Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
The same addictive personality that dragged the 32-year-old down a dark road of alcoholism has fueled his fast rise to success on the trails.
It’s first thing in the morning and Chris Vargo needs to get his fix.
“I wake up every day and I have a fix that I have to meet,” explains the 32-year-old ultrarunner from Flagstaff, Ariz. “And if I don’t run it’s bad, and I need to find something else to do whether it’s get outside and hike or go walk the dog, go fishing—something. I have to do something, and when you take that away it’s pretty bad.”
A recovering alcoholic, Vargo was at his worst in 2011, when he would wake up in the morning and start drinking, oftentimes all day, for weeks at a time. The former Cat 1-2 cyclist, who had put his wheels away in 2008 because partying was more appealing than racing bikes, tried to quit drinking on multiple occasions and took up running “because it kept my mind off of those demons and all that bad stuff.”
But running wasn’t an instant solution for the Indiana native, who was living in Sacramento at the time and working at a local running store. Despite occasionally logging some miles, Vargo had a hard time breaking free from his bad habits. He clocked a promising 2:34:40 at the 2011 Chicago Marathon off of “not much training” but it wasn’t until a couple months later—December 11, 2011 to be exact—that Vargo reversed course down the dark road of alcoholism that compromised his physical and mental well-being, affected relationships and kept him from realizing his athletic potential.
“I would have these conversations with people and I’d say, ‘Well I used to be really good at cycling,’” recalls Vargo. “But who cares if you used to be good at something? That kind of put me around. I was an alcoholic for a very long time but I still managed to run decently well when I was drinking so it just clicked one day that, ‘I need to just stop this, not just to save my life but let me give this running thing a shot.’”
The ultrarunning community is peppered with former addicts, the fortunate ones who have been able to turn their lives around by adhering to the rigors of one of the world’s most grueling sports. Among them are two-time Western States 100 champion Tim Olson, four-time Angeles Crest winner Ben Hian, adventure runner Charlie Engle and serial 100-mile runner Catra Corbet.
In Vargo’s case, the same addictive personality that dragged him down a dark road of alcoholism has fueled his fast rise to success on the trails over the past two years, most recently at the Ultra Race of Champions in Copper Mountain, Colo., on Sept. 6, where Vargo won the 100K race—his first attempt at the distance—in 9:44:42. It was his fourth win of 2014, a campaign which has also included a sprint-finish victory at the Way Too Cool 50K in Cool, Calif., in March (3:16:51), a win and course record at the Whoo’s In Morro 50K in Newport Beach, Calif., in May (3:24:13) and a national title at the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile in Ithaca, N.Y. on June 1. In fact, Vargo has won all four races he’s finished this season, having had to drop out of the Sean O’Brien 50 Mile in February due to illness and the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile in April because of an IT band injury.
In June, Vargo paced Nike Trail teammate Alex Varner from miles 62-80 at the Western States 100, an experience that inspired him so much he says it’s possible he might try to qualify for a spot on the starting line in Squaw as early as next year, depending how he feels heading into 2015.
“It’s just an incredible race,” Vargo says of Western States. “It’s always competitive and there’s not even any money involved. It’s Western States and it’s definitely a goal of mine. I may run the Bandera 100K in Texas to try and guarantee myself a spot but that’s early January and I’m hoping to really ski and mountain bike a bit more this winter so we’ll kind of see where I am in January. But I definitely want Western States to be my first 100 miler for sure.”
For now, however, the 5-foot-10, 135-pound Vargo is focused on the remainder of his season, which includes the Festival des Trempliers—a 73K trail race in France on Oct. 26, where he’ll be part of a U.S. team that also includes Sage Canaday, Zach Miller, Alex Nichols and Matt Flaherty—and culminates with the Gore-Tex 50-Mile Championship at The North Face Endurance Challenge finale on Dec. 6 in the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco, where he finished third last year behind Rob Krar and Cameron Clayton.
“My goal coming into this year was to win North Face, so that’s [still] my main goal. I would be happy with top-three but I want to win it,” Vargo says assertively. “There’s a lot of people who are going to be going after it. It’s going to be really fast so I’m trying to stay healthy and get ready for that.”
A win at North Face for Vargo would cap a memorable year, which, in addition to some big wins, was kicked off by signing on as a member of the newly formed Nike Trail elite team and included a move to Flagstaff from Colorado Springs in April.
