.

    HOWEVER, the national and international governing bodies decide the sanctions. That would be IAAF, IAU, USATF etc. Races outside those auspices can do whatever they want. That's why Lance can still participate in some races. Now, if Sage Canaday tested positive (and I'm picking on him because he posted here, and he seems incredibly unlikely to be doping), I'm sure the big races would notice and not let him race, but that's going to be a case-by-case thing. If a slow/unknown Swiss runner got caught in Switzerland and signed up for Rocky Raccoon, he probably would not be noticed.

    And yes, ultra runners dope. I'm convinced of it. I base this on the slew of positives in running, cycling and triathlon, including in the masters ranks. The difference is that those sports test. The only ultra races that test in the US are the USATF championships. I know of one ultra runner positive, Kristi Anderson, a masters runner who tested positive for DHEA, a pro-drug of testosterone. That one seems to be a sign of an aggressive anti-aging clinic rather than Ms Anderson's desire to cheat. However, it is still technically cheating (albeit not very effective) and as athletes we are responsible for what we put in our bodies.

    Anyway. It's my favorite topic. I've always wanted to write a "This is how you dope – and 100 reasons why you shouldn't" piece here on iRunFar.

    1. @SageCanaday

      Great post! And for the record I'm 100% clean…test me any time and any day of the year. I've only been tested once at Pikes Peak and I took it as a big honor! It's actually a little disturbing that i've only been tested once in my whole career though considering there are MUT races now that pay out quite a bit more than Pikes or most USATF events. And shouldn't races test runners like 4-6 weeks before a big event too? Runners who dope are going to know going into a race whether or not there is a good chance they will be tested for doing well in a race and can "taper off "the juice. Bio passports and out-of-season testing are the future for catching more people hopefully, but of course the funding (or lack of it) is a big issue.

  7. lstomsl

    Thanks for at least bringing up the subject of doping and specifically Chris Carmichael's increasing involvement in ultra-running. Without any real drug testing or even a sanctioning body the only hope everything have of keeping dopers out of our sport is to increase awareness of the problem and in particular to raise awareness of individuals with shady pasts in an effort to keep them out of the running community. So your frank discussion is appreciated.

    That being said I find the allusions to "three degrees of separation" to be disingenuous at best. Let's be honest about what is happening here. Alex did not have a beer 5 years ago with someone who once shook Lance Armstrong's hand. Chris Carmichael has more than three decades of history of involvement in the worst doping scandals in the history of sport. Jason Koop has worked for Carmichael for 14 years and is now director of coaching for Carmichael 's coaching company. That makes him Carmichael' s right hand man, and to my knowledge he has never said a word about that association other than "People will say what they say". Out of all the coaches available Alex has chosen the one with the dirtiest past. That's not three degrees of separation, that's a direct link. It doesn't prove anything other than questionable ethics and access to the man with the connections to doping products but that alone makes his results subject to scrutiny.

    Sorry Alex but the problem is not that "you have no way of answering those questions". That's like saying the problem is that you can't find enough perfume to cover the stench of the shit you've been rolling in. The solution is not finding the right perfume, the solution is keeping the shit out of our sport in the first place.

    Its a sad day for ultra-running.

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