Czech Yourself, Don’t Wreck Yourself - The secrets of one man’s running endurance
Maybe we're all getting old, or maybe just obsessed with trying not to, but Kelly Cordes' ongoing series about Fighting Forty makes today's post - from runner and guest-contributor, Liz Mosco - particularly appropriate. As a friend of patagonia, Liz has come to know some of the folks around here. She's a fan of those who keep a low profile, which helps explain how she became interested in this particular patagonia employee, a gentleman whose ultra-running career didn't even get started until he was close to 40. Liz will tell you the rest. - Ed
On my morning runs, I occasionally see an older gentleman also out for his morning jaunt. He must be in his 70s and although he is clearly running, his style resembles more of a bouncy shuffle. When we passed one summer morning, he did not give me the standard runner’s tight smile or nod. Instead, he gave me a huge “hello!” and a vigorous double-armed wave. This man looks, and appears to feel, great.
I often think about my running future and how I still want to be lacing up in my 70s, spreading my joy to passersby. I love running. I am impressed by all kinds of runners, but I have a special awe and respect for older runners whose endurance has truly passed the test of time. One day I plan to stop this man and tell him that he is an inspiration- much like another inspirational runner I recently met who brought a new spring to my step.
As a friend and fan of Patagonia, I often hear about the incredible athletic feats accomplished by many of the company’s employees. So I was not surprised to hear that one such employee is an endurance runner; that is, until I learned that this particular athlete is 65 years old and that he has run over 40 ultra marathons in the past 20 years, including 7 Western States Endurance Runs. This man took my vision of being an older runner, leisurely meandering around the neighborhood, and blew it away. Not only is this man running, but he is running really frickin’ long trail races at 65. This smiling and humble gentleman, Milan Varga, graciously agreed to talk with me about running one afternoon.
[Milan crosses the line at the end of one run on his long list of successful finishes. Photo courtesy Ultra Signup.com.]
Milan Varga was born in the Czech Republic and ended up in Reno, NV in 1980 after emigrating to the US and living in New York, Hawaii, and California. He was married for 25 years before his wife passed away a few years ago. Milan’s wife finished 5 marathons herself and shared in Milan’s first athletic love, tennis. Milan began running in 1979 when the marathon craze began. He ran his fist marathon in Oakland and he remembers feeling like he wanted to die at mile 18. In Las Vegas in 1990, he qualified for Boston with one minute to spare. Milan will be the first to tell you that speed is not his specialty. Yet what he lacks in speed, he more than makes up for in endurance and longevity in a sport that is notoriously hard on the bodies of those who pursue it.
The Western States Endurance Run is a 100-mile race which takes place in late June. The race begins before dawn at Squaw Valley Ski Resort and ends in Auburn, CA. The total elevation gain is approximately 18,000 feet with a total descent of approximately 22,000 feet. In 1995, the trail was covered with snow for over 20 miles with temperatures soaring close to 110. In 2006, temperatures over the second half of the course were excruciatingly hot, resulting in only 211 of the original 399 runners passing the finish line.
Most ultra racers would agree that the 1995 and 2006 Western States runs were two of the most difficult years in the history of the race. Milan Varga was a finisher in both of these years with times of 28:36:34 and 29:40:08, respectively. Milan said that in all the races he has run, the Western States 100 is by far his favorite. Milan describes his Western States experiences in such a positive way that it was easy to forget that he was on his feet for over a solid day and ran though the night on rugged, remote mountain trails with nothing more than a flashlight.
I asked Milan about injuries incurred over his years of running and had my pen poised to write down the list of acute and chronic running-induced problems. I had to double check his answer.
“None?” Maybe there was a language barrier: Milan has a thick Czech accent.
"You have had no running injuries? Stress fractures, tendonitis, arch issues, nothing?”
None. He had sciatica 2 years ago but attributed that to sitting, not to running. I was speechless. I am half his age and run far shorter distances, yet I am constantly nursing some ache or pain. How has he run for over 30 years, injury free?
This is his regimen: two shorter runs (less than an hour) on Tuesdays and Thursdays and at least one long run (4+ hours) on the weekends in the foothills around Reno. Elevations in this high desert terrain range from 4500 to 8200 feet. The sagebrush offers no shade for hot summertime training runs. Milan also runs these routes in the winter, which can bring very windy, whiteout conditions with knee-deep snow. He sticks to trails and only runs on pavement “in an emergency.” (I can only imagine that “a running emergency” may sound crazy to non-runners, but I’m sure many understand exactly the kind of situation to which Milan is referring. Typically, these occur when travelling to unfamiliar, urban locales and that itch to run is so great that pounding the pavement is the only option to retain one's sanity.)
Milan likes hot weather. The hotter, the better. He stretches every morning and tries to do yoga at least once a week. He lifts weights a few times a week. He used to bike more often and has completed numerous endurance bicycle rides, including 18 Death Rides. He has also competed in open water swimming events and triathlons, but said that running is definitely the sport he likes best. Milan does not have a lot of down time, but when not exercising or working he likes to read and he makes time to enjoy his favorite beverage, Steel Reserve.
Before talking with Milan, I had sworn off racing, especially marathons. My first marathon over 5 years ago ended with me stumbling over the finish line, dry-heaving at about 4:45. Yet something happened after we spoke. A dormant spark ignited…I had caught Milan’s bug. I have since been running up in the foothills whenever I can and have returned to running a few races. I ran one 30K entirely through mud, ran my fastest 10K, my fastest half-marathon, and my fastest (albeit only second) marathon, finishing in under 4 hours, well-hydrated and smiling. I managed to get lost during one trail race, which felt more like a rite of passage than a mistake. I even volunteered at the Western States Endurance Run this year and was assigned the lovely job of sponging down exhausted, sweaty, smelly runners at mile 62. (Milan also volunteered; he was assigned different, less-rookie duties).
As Milan shared his amazing athletic achievements with me his tone was excited and joyous rather than boastful (which he certainly had license to be). Just as I started to believe that he could be bordering on too humble, I asked him if he is impressed with his running accomplishments.
Without hesitation he replied, “I think so. Not everyone can do it.”
And he’s right.
Milan Varga is an inspiration for those of us who want to keep running for as long as our bodies will allow. He is proof that we can thrive well into our 50s, 60s, and beyond, accomplishing feats that many people half his age would think are impossible or downright crazy. The real challenge will be if we can pursue these feats with Milan’s enthusiasm and ever-present smile.
As for me . . . if I don’t continue with races, I think leisurely meandering would still suit me just fine. Milan has inspired me to run in a way I never thought I would again, yet I still love running whether I am racing or not. Wave if you see me in 40 years, running around the neighborhood or as you pass me during a 30K. I’ll be the gal with a hearty hello and bouncy shuffle.
[Top, left - Milan, happy knees and all, lends a hand at the 2010 Western States' 100-mile Endurance Run. Above - Spongers at the ready, all set to cool down sweltering runners at mile 62 of the lengendary Western States endurance run. Photos: Liz Mosco]