Going Long: An Interview with Mike Wardian

Wardian at Mile 76 of the recent Leadville Trail 100. You’ll have to forgive the 43-year-old running madman if he seems a little hurried—there was another race to run in a little less than 12 hours, and it was an over two-hour drive away.

Michael Wardian is the exception to almost every racing rule. That, or he just likes to break them with astounding and unmatched regularity. The 43-year-old ship broker from Washington, D.C., races a lot — around 50 times a year, on average–and he isn’t afraid to throw down a fast mile on the track or mix it up in a grueling off-road ultra, sometimes doing both on the same weekend. It’s not uncommon for Wardian to race multiple days in a row either, as he did earlier this year, winning the World Marathon Challenge, averaging an eye-popping 2:45:56 for seven marathons on seven different continents over the course of seven days. [Ed. note: Wardian ran an extra 17 miles after the last race just to hit 200 for the week.] He’s also set a number of wacky world records over the years — fastest 50K ever run on a treadmill, fastest marathon ever run wearing various costumes, fastest marathon ever run on an indoor track, and pushing a baby stroller, to name a few — and regularly tackles challenging ultra endeavors such as Badwater, Marathon des Sables, and the Barkley Marathons (which he failed to finish earlier this year). He’s qualified for three Olympic Trials marathons, won a number of national titles and placed on the podium at world championship events.

A little over a week ago, Wardian pulled off one of his most challenging back-to-backs yet, running the Pikes Peak Marathon, featuring 7,815 feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of loss on a rugged mountain course that tops out at 14,115 feet — in 6 hours, 2 minutes and 55 seconds, mere hours after finishing tenth in the Leadville 100 in 20 hours, 18 minutes and 57 seconds.

I caught up with Wardian recently to talk about his recent high-altitude double, why he’s motivated to race as much as he does, what he does to recover between monster efforts, how he fits it all in along with being a dad, husband and ship broker, and much more.

In your own words, who is Michael Wardian?

I’m a professional runner with a focus on marathons and ultra marathons. I’m an endurance athlete and I’m seeking … seeking to figure out what is possible for myself, and in the process, I hope, inspiring other people to seek something more of themselves and to ask themselves if they can do more than they think they can. And I don’t know if I’m achieving that or not.

Like, I did not think when I saw you at mile 76 [of the Leadville 100] that I would be anywhere as excited about doing the Pikes Peak Marathon the next day. But then, it’s amazing how you can be so low and then, you know, feel better and go through those kind of rough patches and then come out the other side.

I don’t think I ever want to arbitrarily limit what I’m capable of because of some perception — even my own perception in my head. I want to put myself in difficult positions and challenging circumstances, and see if I’m up to being the person that I hope I can be.

When did that switch flip for you? I mean, you didn’t run in college. You played lacrosse at Michigan State. But you’ve been running competitively for quite a while now, and you’re 43 years old and still at it. When did you decide you wanted to see what was possible and use that as a vehicle to inspire other runners to see what was possible for themselves?

The first time I wanted to be good at something was lacrosse. I wanted to be the best lacrosse player I could be, and that was when I was in sixth grade. I decided I wanted to be an All-American lacrosse player and I started doing everything I could to put myself in a position to do that. And then, once I stopped playing lacrosse in college at the end of my junior year, I picked up running, which I just did to stay fit.

