Record Best Time Award Winner Varner Anxious For 110th Dipsea on November 7

Alex Varner on his way to his third place finish in 2019

With the pandemic cancelling last year’s 110th Dipsea Race and causing it to be rescheduled this year from June 13 to November 7, things have sure slowed down for Alex Varner. For now.

After setting a Dipsea record in winning his ninth fastest time award two years ago, the 35-year-old elite runner from San Rafael hasn’t had many occasions to converse and celebrate his remarkable achievement in a quirky trail race that’s lasted more than 115 years. The pandemic has pinned in the fleet-footed Varner who seemingly has passed more people than Forrest Gump.

The biggest highlight for Varner was being congratulated by the man whose record he broke – Mike McManus – when they randomly bumped into each other at a HOKA party in August 2019 following the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in France where Varner competed in the 55 Kilometer Orsieres Champex Chamonix trail race. That’s like Carl Lewis patting Usain Bolt in the back.

Varner and McManus share a unique perspective and brotherhood for the Dipsea, a time handicapped foot race that between them they have competed in more than 30 times. Combined they have recorded the fastest time 17 times in the race, yet neither has ever won it. McManus had a pair of third-place finishers in 1990-91 and Varner placed second both in 2017-18. The closest either has come to winning the Dipsea was Varner whom, in 2018, was 15 seconds behind two-time champion Chris Lundy, who had a 10-minute head start based on a handicap system determined by age and gender.

It’s put more meaning in the term “runner-up.”

Varner and McManus have come to understand the extraordinary effort it takes to start in the back of the pack and then pass hundreds of runners on a tight and treacherous course just to have a chance to finish first. So when Varner won his record ninth Best Time Trophy in the 109th Dipsea in placing third overall, the sense of his remarkable achievement was largely overlooked outside the Dipsea running community.

“The reaction was fairly muted, honestly. People who know the way the race works definitely appreciated it more than people who don’t,” Varner says. “Most people unfamiliar with the handicap system ask how/why I haven't won it yet, so that's always a fun explanation.”

Unfortunately, since COVID-19, running and fun have been hard to find. Varner, like everyone else in the running world, has adjusted to COVID and the impact it had on training and competing.

“Like most people, I haven't raced since 2019 as there just haven't been any races. I got into a couple of good training grooves, but after several weeks of higher mileage and workouts on 2-3 different occasions, I found my motivation began to wane and I just took some time off. I've found it difficult to stay very motivated without races to train towards,” Varner says. “Add to that a recurring calf issue that I've been dealing with, and it has felt that as soon as I get a good amount of fitness under my belt, either my body or my motivation have given out and I've regressed for a few weeks before starting to build again.”

Varner, however, was able to spend more time with his four-year-old daughter until day care and school reopening became options again. That flexibility allowed him to return to work as Director of Research and Portfolio Manager at Main Management in San Francisco 3-4 times a week and a more normal routine of training.

With the 110th Dipsea now rescheduled from June 13 to November 7 of this year, Varner finally has more time to train, yet a different emphasis on Dipsea preparation than from the past.

“I'm placing a bigger focus on staying healthy,” he says. “I've been dealing with a recurring calf issue for the last 15 months or so that is mostly manageable, but I’ve definitely noticed it's harder to stay healthy as I've gotten older. I'll be happy to be at the start line healthy.”

Hundreds of Dipsea runners have the same sentiment. Personal health in wake of a worldwide pandemic is of the highest priority. To resume the annual Dipsea after 29 months would be cause for celebration and Varner has his mind set of celebrating at the finish line again in his own way.

“I'd absolutely like to win another fastest time award. I feel as though I have more control over that goal than any other one, like winning the race, so that's what I've been aiming at for the past decade or so,” Varner says. “Obviously, I'd love to win the race outright, but I realize that given the handicaps, I may not have that opportunity for another decade or two, if ever. But I've also felt my focus shift away from trying to be hyper competitive at the race to running it a bit more for enjoyment, as the past 10 plus years have been really focused on performing well and have brought with them more than their share of nerves and anxiety around the race. It would be fun to really look forward to it for the experience more than anything else, for once. I guess you could say I'm just in a place where I'm taking it a bit less seriously.”

For now.