Michael Wardian, the Running Man
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Michael Wardian bounced around his kitchen in split shorts and a yellow-orange race tee, compiling his breakfast. It was 7 a.m. on a Thursday. From counter nooks and refrigerator shelves, he produced one pear, one apple, two bananas, two packets of instant oatmeal, a cup of baby food, a large brioche-looking bun and a 16-ounce carton of blueberries. He eyed the assortment on the counter. It all had to fit in his running pack.
“Always a risk bringing blueberries,” he said.
He opened the fridge and peered in. “Blackberries?” he said. They came in a manageable six ounces. Blackberries it was.
A slim six feet, Wardian has a frizzy brown ponytail, a blocky beard and eyes that look at once happy and tired. He’s always relaxed, never lethargic. Having just returned from a five-mile trail run near his home, in Arlington, Virginia, he was preparing for the six-mile run into work. At lunch, he’d do “hills” on the treadmill; at the end of the day he’d run the commute home.
We left the house and a neighbor jogged by. Apparently he never deviated from his daily route. “My wife calls him the most consistent runner she knows. I was like, ‘Dude!’” said Wardian.
At 43, Wardian is the most prolific elite marathon and ultramarathon runner in America. In 2016, he raced four 100-milers, two 100Ks, two 50-milers, two 50Ks, twelve marathons, two half-marathons, two 10-milers, four 10Ks, two five-milers, nine 5Ks, a vertical-kilometer treadmill competition and a one-mile ascent of the Eiffel Tower.
“There’s no one like Michael Wardian,” says David Horton, an exercise-science professor at Liberty University and a longtime ultrarunner, “from the standpoint of how fast he is at marathons and how fast he is at ultramarathons, and how many of these marathons and ultramarathons he does.”
Few athletes even attempt the volume, frequency and intensity at which Wardian races. While two marathons per year has become standard for top U.S. runners, it wasn’t always so. The marathoner Benji Durden, for example, ran 25 sub-2:20s between 1977 and 1986. Internationally, other comparisons emerge; perhaps the most famous is Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi, who has run more than 50 career marathons under 2:16. But what distinguishes Wardian, even among high-frequency racers, is his genre-confounding success.
“It’s hard to classify him in the scope of a time or a distance,” says Brian Metzler, a former editor of Trail Runner and Competitor magazines, “because he is so versatile and his range is so big.”
Once or twice a year, Wardian attracts attention for an incomprehensible back-to-back or an obscure, quirky challenge. He holds or has held world records in the treadmill half-marathon, treadmill marathon, treadmill 50K, indoor marathon, indoor 50K, marathon while pushing a stroller and marathon while wearing an Elvis costume. He’s racked up more conventional accomplishments, too, albeit in uncommon quantity. Over a career spanning nearly two decades, he has qualified for three Olympic Marathon Trials, won seven national ultrarunning titles, competed at nine world ultrarunning championships and gone under 2:30 for the marathon at least 87 times.
As Horton says, “He shouldn’t be able to do what he does.”
Related: Michael Wardian Sets New Record for Leadville Pikes Peak Combo
Chatty and accessible, Wardian exhibits a laidback intelligence and unwavering stoke. Despite his success as a runner—and the 20 or so sponsors he’s accumulated—he continues to work full time as a ship broker at a small firm in Washington, D.C., bidding on cargos for an international clientele. A cosmopolitan dirtbag, he peppers his speech with surfer-bro words like “awesome” and “dude” while conversing on everything from running gear and travel to shifting priorities at the Justice Department.
One morning, we met before dawn at a trailhead in Arlington. As we trotted through the damp brown woods, the sky lightened to a timid pink and the low, hazy outline of the capital appeared across the Potomac.
“People ask me where I live and I say D.C., and they get all sad for me,” Wardian said. “I’m like, ‘No, I love it!’” It wasn’t just the city’s natural beauty, but also its art, its cuisine, its international visitors and, importantly, the three major airports nearby.
To spend time with Wardian is to vicariously tour the world. Over the course of a few days, I heard about a 115-miler around the island of Menorca and a race in the Andes during which he had giardia; events he was invited to in Turkey, India and the Gobi Desert; pilgrim trails in Britain and Spain; a traverse of Israel he wanted to do; and the drunken “mermaid parade” he ran through on Coney Island, late in an unsanctioned 100-mile road race called the Great New York Running Exposition. (“It was completely random, and awesome.”) Wardian’s father-in-law, Tony Higgins, calls this never-ending enthusiasm “a severe case of running goggles.”
Wardian never lacked for energy. “He’s always liked to do things,” his father, Richard Wardian, says. “Just tell him what the rules are, show him how to do it and get out of his way.” Growing up in West Virginia and Virginia, young Mike swam, played baseball, explored the woods and broke his wrists three times jumping his bike off ramps. But lacrosse, which he took up in fifth grade, became his main passion.
