He's battled shoe-melting heat in Death Valley, suffered across 155 miles in the Sahara Desert carrying more than 10 pounds of fuel and gear on his back, and has won more than 30 marathons. But Michael Wardian, 38, of Arlington, Virginia, lives a pretty normal life for a man with an extraordinary penchant for enduring discomfort.
A full-time international ship broker and family man, Wardian often leaves races soon after crossing the finish line to get home to spend time with his wife and two sons. Regarded fondly throughout the running community for his humility and friendliness, the four-time recipient of the USA Track & Field Ultra Runner of the Year award offers advice on moving up in distance from the marathon to ultra distances.
How did you get your body to adapt to running so many miles and races—did it take you years of gradual progression, or did you take a different approach?
Michael Wardian: I was lucky, as I didn't start running until college and I was able to build up pretty slowly to running a lot of miles and races. For the first few years, I didn't think you needed to run more than 50 miles per week, so I just ran whatever this training packet I had gotten from my friend's Mom told me to run each day.
That is how I completed my first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon in 1996, to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I ran about 3:08 or so, which was right under the cut-off to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
I thought after I ran the Boston Marathon that I would stop running and do something else, but I was hooked. I did dabble in triathlons, but I just loved running so much that I wanted to see just how far I could take it—and I still do.
What distance would you recommend runners new to ultra distances train for and race?
I would recommend that newbie ultra runners train and race for a 50 Miler/80K.
Fifty milers are a great distance because you can finish them in a day (most of the time), and they don't beat you up too badly, as they tend to be run at a little slower pace than you would run a 50K.
Don't get me wrong; 50Ks are great and I love the 50K distance. Normally that is the natural progression into ultras—do a few marathons and then a 50K—but I just think going over 35 miles in a race really tests you like few things do. Pushing beyond what you think is possible is what it's all about.
What is your favorite race at this distance (50M)?
I love a lot of 50 milers in the U.S. and around the world, but the JFK 50 Miler, which is one of the oldest 50 milers in the country, is one of my favorites because it was the first 50 miler and ultra that I ever ran. I have since won the race, so it is really special to me. I love the course, aid station volunteers, and race director and family. It has a great feel, and they do a first-class job.
Do you find that it's more important to emphasize mileage over intensity, or are you in favor of both?
I think it depends what you are trying to achieve with you training. If you just wanted to finish an ultra, then I would say get mileage in or, even better, "time on your feet"—just being out there for hours and getting used to how your body responses to the heat, humidity, eating, drinking, etc.
If you want to be at the front or pushing your limits, then I think you need to do miles and add in intensity. The guys/girls in the front are too good to just run at a leisurely pace.
What's your recovery routine (after a long, long run or post-race)?
My recovery routine is pretty organic; I try to shake out after a long run/post-race with a short cooldown jog and/or hike to keep my legs moving and flush out the damage. I then try to eat and drink something so I can start replacing calories to get ready for my next run/race. I usually try not to sit down for at least 20 to 30 minutes post-race/run.