Vargo, who lives with reigning U.S. marathon champion Nick Arciniaga, feels at home in his new high-altitude environs, impressed with its vast network of trails and dirt roads, laidback lifestyle and the depth of incredible athletes who live and train there, including ultrarunning aces such as Krar, Ian Torrence (Vargo’s former coach who he still leans on as a mentor) and Emily Harrison, as well as top road and track athletes such as Ryan and Sara Hall, and the members of professional groups such Northern Arizona Elite and Team Run Flagstaff.
“It’s the first place I’ve lived that I can call home,” Vargo says. “The vibe that I get here is that it’s a little bit redneck, it’s a little bit hippy, it’s a little bit outdoorsy so it’s the best of all worlds. It definitely fits my style very well. As far as the running goes, it’s incredible. There are so many good runners in town and there are dirt roads for days out here. It’s perfect.”
Flagstaff is also home to a budding relationship with fellow elite trail runner Alicia Shay, whom Vargo met when she helped him with a nutrition plan a few years back, and reconnected with when he came to visit Flagstaff earlier this year. Shay, who tragically lost her husband Ryan when he collapsed and died at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in November of 2007, says that “we’re coming at [trail running] from very different angles but I think that for both of us it’s much more than just competition and sport and running a lot of miles. It has a deeper root in where we are personally in our lives.” In addition to their mutual interests and a bond that’s tied by trail running, the two are supportive of one another in coping with the difficult events of their respective pasts.
“The best thing that we’ve done with each other is that we’re honest about it all,” explains Vargo. “I will tell her if there’s a situation, like if we’re out at a wedding or anything like that, and I just need to go home, she totally understands that. [Our situations] do have their similarities. What she went through was devastating. We talk a lot when we run with each other. She’s so strong on the trails and can lay it down pretty good. We go on some pretty hard runs together and those are good times to talk about that kind of stuff. She knows more about me than a lot of people do and it’s not all about running. I’ve learned a lot from her and she’s learned a lot from me, so it’s a good support system for sure.”
“We’re still just getting to know each other but it’s nice to have someone you can get below the surface with a little bit and acknowledge, ‘OK, this is where you’re at in your life and this is where I’m at and we’ll just support each other and see where that goes,'” adds Shay. “For [Chris], running became a healthy and productive alternative from alcoholism and addiction and gave him a sense of meaning and purpose at a point of time in his life when he really needed it. It’s great to see him take ownership of that and really change things around and be passionate about it. I didn’t know him previously but I just imagine that several years of his life were just kind of eaten up in a blur of addiction and you don’t feel like you’re really living. And I suppose that’s kind of how I felt the past several years of my life but for different reasons, more so just grief and walking through the unknown of what it’s like to have your life partner taken away from you and having to get back on your feet again.”
Whether it’s spending time on the trails with Shay, hanging out with fellow runners after races, connecting with fans through social media or coaching athletes via his website, vargorunning.com, Vargo feels fortunate to be a part of a supportive community of trail runners that prides itself on picking one another up during tough times.
“I’ve fallen in love with it and I’ve met so many incredible people,” Vargo says of the trail running community. “It’s literally saved my life. And being open about the alcoholism and addiction I’ve met tons of people that have contacted me who need help. There are a lot of athletes who have addictive personalities and there are definitely a lot of correlations between that and it’s pretty amazing all the people who have contacted me. On a daily basis I get hit up by people who are asking for advice and that makes life worth living a little bit more, it makes it a little bit better. And that’s kind of how the trail running community is: everyone’s there to help. It’s awesome and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
As Vargo continues to travel down the long road of sobriety in pursuit of a wide range of competitive goals—from placing amongst the top finishers every time he toes the line, to possibly trying earn a spot at the Western States Endurance Run in June or even switching gears and going after an Olympic Trials qualifying mark in the marathon next fall (“Not yet though,” he says. “The trail running is going too well.”)—he feels grateful for the opportunity to get his fix on the trails these days, a fact that’s not lost on him when he steps on the starting line.
“I think about [my past] a lot when I race,” Vargo says. “Quitting drugs and alcohol is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and it continues to be very difficult, so in the broad scheme of things a race is not that hard. I mean it’s hard, but in a different way, but I’ve conquered these other things so why not look to that for inspiration? I’m pretty lucky to be doing what I’m doing right now. I’ve also found more appreciation for life outside of running. For whatever reason it fills that void and meets that fix.”