“It was really early on, in the ’90s, so if you had any talent at all you were pretty good,” Wardian says now. “I was dedicated, so I got really good.” As a high-school senior, he told his coach he would end the season with an ambitious 80 points—and reached it in the final seconds of the last game of the playoffs.
Wardian went on to play at Michigan State, where he majored in international relations. “Michael was a hard worker,” his college coach, Rich Kimball, says. “He came to practice every day and played hard. I don’t think he knows how to do it any differently.” Wardian “looked like a natural” during running drills. “His teammates hated him on Sundays,” Kimball says, “when I sent them for a run and he was back and cooled down before they even appeared.”
Near the end of college, Wardian heard about the Boston Marathon and decided to qualify. “I didn’t realize how ambitious it was,” he says. On a modest 30 miles a week, he managed to run 3:08 at the 1996 Marine
The next spring, he finished Boston in 2:54. As Wardian tells it, his early running career progressed through serendipity and blithe exuberance.
After Boston, he says, “I decided I would do all the big marathons, and just kind of be done with it.” He ran Marine Corp again that fall of 1997, and Chicago and New York the next year.
“Then I found out about the JFK 50-miler. I was like, ‘What?! You can run 50 miles? No way, that’s crazy!’ So I did that, too.” On learning that the previous winner finished in 5:55, he thought, “I should just win. I’m 2:40 [in the marathon]. If you double that, that’s like 5:20.” In fact, it was 7:54—61st place.
Running wasn’t the only new love in Wardian’s life. Home from college one year, he’d gone to a party with his brother Matt and met a girl named Jennifer Higgins. She was bright and funny, and they began seeing each other. Jennifer recalls that after nights out, “Everybody would be going out to breakfast, and we’d be like, ‘Matt, where’d your brother go?’ ‘He ran into the next town.’ Everybody’s like, ‘Why?’”
Michael and Jennifer got married on a late-October day in 2004. The next morning Wardian ran a charity 5K dressed as Spiderman.
After his first finish at Boston, Wardian had walked into Pacers Running, a D.C.-area store. He knew they had some kind of running team, and thought he might join.
“I’m really fast,” he told the guy behind the counter. “I’m 2:54.”
“That’s not fast,” came the polite response.
D.C. at the time was full of talented runners. “It was probably one of the better road-racing scenes in the country,” says Chris Banks, a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier who lived there at the time. Though never close to Wardian, Banks and others noted his presence at local 5Ks and 10Ks. “We would get the impression that he was doubling pretty much every weekend.”
Without the pedigree of a collegiate career, Wardian stuck out at first. He raced all the time, was in-your-face competitive and did things his own way. “He definitely frustrated some traditional runners who were just out of college and grinding and trying to make an Olympic Trials,” says Chris Farley, another area runner, who bought Pacers in 2003. (Wardian eventually made the team.) “He didn’t grow up around that group. I think he would, at times, rub some of those guys the wrong way.”
Not that Wardian minded gate-crashing the club. He’d been a jock in college, after all; he knew how it went. “I just felt like I had to prove myself,” he says. “I just wanted to work hard and prove them wrong.”
It worked. He got faster and faster. “He kind of raced himself into being a competitive athlete,” Farley says.
After JFK, Wardian kept dabbling in ultras and stage races. In 2000, he ran Marathon des Sables, the six-day, 250K race in the Sahara Desert, finishing 26th. The next year, he won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race, in India. “That’s when I knew I could do this and just be the best at stage races,” he says. But specialization to the point of missing out has never been his MO, and he decided instead to try for the Olympic Marathon Trials.
In the years leading up to the 2004 race, Wardian pushed his weekly mileage above 100, raced marathon after marathon and brought his PR down to within a few minutes of the 2:22 qualifying standard. The Detroit Marathon in October 2003 presented one of his last chances. The finish was the 50-yard line of Ford Field, and as Wardian burst into the arena, he knew it would be tight. With his eyes glued to the clock, he nearly tripped—but recovered and made it with 12 seconds to spare. “I just started bawling,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Holy crap. I’m a real runner now.’”
It was Saturday, and the Wardian boys wanted to play football. With his sons, Pierce, 10, and Grant, 8, as well as two of their friends in tow, Wardian strode onto the field at Washington and Lee High and found an open spot. Springing about behind the line of scrimmage, he talked playful trash to Grant: “Think you can guard me? You can’t guard me! Can’t touch this.”
The boys’ moods ranged from reticent to petulant to oddly mature. Squabbles arose. Out-of-bounds was 10 feet to the left, not two feet to the right. A flag was pulled before the end zone, not in it. The game should last four more touchdowns, not two. Empathetic but firm, Wardian dispensed with each situation, never breaking his cheery calm.