And then I went to my buddy’s house, and his mom had done the Boston Marathon. And I saw the medal, and I always wanted to do a marathon, but I just never knew anyone who had done it. I didn’t know [elite marathoners] were real people. You don’t ever think you can do it, right? I didn’t know that regular people like that could run a marathon. I thought you had to live in a hut at 12,000 feet or something, I don’t know. So when it became something where I was like, “That’s just Vince’s mom, and she can run a marathon?!” I was thinking that if she can do it, I can do it. She was nice enough to give me a little packet, and I followed it and I just decided that I’m going to try to qualify for Boston on my first go, which was under 3 hours and 10 minutes, so I trained to run under 3 hours and 10 minutes. I think I ran 3 hours and 6 minutes or something. I did the work necessary to get there. I only did, I think, one or two races before I got the qualifier at Marine Corps [Marathon], but I heard sub-3 hours was a good time. And so I said, “OK, well if I want to be a real runner, then yeah, I don’t know if I’ll do this forever, but at least I can say I broke 3 hours in a marathon.” Then I ran 2:54 at Boston and I thought I was like the shit. I went to a running store around here called Pacers and was like, “I ran two 2:54. I want to be on your team.” They said, “Hey, you’re not really fast, but you can come to our track workout.” So I did that.

And what year was this?

1997. And so I decided just to set little goals along the way. The first goal was to make the Pacers’ team, that’s all that I really wanted to do. I just went to every single workout. I never missed a workout. I would ride my bike to the workouts, do a workout and then bike home afterwards. Then I’d do another shakeout run or something. Eventually I got as fast as the guys that were on the team. I said to my dad, “I’m gonna go [to that race] and try to beat them and make the team.” He was like, “OK whatever.”

So he drives me down to the race. I’m like 22 or whatever, and these guys are all, like, established, the big dogs in the area. The race starts and we go off. I’m just hanging with them and they’re trying to drop me. Eventually they fall away, one by one, and then there’s one guy left. I think it was Jeff Van Horn actually, who I’m still friends with. I caught up to him at eight and a half miles of this 10-mile race, and I passed him and crossed the finish line. I didn’t win. I think there were some other guys ahead of us, but I beat all the guys on the team.

They came over and asked if I wanted to be on the team and I said, yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. Having that first goal was what got me started and kinda hooked on it. And just the experience at Boston. You can feel the energy. There’s something in the air and in the water up there. It just got in me. I felt like everyone was cheering for me, even though they’re cheering for everyone. It felt really personal. I just wanted to have that feeling again and again. I think that’s what got me on to racing. I just liked that feeling of pushing yourself and putting yourself out there, and then sharing the experience with everyone else.

What do you love most about racing?

I don’t know, there’s something just awesome about it. Everyone is competing against everyone else, but really you’re competing against yourself. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters. If you run the best time you’ve ever run and you come in 100th, that’s still an achievement. I’d be happier with that than winning a race and not living up to getting that excellence out of myself. Competition has always been something that breeds that in me — that ability to dig and find something better than you could on your own. I mean, you don’t have to go to a race. You can do these things by yourself, go out in the woods and run a hundred miles. You don’t need other people to do that — it’s possible and it’s fun to do that kind of stuff by yourself. I’ve gone out after work and run 50 miles around DC in the middle of the night because it’s cool. But I didn’t run it as fast as if I did the national championships when I had guys and ladies pushing me the whole time.

Wardian ran 2:54:54 in sub-zero temperatures on the first leg of the World Marathon Challenge earlier this year in Antarctica. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Wardian

How have you been able to maintain this kind of focus and intensity and enjoyment over the course of the past 20 years? I mean, we see more and more Masters runners like Meb [Keflezighi], Deena [Kastor] and [Bernard] Lagat, who are competing into their 40s, but they’re not racing nearly as much as you. How have you been able to maintain this rhythm for the past two decades?

I think it’s because I do a lot of different things. That’s helpful for me to keep things fresh and exciting. I love jumping in a 5K and busting my gut to try to beat a 15-year-old. And then jumping in a hundred miler, or running up the Eiffel Tower against, like, the best guys in the world that climb buildings, you know? I think that ability to do different events and not just focus on roads or trails or track. I feel like if you only focus on one thing, then it’s like you’re an 800-meter runner and you’re not running the times you were when you were 15, it’s probably gonna get a little frustrating, right?

