Endurance sports are well-suited for an addiction-prone personality. It does, after all, take a certain amount of "addiction" to want--or need even--to get out there an put in a daily dose of mileage.
Swimmer-turned-cyclist-turned-trail-and-ultra-runner Chris Vargo is no stranger to addiction, but thankfully for him it's paid off in a positive way. Only having moved to Colorado a year ago to pursue trail and ultra running at a higher level, the Indiana native has seen his training efforts combined with time spent at altitude come to fruition over the last few months with a breakthrough runner-up finish to elite ultra runner Max King at last March's Way Too Cool 50k, followed by a landslide victory and 29 minute course record at Colorado's own Golden Gate Dirty 30. Although his plans for last July's Speedgoat 50k were derailed by an Achilles injury, he now has his eye on December's Northface 50 Miler where his goal is another win, a victory that would also mark a 2 year milestone of sobriety after 6 years of alcoholism.
"Without running I'd probably still be some kind of raging alcoholic," said Vargo, never one to mince words. "Before competitive running I probably tried 15 times to quit. I even tried AA but I found it to be really depressing because there's not really any commonality with everyone there other than that you're all alcoholics."
Initially a competitive swimmer from a very young age all the way through high school, Vargo moved on from swimming toward the end of high school to pick up competitive cycling as a senior and continued up through the ranks to eventually compete at the Cat 1-2 level as well as on Regional semi-pro teams while racing for Indiana University.
However, having already having struggled with drinking issues since junior high school and all throughout his athletic career, neither swimming nor cycling held enough allure to deter him from his habit, and burned out on cycling, he dropped the sport altogether after college.
"It got pretty out of hand after college. I quit cycling partly because I was burned out and partly because I wanted to party more, it's one of my biggest regrets. I also had some pretty bad break-ups, I hated my jobs, and without cycling I wasn't doing anything else, so that made it worse," said Vargo.
But finding that a sedentary lifestyle didn't suit him, he picked up running in late 2006 with a girlfriend at the time, and with very casual and minimal training, clocked 4:30 at the Chicago Marathon in 2007.
"I hated running, I swore it off after that marathon," he stated.
But swearing off running--fortunately for him--didn't stick, and in fact rather ended up providing some much-needed impetus towards kicking his alcoholism. Competitive by nature, Vargo saw the possibility of a new challenge for himself.
"I got to thinking that I could run okay when I was drinking a lot, so I what would happen if I didn't?" he explained.
Not only that, but having been a competitive athlete for most of his life, he couldn't bear having his best days as an athlete already far behind him before age 30.
"I found myself always talking about how I 'used' to be good at this and good at that, and how I 'used' to be a good swimmer and good cyclist, and I felt kinda f-----n' lame" he explained. "I wanted to be good at something again. There was one day when I woke up after drinking after week straight, and I just felt really sorry for myself. I had never felt sorry for myself before, and that's when I stopped."
Deciding to train more seriously while dabbling in the road-racing scene, Vargo eventually connected with McMillan coach and elite ultra-runner Ian Torrence in 2011, and turned his attention to the trails. Logging well over 100 miles per week on the trails and mountains of northern California, he enjoyed nearly immediate success with numerous victories at local trail races in California, and clocked a 1:08 half marathon, a course record, at the North Face Endurance Challenge Trail Half Marathon in San Fransico the following December.
"Running ended up being the one thing that I truly enjoy more than cycling or swimming, it's a pure form of sport." he said. "Having goals gives me direction and helps me stay sober."
However, Vargo admits that it will always be a struggle for him to maintain sobriety. In addition to setting goals in running, he credits family members, friends, and drastic lifestyle changes for where he is at today.
"It's hard and will always be hard," he admitted, "I still crave alcohol. I don't really go out with friends because it's too hard to be around it. Now I drink a ton of tea. Actually, Yogi tea pretty much saved me. Also, if I get bored, I work out because whenever I'm bored I start to think about drinking, so I try not to let myself get there. It's something I'll have to deal with for the rest of my life."
"Alcohol and endurance sports go hand-in-hand," he continued. "I never thought I could go to a race and not drink afterward and that scared me at first. But come to find out, nobody really cares. Everyone on the trail scene kind of knows I don't drink, being public about it gives me accountability."
Looking ahead, Vargo hasn't entirely relinquished his goals for the roads, he still hopes to land an Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon, but also has his eye on next year's Western States ultra, the Pikes Peak Marathon, the Leadville 100, and the possibility of racing overseas in Europe. For the immediate future, he'll be back for another crack at the North Face 50 Miler in December, and likely to be an even greater force to contend with than he was in 2011.
If interested, you can follow Vargo (a social-media junkie) on Facebook at facebook.com/cjvargo, on twitter @TheVargo, on Instagram at chris_vargo, on Strava at strava.com/athletes/1481329, or read his blog at chrisvargo.tumblr.com.