Later, I asked if managing the egos of 10-year-old boys ever wore him down.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I love it! It’s part of being a dad.”
Back at the Wardian home, Jennifer joined us in the kitchen for lunch. She has a friendly face, straight brown hair and an air of disarming practicality. Not herself a runner, she is supportive of her husband’s adventuring, which in part means knowing when to rein him in. Wardian had considered the U.S. 50K Championships, coming up in one week. But when Jennifer vetoed it, he agreed she was probably right. He had just returned from five weeks of near-nonstop travel, which also meant near-nonstop racing. First he’d done an event called the World Marathon Challenge, a seven-day, seven-marathon, seven-continent tour that jumped from Antarctica to Argentina to Miami to Madrid to Morocco to Dubai to Sydney. He’d averaged an extraordinary 2:45:06. After a few days at home, he flew with Jennifer and the boys to New Zealand for a three-week family vacation (and a 100K, and a trail marathon).
“I just look at his races as an excuse to go on vacation,” Jennifer said. One year, while Wardian struggled through the 100-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, she took Pierce and Grant to Lake Geneva, where they relaxed with family friends. “My goal is for him to find a race in Bali.”
“I found a race in Tahiti!” Wardian chimed in. “I just got invited.”
I asked what remained on the bucket list. After listing miscellaneous challenges, he said, “I told Jennifer, if I get fired, I want to do the Appalachian Trail.”
Jennifer: “Do not do that.”
Michael: “I’d like to run across a continent, too.”
At 10, Pierce is old enough to try his father’s sport in small doses, and Wardian sometimes meets up with his school’s running club on Friday afternoons. “They all follow us on Twitter and Instagram, so all the kids know where I’ve been racing,” he says. “It’s fun, I think, for them to have somebody that is a … big-time runner. I guess.”
“Well, I mean, it’s not like I’m Meb [Keflezighi] or Ryan Hall or somebody.”
This is true but also beside the point. Wardian may not have Olympian speed, but he possesses a celebrity disproportionate to his PRs. He has been written up in the New York Times and Washington Post, appeared on local TV news, done numerous interviews for podcasts and blogs and of course prompted can-you-believe-it coverage in running publications (including this one).
Partly, it’s because he does stuff that no one else does. But Wardian has also branded himself well. He is known as Iron Mike, a nickname bestowed by friends, and has adopted “relentless” as his motto. He sells T-shirts and hats, printed with MICHAEL WARDIAN: RELENTLESS, to fans. He posts to Facebook and Twitter, relentlessly. And he makes himself accessible to media, whether he’s in a remote park in Tennessee or the San Diego airport.
“He’s very smart about this, but it’s also very genuine,” says Ethan Veneklasen, a friend of Wardian’s who works in sports marketing and co-hosts UltraRunnerPodcast. “What Mike is uniquely talented at is making you feel special.” Other celeb runners, he explains, gladly submit to photos when asked. “Mike, however, is proactive. He goes, ‘Hey, let’s take a selfie together.’”
“He’s always been a good self-promoter, and he’s very persistent, but he’s one of the most generous people I know,” Frank Sprtel, a longtime friend, says. “The Mike you see now is the Mike that’s always been there.”
Indeed, Wardian seems to enjoy the social aspect of racing as much as the athletic one. Through running, he’s made friends in New Zealand, China, Japan, South America and an Antarctic research station. His crews at races sometimes include what Matt, his brother, calls “random people he just meets on social media.” When Wardian traveled to Germany to run the Berlin Marathon, he stayed with a fan he had found through Facebook. He brings his family whenever he can. “Our kids have been to 15 or 16 countries already,” says Wardian. “Of everything I’ve done, I think that’s the most exciting thing, that they can be a part of it.”
When runners talk about Wardian, they tend to call him a “freak.” It’s meant as the highest praise, a nod to talent so rare it confounds explanation.
Not that one can’t try. “First and foremost, it’s genetics that provides our foundation,” says Sean Bearden, a professor of exercise physiology at Idaho State University and the host of the podcast Science of Ultra. Anyone capable of a 2:17 marathon is already an outlier, of course. But is Wardian further predisposed to withstand and recover—an outlier among outliers? The answer remains elusive. “What makes somebody a good recoverer is an excellent question,” Bearden says.
Whatever the raw material, it’s taken shape over two decades of training and racing. “The body finds a way to adapt to anything,” says Ian Sharman, a top 100-mile racer and head coach at Sharman Ultra. “The more you race, as long as you’re not breaking yourself, you are helping your body adapt to it.”