I mean, that’s what’s cool about running: it’s very straightforward. It’s not like you’re the point guard on a basketball team and you can hide somewhere and you can make passes and still be efficient at what you do. In running, the times are the times and if you’re not performing or you’re not doing what you used to be capable of, I can see that it would be hard to find the motivation. Running is not a very forgiving sport. If you don’t do the work, you’re not going to see results. Like, you always have the ability to ride a bike. That’s muscle memory. But, the ability to run a 5-minute mile? That’s not muscle memory. That’s training, and the training is something you have to do all the time. There’s no break — when you’re not running, you’re still training. If you want to go out and party, that’s not helping your running. It’s a full-time lifestyle. You’re in it all the time. Running is very transparent — it’s easy to see if you’ve done the work or not.

Aside from the variety of the events you do — everything from the mile to ultramarathons over 100 miles — to keep things fresh, what do you do to recover between races? If I do something like Leadville, I’m going to have a hard time just getting out of bed the next day. But you hop in a car a couple hours later and go run a gnarly mountain marathon. What are you doing from week to week to ensure that you’re recovering for the next race?

One of the things I try to do is keep moving, even right afterward. Because I think a lot of us end up sitting down or collapsing, especially the longer the event or the harder that you run. The natural tendency is to want to stop moving. I think one of the things I like to do is keep moving. I think that really helps to facilitate the recovery process.

In between [races], what I tend to do is what I call “invisible training.” I try to keep the training as minimally impactful on the family as possible because I am racing a lot and gone a lot. So, I try to wake up and run to work, and then I do some kind of workout at lunch. Then I either run or bike home. So I get either two to four types of effort in a day. None of them are really that long during the week. I’d say the longest run is probably two hours. Most of them are 45 minutes to 90 minutes. The ones to work are pretty cruisey, maybe 6:30 pace if I’m really feeling good but most of the time it’s probably 7:15 to 8:00 pace.

Wardian running with his vizsla, Rosie, near his home in Arlington, Virginia. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Wardian

I mean, to the average person that still sounds crazy given that you’re racing a marathon one weekend and a 100-miler 6 or 7 days later.

I guess. But it feels normal [to me]. It’s how I get around.

Do you sleep?

Yeah man, I’m not a good sleeper. Since I saw you on Friday night, I slept three hours before the 100-mile race. I slept none before Pikes Peak. And I slept on the red-eye flight back home on Sunday for about 2–1/2 hours. I flew out at 11 PM and got home at 4 o’clock in the morning. I wish I would’ve gone to bed earlier on Friday night. I’m addicted to this stupid game, Clash Royale. I’m trying not to play that as much but I’m so close to the next level. But, anyhow, yeah, I didn’t sleep that much before the race. If I get four hours, Mario, I’m pretty good. Like, four hours straight is really good. I’ve been trying to be better about it because I know that’s something that I can improve on.

But that’s why I’m really excited. I’m gonna do this 400-kilometer race, called the Ultra Gobi, in September. It’s non-stop so I’m really excited to see, like, if my sleeping issue or my normal sleeping pattern is helpful for that. I kind of want to just run as far as I can to see how far I can run without sleeping. But, I think I might do better if I just run and then sleep my normal amount, rather than try to take a 15-minute cat nap or something. But most of the time, if I can just put my feet up for a second or two, I am almost completely refreshed.

I mean, for most people I guess it probably wouldn’t be great. But when you’re having to be out there for a long, long time doing some of these things, it’s nice to have that ability and to be able to function. But today [Ed. note: last Tuesday], I was struggling for sure.

You’ve never done anything quite like Leadville followed by a Pikes Peak-type race the next day. Did you take Monday off to rest or did you take a little jog or what? What have the last two days looked like for you?

