Interview with WTC Winner Chris Vargo

Alex Varner nipping at Chris Vargo’s heels during the early miles. Photo: Joe McCladdie

UR Congratulations on your big win at Way Too Cool, that was way impressive! Can you give us a little background on where you live and so on?

VARGO I’m originally from Indiana but currently live in Colorado Springs, although I’m moving to Flagstaff, AZ within the next few weeks. I just finished work at Boulder Running Company and have started picking up athletes to coach. I’m hoping it will turn into a job that I can do for the rest of my life!

UR If you coach nearly as well as you run you should be in great shape with that career. Going into WTC how was your training and fitness?

VARGO I was sick leading in to Sean O’Brien 50- Mile, which I DNF’d at mile 36, so it took awhile for me to feel normal again. I’d say my fitness was good but not great leading in to this race. I felt as though I lost a lot of fitness during the month of sickness, even though my coach, Ian Torrence, assured me I would be OK. That dude is always right!

UR What was your mindset after last year’s second place to Max King’s new CR, and the third fastest time ever only 30 seconds off the prior 10-year-standing CR of Uli Steidl’s?

VARGO The fact that I came in second last year made me that much more excited for this year’s race. The course was incredibly wet and muddy compared to last year, so I knew Max’s record wouldn’t come close to being touched. Knowing that, I raced to win without a goal time in mind. Originally, I predicted that sub-3:20 would win it in the mud and sub-3:15 would win it on a dry course. Alex and I both agreed that we could have finished anywhere from 3:10-3:12 had the course been dry. Maybe next year!

UR How did the race unfold for you, it seemed like Alex was surging and fading but always right there until the very end?

Alex Varner nipping at Chris Vargo’s heels during the early miles. Photo: Joe McCladdie

VARGO Alex had some stomach issues early in the race, so I would let up on the pace when he hit the bushes! He would have done the same for me. Once he caught back up to me at mile 17 we stayed together for the remainder of the race. I was climbing really well, so I picked up the pace heading out of the canyon to see how Alex would react. I managed to put a small gap on him only to realize he wasn’t going to drop from the pace. Nothing really exciting happened, to be quite honest. We sat in to a fast pace and quickly clicked off the miles. Alex threw down a little surge on the last climb after mile 30 and I didn’t have any problem staying with him. At that point I knew I’d be able to out kick him at the end. With about 200 meters to go I picked it up and looked back to see that I put a decent gap on him. Turns out it was enough to hold on for the win.

UR What goes through your mind as you are racing at such a high speed for so long in a pitched battle with one other frontrunner?

VARGO Honestly, it was pretty comfortable the entire time. I never really hit a low moment during the entire race. Not only that, but it was great sharing trail with a teammate/friend. We both wanted the other to do well, but of course winning was our main goal. It made for an interesting finish! Alex and I are very similar runners. If you watch some of the videos out there, our gait is eerily similar!

UR What was your fueling and hydration – especially the second half of the race?

VARGO I had three VFuel gels and two GU Roctane gels that I grabbed at aid stations. I also took down two packets of Vespa concentrate. As far as hydration, I like to go with Nuun and water. I fell coming in to the mile-21 aid station and managed to break the strap on my water bottle. I ran the last third of the race without a bottle and stopped for a little bit of coke at one of the last few aid stations.

UR For many of us, falling and losing hydration two-thirds into an ultra would be a major issue…How does it feel to win a race with 1,050 starters, including a guy who had never been beaten in an ultra before?

VARGO It felt great! I knew Alex had been training like a beast leading into this race, so it was exciting to see how the race unfolded. I love racing against incredible runners, and Alex is all of that and a great person. Very big things to come from him in the future!

UR Do you think Max’s CR at Cool is breakable?

VARGO Max’s record is quite stout, but I definitely think it is breakable. It would have to be an absolutely perfect day and perfect race, though. I’m trying to convince Alex to come back next year so we can take a crack at it!

UR Like so many of today’s elite ultra runners, you have come onto the scene rapidly – your first ultra was a fourth place at Bootlegger 50K in November 2012. Did you think that would lead to such huge ultra accomplishments in just 18 months?

VARGO My parents raised me and my brother to really get after whatever it is we are passionate about. Sometimes things don’t start off smoothly, but with hard work comes success. Bootlegger was a rude awakening for me. I was not fully prepared for that race, but I didn’t let it get me down. Since then, I continued to train and learn, and it has paid off immensely. Ian Torrence has been a huge factor in my recent success. He has my training dialed in. However, I really make a point to learn from some of the top runners in the sport, which is one of the main reasons I choose to race stacked races as opposed to races that would be easy to win. It just makes sense to me. We all need to get our butt’s kicked every once in awhile, right? Regardless, I still have a lot to learn, but my overall goal is to be the best runner in the sport.

UR How does your competitive cycling and swimming background play into your ultrarunning success?

VARGO I often thank my parents for throwing me in to the pool at such a young age. The benefits of exercise during those early developmental years is huge. As far as cycling goes, I think it has played a huge role in my running. Cyclists don’t always transfer over to running very well, but for some reason it clicked with me. Granted, my quads are a lot smaller now.

UR Do you still do either very much, competitively, or for cross-training?

VARGO I mountain bike every so often and I’ll hop on the bike trainer during the winter months. It’s a great way to mix things up. I would love to get back in the pool a bit more, but I tend to put on upper body muscle weight, which isn’t very beneficial when it comes to running.

UR What’s next for you in 2014? In the two ultras you’ve done the second time you have gone from extraordinary performances, to even more extraordinary – what should we expect at Lake Sonoma?