Competing constantly will also have honed Wardian’s intuition for pacing. “Mike seems to really be able to dial in where he needs to be,” Bearden says. “A lot of people will go too far,” thus causing more damage and prolonging recovery.
Then there are the daily choices about training, recovery and health that matter over time. “I think a big part of Mike’s success is he has orchestrated his life and his competitive nature around doing all these races,” says Jason Koop, a prominent ultrarunning coach with Carmichael Training Systems. During intense stretches of racing, Wardian replaces mid-week workouts with easier runs. He races year-round, but has his own version of an off-season—taking a break from marathons and ultras to fill his weekends with 5Ks. He eats high-quality foods. He rolls out tired muscles, gets massages, does strength training and engages in “light movement” even when not running.
The ancillary stressors of racing, especially far from home—the logistical headaches, the disruptions to sleep and diet—can compound the physiological effects. Wardian, with his ever-on-the-go lifestyle and buoyantly Zen attitude, seems to handle such hardships better than most. “Michael will think nothing about hopping on a plane on a Friday evening and flying to Europe,” his boss, Keith Powell, says. “Then he’s back in the office on Monday morning.”
Many athletes imbue races with enormous emotional significance. “There’s a necessary recovery time from that sheer emotional and psychological buildup,” Koop says. Wardian, though competitive, rarely gets hung up on a single result. One year, he dropped out from the Spartathlon, a 150-mile race in Greece, with about 30 miles to go. His springy stride had collapsed into a trudge as his legs chafed themselves bloody. Matt was there crewing for his brother. “It was pouring rain, it was the middle of the night, we were in this little town with one blinking light, and he was like, ‘I just can’t do it anymore,’” Matt says. The brothers skipped the award ceremony and escaped to the Peloponnesian Coast. “By the next morning,” Matt recalls, “he was back to normal, and was like, ‘Wow, that was really hard. I can’t believe how hard it was. I would love to do this race again and see if I can do better next time.’ So it was only a downer for the rest of that day.”
“He’s just out there to enjoy himself and have fun,” Bearden says, “and that mindset makes all the difference.”
Wardian, for his part, chalks it up to perseverance. I asked him where that drive came from. “I don’t know,” he said, then after a moment continued, “I always wanted to be the best or give my best. Even if I wasn’t the smartest dude in class, I would figure out a way to work hard and get as good a grade as possible. There’s some stuff I’m just not as skilled at, but I’m a hard worker. I’m a grinder. That’s what I did with lacrosse, and that’s to some extent what I’ve done with my running. I feel like I just kind of grind until I achieve.”
So you don’t think you’re innately talented? I asked.
“I mean, I definitely think there’s some level of ability to withstand. Even if the talent is that I don’t get hurt. I might not be as fast. But if I can keep going to the track and doing the workouts, and I have the ability to recover so that I can do the work—I mean, that’s a talent, right? I’ll never be a 13-minute 5K guy, but all those guys might be broken on the side of the course.”
At 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, Wardian broke for lunch to show me one of his favorite weekday runs. Starting near his office on Embassy Row, we breezed past flag-adorned villas, then turned onto a creekside trail.
“I love this,” he said. “This is like, ‘Oh, embassy! Oh, waterfalls!’”
“Granted, they’re like two feet, but …”
As we meandered through wooded parks and tony neighborhoods, Wardian described his college experience. “I was in a fraternity,” he said. “I got very good at partying. I would do crazy stuff, like party and then go run around campus in my hiking boots.”
“I don’t know, just ’cause I could! Just to see if it was possible. I guess kind of like now.”
It reminded me of something he had told me a day earlier. “I don’t want to miss any opportunity if I can help it,” he had said. “’Cause who knows? Who knows if I’ll be able to do this in three years or two months or six months or next week.” He mentioned two well-known trail runners, Dave Mackey and Adam Campbell, who had been injured in serious falls. “I would shut this all down if my wife got sick or the boys got injured or sick.”
A passing jogger whooped in recognition. She and Wardian high-fived.
“It’s weird, I have no idea who that is!” he said, delighted.
We neared the run’s end, and I asked a question I knew was rhetorical. “Do you think you’ll ever retire?”
“From running competitively? No,” he said. “Did you see those 90 versus 96-year-old dudes who just took part in a track race for 100 meters? That’s me! I want to take all Whitlock’s records.” Ed Whitlock, a Canadian who set dozens of age-group world records in his 60s, 70s and 80s would pass away two weeks later. “I know I want to do this for a really long time,” Wardian went on. “It’s cool that I can do trails and roads, so if one becomes too hard, then I can always go do the other. Maybe I’ll go do the track. I’d like to do a steeplechase. I’ve never done a steeplechase.”
Paul Cuno-Booth is a newspaper reporter based in Keene, New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @PCunoBoothKS.