So actually yesterday I didn’t do anything because I got home at 4 in the morning and then I had to work. My sister actually works with me and she said I didn’t have to come in, so I actually just worked from home, which was nice. I was planning to ride my bike to work, and then I didn’t because I didn’t have to go into the office. I hung out with the kids, went for a long walk with my wife, did the ellipse, took Grant to soccer practice and just ran around there a little bit with the kids playing soccer, but I didn’t do anything formal. I probably did a couple miles of easy movement but nothing formal. And then today [Tuesday], I just cycled to work on my fixed gear. I thought about running because I had to drop my wife’s car off at the shop, but that didn’t seem appealing so I just didn’t do it. One of the things I’m trying to be better at is listening to my body but I’m doing a group run tonight for one of my sponsors, MedStar, so I’ll get in at least 30 or 40 minutes tonight.

I didn’t feel like running to work for the group run and then running home. It just seemed like a lot for today. So I’ll just bike to it. It was probably an 8K bike on the way in because I had dropped my wife’s car off and it’ll be about an 8-mile ride home from the group run, where I’ll probably do 3 or 4 miles. I don’t know, probably two hours worth of work.

Let’s pull on that thread a little bit. You’re a professional endurance athlete who is still competing at a high level, but in addition to that you’re a dad, you’re a husband, you work a full-time job, and you probably spend more time on an airplane than most pilots. How do you fit it all in?

It’s awesome. I’m lucky that I have the opportunity, and I think it’s like any person that has big aspirations — you figure out how you wanna make things happen, you figure out how it’s gonna work. I’ve figured out ways to use my time efficiently. For example, I have to commute to get to work, so I might as well make it part of what I’m doing for my training. Then, I’m gonna have to eat lunch, so during that lunch time I’ll go and do a workout.

I’m lucky. I’ve worked at this company since 1996, so I think that’s been important too because they’re big supporters of what I’m doing. I work with my sister, so she’s unfortunately probably tied to what I’m doing. But everyone knows that I have these big aspirations, and I think that’s been really helpful. It’s not just my family that’s super-supportive and my in-laws and my work, but my clients are also fans. So, they’ll call me with a problem and I’ll be running home and, you know, they’ll be like, “Well, our ship’s delayed or the cargo isn’t there.” OK fine, I’ll just stop and take care of it.

With the cell phone and internet, I can basically do my job anywhere in the world, which is pretty fantastic. And now there’s WiFi on planes. I think I’m willing to do what I need to do to get the job done, and I think that’s what allows me to make it all fit. I try to include everyone in it so it’s like we’re all on the same team. People see me doing it but there’s so many people behind me that have made it happen: the sponsors, my wife, the kids, work. I think asking people to be a part of the process really helps, and then having the desire to want to do it. And so the kids will go to bed and I’ll get back on the computer and do some more work. Or, I’ll wake up at two o’clock in the morning and send some messages. I’m always on for work, for good or bad. You were asking how I stay engaged in it — it’s just something I love doing.

I’ve always been full-on. I tend to take on a lot. If you don’t set high aspirations, you’re never gonna get anywhere more than where you are. I think that’s the same with the schedule. I mean, you could have a super-relaxed schedule, but if you make yourself have a different outlook then you’ll find ways to get it done. I think that’s what I try to do. I look for ways to incorporate what I need to get done with the training into what I’m doing with my job and the family.

The other thing too is that I try to bring my family as much as I can to the event. So they’re going with me to Kauai. They were in Japan and Australia. I think, I don’t know if you know, but our kids — Pierce is 11 and Grant is 8 — have been to 16 countries already. I think of all the things I’ve done, that might be the thing I’m most proud of, is the opportunity to kinda get to show them the world through this awesome sport that we do. The friends that they’ve made and the experiences that they’ve had is life-changing. I know it has been for me and I hope it is for them too. I think it’s such a gift that I’ve been lucky enough to have these opportunities.

Wardian with his wife, Jennifer, and their two sons, Pierce and Grant. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Wardian

Do you have a hard time saying no to opportunities that come your way?

