Catching up with James Varner

The man behind the Northwest’s craziest races

By Yitka Winn

Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

You’d be hard-pressed to find a trail runner in the Pacific Northwest who doesn’t know, or at least know about, James Varner.

The 33-year-old fireball of energy can be found at the dozen races he directs each year under the name Rainshadow Running, usually clad in plaid flannel, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, but never without a grin on his face. His races include classics like the Cle Elum Ridge 25K/50K and Sun Mountain 50M/50K/25K/1K, as well as a slew of new races for 2011 including the Columbia Gorge Waterfalls 50K.

Varner, having shed his last “real job” in 2008, divides his time between three drool-worthy gigs: directing races, running with GPS to create maps for Green Trails Maps, and leading running vacations for Minnesota-based Adventure Running Company.

A Maryland native, Varner grew up playing in the woods and ran cross-country in high school. While through-hiking the Appalachian Trail in his 20s, he crossed paths with David Horton, a man who’d run the entire AT, and let Varner in on a life-changing secret: trail races existed for grown-ups, too.

After getting his feet wet with trail races in Maryland, Varner relocated to the Pacific Northwest and began co-race-directing with John Pearch, a self-described “ultra junkie” responsible for several races in Capitol Forest near Olympia.

In 2008, Varner moved to the Methow Valley with a vision for a new way to contribute to the running community.

“I felt like there was a need for a different kind of race, for races that were challenging and really showcased the most beautiful parts of the Northwest,” Varner says. “I wanted to find places to put on races that were a little more extreme than what people were used to.”

James Varner marking Gorge Waterfalls course

James marks the Gorge Waterfalls 50K course. Photo by Candice Burt.

Varner’s philosophy is to plan races like parties for good friends. There’s bound to be great food, a few kegs, and in cases like his well-loved Orcas Island 50K/25K run, campouts, barbecues, live music, and accompanying trail work parties.

“The most rewarding part is standing at the finish line,” Varner says, “and having people hug me or curse at me or just collapse into a chair.”

Varner races are notorious for inspiring such cursing with their adrenaline-charged climbs and quad-trashing descents. As Seattle trail runner Laura Houston says: “James’s races are hardly ever flat, and though his course-marking skills are improving, you may stand a chance at getting in a few ‘bonus miles.’ ”

Varner is not without a sense of humor. While volunteering years ago at the Cascade Crest 100, he dressed in a grass skirt and wore a sports bra full of gels for runners to grab as they came through the aid station.

Does he still find time for himself to go running? Of course. This year, he’s deriving steady motivation to train from having snagged a coveted spot in Colorado’s Hardrock 100 Miler, entry into which has to be determined by lottery.

“I would give up running all other races if it meant I could do this one every year,” he says. “I want to be selfish and not tell anyone about it, but that’s not the spirit of the race, and it’s not my style either.”

We like his style – and given the rate at which his races are selling out, we’re not alone. If you’re interested in trying a Varner race, visit www.rainshadowrunning.com for a full menu.