VARGO My “A” goal for Lake Sonoma is taking the win. My “B” goal is top three. I think it will be a good day! After Sonoma I have Cayuga Trails 50 mile (US 50-Mile Championships) on June 1, then crewing/pacing Nike teammate/friend Sally McRae at Western States. After that I’m heading to Utah for the Speedgoat 50K in July, followed by UROC 100K in September, Bootlegger 50K in November, and TNF 50 Champs in December. I’m excited to see how the season unfolds!

UR What about Western States 100 – if you get the podium at Lake Sonoma, would you, could you?

VARGO I’ve committed to helping Sally at this year’s Western States 100. My plan is to get a feel for the course before I jump in to it next year. Plus, helping Sally in a race she’s worked so hard for will be incredible.

UR What other ultrarunner(s) inspire you or do you admire most, and why?

VARGO I look up to the usual suspects like Timmy Olson, Rob Krar, and Kilian Jornet, but honestly I find the most inspiration from the middle of the pack and back of the pack runners. We all share the same passion for the sport, and I’ve found that success is all relative. It really doesn’t matter if you are winning races or simply reaching personal goals. Every ultrarunner is bad ass in my eyes!

UR As a sea level dweller who always wonders… what has been the impact for you of moving to the mountains?

VARGO It has been incredibly beneficial. When I first moved to altitude I was very frustrated with every single run I slogged through. Over time it became easier and easier. I don’t think you can ever fully acclimate to altitude, but you can get pretty darn close. I definitely feel the difference when racing at sea level. It’s oh so nice! UR What brought you to ultrarunning – what was your first running race? VARGO I was turned on to the trail scene while working at Fleet Feet in Sacramento, CA. There is a huge population of ultrarunners in California, so it was only a matter of time before I started racing long on the trails.

UR How has ultrarunning affected other aspects of your life?

VARGO Truthfully, I owe my life to ultrarunning. I had reached a point in my life where my addiction to alcohol and drugs had beaten me to a pulp. I woke up one day feeling sorry for myself and I was tired of “used to” being good at a sport. I had to get back out there and try my hardest to be great at something again. Running came naturally to me, and I actually had quite a bit of success in races where I wasn’t completely sober during my training.

UR When did you realize that you were battling alcoholism?

VARGO I knew I had a problem in college, but it was almost acceptable then, so it never really seemed like a big deal. We were in college, after all. You’re supposed to drink and experiment with drugs in college, or so I thought. Waking up early on the weekends to drink before football games was the norm. It continued to get worse and worse after college where I often found myself drinking on a daily basis just so I could function during every day activities. I drank when I woke up, throughout the day, and before I went to bed. It was a vicious cycle. It was common for me to go on all out benders for weeks at a time. Drinking until I’d pass out, and waking up to do it all over again. I’ve wrecked my truck, broken multiple bones including my leg, received stitches in my hand after punching windows, and I’ve spent time in jail. I even mastered a mixture of Gatorade and white wine that masked the smell of alcohol on my breath so that I could make it through work without getting caught. It finally got to the point where it had to end.

UR When and how did you get sober?

VARGO I’ve been sober since Dec 10, 2011, one week after setting the course record at the North Face Endurance Challenge Half Marathon. Granted, I tried quitting numerous times before finally getting it under control. I frequented AA meetings, but never really found them to help. Don’t get me wrong, AA has saved millions of lives and it’s an incredible resource, but it just never worked for me. I decided that the only way I could stay sober is if I went public with my addiction. Of course, my friends and family were fully aware (for years) that I had an issue and did everything in their power to help, but for some reason opening up to the public was my saving grace. I’m very fortunate to have a great family and incredible friends supporting me through all of this. I remember lying on my couch shaking and sweating for days as my body detoxed. I drank as many green smoothies as I possibly could during the time. Once I made it past 90 days, it got a little bit easier. Unfortunately, every day of my life I feel the need to meet a fix. I crave alcohol and most drugs I’ve done on a daily basis, but it doesn’t faze me anymore. I have one shot at this life, and I’m not letting alcohol and drugs bring me down anymore. No matter what, I’ll always be a recovering alcoholic, because all it takes is one sip to go back to day zero. My mother can sleep peacefully now that I’m sober, and that’s enough for me to stay this way.

UR What advice do you have for others battling alcohol or other addictions?

VARGO You cannot win the battle on your own. You absolutely have to have a support system. I also think it is important to find things to do that keep your mind off of whatever it is you are addicted to. You could say that ultrarunning is a “healthy addiction” for me. The second I get bored I find something to do, often running or some sort of training, but that only goes so far. Boredom is the worst state you can find yourself in, and you need healthy outlets or support for those times. If you don’t have friends or family who support you, it’s necessary for you to attend AA meetings and have that support network.

UR Are there resources out there for others in need of help on this?

VARGO I think AA is the best option out there for most people. I also encourage people to get in touch with me if they have any questions. I will try my best to reach out to as many of you as possible, I know first hand how hard it can be.

UR How does one know the difference between liking to drink beers after every ultra, and alcoholism?

VARGO That’s a good question. There is nothing wrong with drinking but there is something wrong with drinking in order to function on a daily basis. Also, if you drink to self medicate, you’re steering yourself down a very slippery slope! Most alcoholics know that they are alcoholics, but some choose to ignore it.

UR How have others in the ultrarunning community responded to this?

VARGO I can’t even begin to tell you the amount of support I have received from the ultrarunning community. And for that, I am immensely thankful.

  • Brandon Baker

    Great to hear your story Chris and best to you moving forward- I have seen many struggle with drugs and alcohol, but the trails seem to help people find freedom! Excited to share the trails with you at Cayuga!!