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When I started this article on Alex Varner, I thought I’d be writing about his anticipated double performance at the Quad Dipsea and at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championship (TNF 50), just one week apart.
After all, on November 28, Varner, 30, had just set a new course record (3:41:01) in winning the 28.4-mile “Quad,” which sends runners twice out, and twice back, on the notoriously hilly, seven-mile Dipsea race course. December 5 was the typically competitive TNF 50, in which he placed third last year (and which utilizes part of the Dipsea Trail in its course). Both are “hometown” races for Varner, who is based in San Rafael, California, and is a regular sight in the San Francisco Bay Area trail-running community.
However, around mile 20 of TNF 50, Varner’s knees started to bug him, and he pulled the plug. “I went into TNF with the plan that I’d see how the race went and how my legs felt, and if anything was significantly off, I’d drop,” he says. He listened to his body and stuck with that plan.
While I lost the “epic double” or “Herculean effort” story angle, I was actually pretty pleased to hear such wisdom. This is a sport that frequently sees its hottest athletes burn out – probably due to the frequency with which they race distances that are, you know, longer than a marathon.
This piqued my curiosity in a different way. What is Varner – an athlete who races infrequently, but almost always races well – going to do next? How does he pick his races? And what lies ahead for one of the most promising talents in trail running? We caught up with him after TNF 50 to ask about that and more.
Varner’s 3:41:01 at the 28.4-mile Quad Dipsea was a course record. Photo by John Medinger
You said the Quad Dipsea was your “A” race this year. Why?
I chose Quad Dipsea as my “A” race when I signed up for it back in August. TNF was already on the calendar at that point, but when the opportunity arose to run the Quad, I decided to focus on that one over TNF.
I ran TNF last year and had a great race, so I wasn’t looking for redemption there or anything, which made it a lot easier to choose the Quad as my “A” race. Also, I grew up in Marin and have been running the (original) Dipsea Race since 2003 (as well as several Double Dipsea races) so to run the Quad now that I’ve started running longer distances just seemed right. I was especially motivated by the possibility of setting a new CR [course record] at the race.
You answered my next question, which was whether you’d previously raced the Dipsea or Double Dipsea.
I’ve run the Dipsea Race 12 times and the Double Dipsea four or five times. I had never run the Quad before.
How did you get into that race in the first place? The Bay Area has a vibrant trail-running community, but it sounds like the Dipsea has been part of your running life since before you were doing trail ultras.
I grew up in San Rafael and ran cross-country in high school locally. My coach told me about the Dipsea Race during my senior year of high school, in 2003, and I ran it for the first time that year. I was hooked and continue to run it every year.
Did that give you the bug to move on to longer trail races? What role did the Bay Area trail community – it’s replete with elite runners, and San Francisco Running Company (SFRC) is sort of an institution in the trail world – play in your development there?
In the years following college I had been gravitating toward more trail races, although nothing much longer than a 25K, and ran a couple of road marathons. I liked the distance of the marathon and the easier-on-your body aspect of trails, so I decided to run the Headlands 50K in 2013. [Author’s note: Varner won that 50K debut in a then-course record of 3:41:49.]
It was during the following year that the SFRC store really brought the community together. The happenstance of the store and several elite athletes being in the area really catalyzed a great group of folks who just like to run trails. I think I’d still be racing the longer trail stuff even if that community didn’t exist, but it definitely pushed me to take it to a level I had not previously envisioned.
The Dipsea course is sort of infamous. Can you describe it, and tell us why?
The course runs from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach and back, twice. So it’s four seven-mile legs. Each leg has two major climbs and descents. The high point on the course is Cardiac Hill, around 1,400 feet.
The most well-known and challenging aspect of the Dipsea Trail is the 670-plus stairs that you run up, not even 200 meters into the race, climbing out of Mill Valley. There is also a long section of nasty stairs heading up out of Stinson. You have to run both of those sections up twice and down twice, which can really trash your quads if you’re not ready.
Aside from the stairs, the trail is basically never flat. It roughly resembles something flat for maybe [half a mile] around the mid-point of each leg, but other than that, you’re either going up or down. Each leg is seven miles with roughly 2,200 feet of climbing and descending.
How did the race unfold? It looked like you slowed down somewhat on the last lap, but also that you weren’t really challenged for the win.
I was basically alone from the start. I wanted to run 54-minute splits for the first two legs, to give myself a full two hours to run the last two legs. I managed to actually run faster than that for the first three legs, so I had roughly 68 minutes to run the final leg back to Mill Valley from Stinson.
I was fairly optimistic coming into the final leg that I’d be able to run 56 or 57 minutes, but as soon as I started climbing out of the beach, I knew it would be a good bit slower. I just put my head down and kept plugging away.
[Author’s note: Varner ran splits of 53:41, 51:55, 54:22 and 1:01:05.]
You were still planning on running TNF 50 the next weekend. What was your recovery process like in between?
I took two days completely off following the Quad. I then ran four to six miles a day for the rest of the week and made sure I ate a lot to replenish the stores I’d burned during the Quad. I also tried to get as much sleep as I could.
Take us through TNF 50 then. How and when did you decide to drop?
My runs in the several days leading up to TNF were a bit more pained than usual, but come Friday, things felt fairly normal. I avoided any sort of significant climbing during my recovery runs, however, so I knew that I might get into trouble with the climbs on the course.
Sure enough, about 10 to 12 miles in, my knees started getting a little sore. I knew this was likely due to my quads still being quite tight from the Quad (such a fitting name in so many ways), so I figured I’d see how things progressed.
I made a concerted push up Heather Cutoff to Cardiac and things didn’t get worse, so I was in pretty good spirits when I saw my coach, Jason Koop, and several friends around mile 18. However, within a mile, the trail got decidedly more technical and my knees decided they’d had enough. I made it another couple miles before realizing things weren’t going to get any better, and made the decision to drop around mile 20.
Since you’ve lived to fight another day, I’m curious what plans you have for next year, or beyond. You’ve slowly but surely notched off some good performances – top 10 at the Western States 100, a win at Lake Sonoma 50, podium at TNF 50 and now a course record at Quad Dipsea – the last couple seasons, so what’s next?
I’m really not sure yet. I’m registered for Lake Sonoma and Boston but the focus is still not clear. I’d like to run some more international races in the coming years, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten.