Having taken 18th last year in Annecy, France, Alex Varner is the top returning U.S. men’s team member at this year’s IAU Trail World Championships this weekend in Portugal. In the following interview, Alex talks about what he’s done this year, how his training has gone, and why this will be his last major ultramarathon for a while.
For more on who else is racing, check out our in-depth men’s and women’s previews. You can also follow along with our extensive live race coverage on Saturday.
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Alex Varner Pre-2016 IAU Trail World Championships Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Alex Varner before the 2016 IAU Trail World Championships. How are you, Alex?
Alex Varner: Good, Bryon. How are you?
iRunFar: What have you done for me lately?
Varner: Not a lot. I ran a four-mile cross country race.
iRunFar: How did that go?
Varner: It was awesome. I ran a lot better than I thought I would. I participated in Headlands 50k. That was late August, like the last weekend in August?
iRunFar: Was that the [USATF] 50k Trail National Championships? How did that go?
Varner: Yeah. It went pretty well. I think considering I spent all of July training for a road mile, and then had basically four weeks of build-up for Headlands without anything longer than three-minute intervals, I was pretty happy with that one.
iRunFar: What was the reason for heading away from the ultra stuff?
Varner: After Quad [Dipsea] last year, I ran [USATF] Club Cross-Country Nationals, which were in SF [San Francisco]. Then took some time off. I went on a trip for Christmas for about a week. I was noticing some pain in my right hip. I didn’t really think too much of it because you take time off and you don’t expect things to get worse; you expect them to get better. I didn’t think much of it. Then come January when I started up running again, after the first week—I probably hopped back in too fast, but I felt healthy and was feeling okay—I had some major pain non-descript in my groin and upper thigh. I couldn’t figure out what it was. It was three or four months that I could run on it and manage it, but I took a couple weeks off two times to try to get it better, and it just never got better. Finally after the Boston Marathon in April I saw my third PT, and she figured out within five minutes of putting me on the treadmill, “Oh, your right SI joint is an inch lower than your left. Your right glute isn’t firing. That’s what’s causing your hip to drop which puts stress on your IT band which pulls it inside. It moves around and it’s non-descript?” I said, “Yes.” So six weeks later and six days a week of hip exercises, I was running pain free at Dipsea [Race]. That was the reason I dropped out halfway at Sonoma [50 Mile]. That was the reason Boston, I just ran it because you sign up in October or whenever it is. Then I really wanted to kind of be conscientious about building back up and jumping into ultras, so I waited through the summer for Headlands.
iRunFar: So when did you start to get on a regular routine training schedule?
Varner: The regular training schedule probably started two or three weeks before Dipsea in June or late May. That’s when I could feel the issue resolving and getting better. As the result it was a couple weeks of training for Dipsea. That didn’t go as planned. Then after that it was a slow build toward this road mile that I raced in a local USATF association. I hadn’t done that for a long time, so I wanted to get back. Well, I don’t have any stamina anyway. I might as well run some track and roads here and see how it goes. Then we shifted focus to… I found out I was on the team for this race in July, so we focused on this.
iRunFar: How did you choose that this was your focus race?
Varner: I wanted to get on this team. I wanted to visit a new country. I wanted a little bit of redemption after Annecy—that did not go as well as I’d hoped. Another chance to run for your country is always an extra added incentive.
iRunFar: It kind of seemed that way because you had a rough race there, but then I don’t know if you were two thirds of the way through the race… toward the end there when you found out you were third man…
Varner: Yeah, it was nice to be able to dig in and grind it out to the finish. I hadn’t had an experience like that in an ultra before where it was like, Okay, this is greater than me. David [Laney] and Alex [Nichols] are up there. Tim [Tollefson] unfortunately had to drop. Yassine [Diboun] is out there, too. We’ve got to get this done as fast as we can. It ended up paying off, not because of me, but the way the team ran well. We got a silver medal, and that was fantastic. That was a really nice surprise.
iRunFar: This year you’re the top returning member of the team.
Varner: The only returning member.
iRunFar: That’s another way to put it. It’s kind of a… you’re down at least one team member?
Varner: Yeah, Ryan Bak dropped out unfortunately with an injury a couple weeks ago.
iRunFar: I was just talking to Luis Alberto [Hernando] of the Spanish team, and they all run it as an individual race with a team aspect to it. Has the U.S. team discussed it at all? There can be strategy if you want to have that.
Varner: We haven’t talked about it yet. I’ve never raced against or with Jared [Burdick] or Tyler [Sigl]. Mario [Mendoza], I’ve raced a couple of times, but not a lot. I think we have to talk about it and figure out how we want to attack it and if we feel as if we want to go after the team aspect or if it’s kind of, Okay, you’re running for Team USA. Do your best in your own way.
iRunFar: You can also have it where somebody is like a safety third runner. How much does each person risk? Do you go for the absolute 15 minutes under your predicted best? Maybe one out of three would get that and you don’t have a team if the other two blow up.
Varner: I think we’ll figure that out in the next couple of days. It will be interesting to see what we decide if anything.
iRunFar: This is also probably your last ultra for a little while. Why is that?
Varner: Yes, we have a kid due in February. I got married about a month ago. We did the whole… she’s Canadian, so we had to go through the whole immigration process. Yeah, we have a child due technically on Valentine’s Day, but the doctor is like, “This is when we think it started, so… uhhh… Valentine’s Day.” Yeah, I’m really excited about that. As a result, I’m kind of going to step back a little bit and make that a priority. I think it’s probably in the best interest of mine and our family. We’ll see what happens. I’m going to keep running obviously. This isn’t… it’s probably more of a sabbatical or something. Who knows?
iRunFar: Yeah, switching priorities for a little bit.
Varner: Exactly. Exactly. We’ll see where that takes us.
iRunFar: Does that give any more meaning to this race then?
Varner: A child arriving definitely puts things in perspective. “Oh, I’m here. I’m doing this great race! Then in three months I’ll be a parent for the rest of my life.”
iRunFar: There’s that.
Varner: There is the, Alright, I want to do well here and go out on a good note for a bit, but there’s always the future.
iRunFar: Does that take stress off this race almost?
Varner: Exactly. You see enough guys who are running well at 35, 40, 45, so I’m still a decade from there, and I’m not worried about longevity. If anything it will help prolong it by taking some time off.
iRunFar: Do you feel pretty fit going into this one?
Varner: I think so. I’ve had a couple of good workouts after Headlands. I had two weeks of a break for our honeymoon, but [Jason] Koop and I talked about it, and I was able to run a couple semi-workouts when we were there, but we were in Maui which is so hot and humid. You get out and you try to run a pace that in San Francisco would be fairly pedestrian and 10 minutes in you want to crawl into a shower or crawl into the ocean.
iRunFar: Maybe you’re rested.
Varner: That was four weeks ago, so I’ve had three weeks of good hard training since then. The workouts have gone well. I feel good. Again, it all comes down to what happens on Saturday.
iRunFar: Best of luck out there and have fun. Enjoy Portugal.
Varner: Thank you. I appreciate it. Absolutely.