That’s a good question. I think one of the things that I’m most proud of is in 2012 I had five stress fractures in my pelvis and five hernias all at the same time, and a lot of people thought that was going to be be a career-ending injury for me. I was 38, 39. Everyone was like, “OK man, you’ve had a good run.” You know, to be able to come back from that and to do as well or even better in some things has been really powerful. My son Grant has epilepsy. The opportunity to be able to travel with him was limited for a time. He’s been seizure-free for a while now, but you know, I don’t take any of this for granted. I mean, I know it can all be washed away so quickly. I want to try and seize every opportunity because you never know what’s gonna happen, man. You saw what happened to Hillary Allen, or Adam Campbell, Dave Mackey, even Kilian [Jornet]. That turned him into even more of a god than he already is but it could’ve gone a lot differently. There’s a lot of chances for things to happen in the sport that we do. It could just be as silly as, like, an Achilles popping, and that could be the end of everything. So, hey, I think you have to cherish every opportunity.

I have two questions for you before we wrap up.

I’ll try not to be as obtuse.

No, it’s alright. Your last answer actually segues nicely into a question I wanted to ask you about injury. What did you learn through your injury experience of 2012 and how have you been able to stay relatively injury-free since then?

I think that’s actually been my only bout of injury, really, that I’ve suffered. I was doing basically the routine that I was doing now except that before the injuries it would be like 98 to 110 miles every week. And it didn’t matter if my leg was falling off and my ankle was flopping, or something. I would still run that kind of mileage. Now, I’m just as content to go and hike on the treadmill. So I think knowing that if you’re cavalier with your health, you’re gonna end up running for four hours in the pool with your stress fracture friends. That’s a really good lesson in that, or at least it was for me.

When I first got back [from the stress fractures and hernias], I think I was a little tentative because I thought I was gonna get broken again. Now I’m at the point where I really feel like I can kinda stretch my limits. I wasn’t sure when I did the seven marathons this year — that was the most mileage I’ve ever put on in a week — if I was going to get a stress fracture or something. But, I just went out each day and just tried to crush it and I was thinking “if it happens, it happens.” And the not knowing what’s gonna happen is why I think that I love these kind of things. I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to do Pikes Peak after Leadville. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to get there. I love that sense of the unknown. I’m not afraid to you know, and put myself in a situation where I’m not in control and I’m not the best or whatever. If you’re doing two events in the same weekend, the chance of you winning the second event is gonna be pretty tough. So, I think that just knowing that ahead of time and kind of changing the way you look at things can make it incredibly enjoyable.

OK, last question for you. Out of all the races that you’ve run — two sub-3 hour marathons in different cities on the same day, seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, Leadville and Pikes Peak back to back, and the list goes on — do any in particular stand out to you? Is there any one that you’re more proud of than the others? Or are they all kind of meaningful in their own ways?

I think they’re all meaningful. In 2012, I did the Houston Olympic Trials Marathon and ran like 2:21. And then the next day I did the Houston Marathon. I had plantar fasciitis before both events, which I never really had before, and I thought was kind of a joke, like most runner injuries. I don’t know about you, but I’m like, “that’s not a real thing” until you get it and then you’re like, “oh, that’s a real thing.” But I was pretty proud of that — 2:21 at the Trials and 2:31 the next day at the Houston Marathon. I mean I’m super ridiculously insanely proud of doing Pikes Peak after Leadville because I’m not from altitude, so, like, that’s a real thing for me. And just to be able to deal with the altitude because it can be so debilitating, not just physically, but mentally. It just makes you wanna stop. And so to be able to overcome that, like, for two straight days — and that was my second 14,000-foot peak ever — so I’m pretty pumped about that. Even just going up Pikes Peak I was so unbelievably excited, and then to be able to come down and, you know, pass a couple hundred people and kinda run pretty well, that was a big deal. It gave me a lot of confidence for the future. I’ve got a big fall scheduled and hopefully, if I get good support, I can go big in 2018 and onward. I just hope I can keep doing these inspiring cool things and seeing what…what’s out there.

Wardian broke the tape at this year’s Big Sur International Marathon in 2:30:44. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Wardian

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