Michael Wardian Video Interview: 2010 Comrades Marathon

Michael Wardian just ran the Marathon des Sables in Morocco, where he had the best ever finish by an American, and is now headed over to South Africa to make a go at winning the Comrades Marathon. In between, he’s run the Boston Marathon, Big Sur Marathon, Miwok 100k, and who know what other races. Iron Mike is a machine… and a busy one at that. That’s why we’re so thankful that he took the time to speak with iRunFar’s Bryon Powell about his training and racing.

As a bonus, Michael has generously agreed to answer a few questions from iRunFar readers. Submit your questions by 5 p.m. PDT on Wednesday, June 2. Michael will select a few reader questions to answer.

If you want to follow Wardian or anyone else (Kami Semick, Nikki Kimball, Josh Cox, Bart Yasso, Adam Chase, or some dude from The Bachelor), you can track runners on the Comrades website. The race feed will start at 5:10 a.m. local time on Sunday, May 30, which is 11:10 p.m. EDT and 8:10 p.m. PDT on Saturday. There’s also a Comrades Twitter feed and the #comradesm2010 hashtag on Twitter.

Video Interview with Michael Wardian
[Editor’s Note: We’re afraid this video has vanished into the ether.]

[We recorded the above video via Skype and the audio and video decouple not far into the video.
We’ve posted the video interview as we think it’s still worth a listen.]

Michael Wardian Interview – Condensed
The following is a condensed version of Bryon Powell’s video interview with Michael Wardian. It has been further modified with clarifications made after the interview. If you want to read more about Michael, we previously interviewed him after he won the White River 50 mile in 2008.

iRunFar (iRF): We’re pleased to have Michael Wardian of The North Face joining us today from Arlington, Virginia. Thanks for joining us.

Michael Wardian (Wardian): I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me. Before we get started, I like to point out that MarathonGuide.com and Powerbar also generously support my running.

Michael Wardian Miwok 100k 2010

iRF: You’ve run two notable ultramarathons in the past two months – the Marathon des Sables stage race in the Moroccan Sahara and Miwok 100k in the Marin Headlands outside San Francisco. Your third place finish at MdS was the highest ever by an American while you had a disappointing race at Miwok.

Wardian: That’s exactly right. I had a terrific races at the Marathon des Sables. I was hoping to win the race, so coming in third was a bit of a disappointment. However, it was the best ever finish by an American and I learned a lot both during my preparation and the race itself. I think I can improve upon the third place finish… next year, hopefully.

As for Miwok, I didn’t have the best race. I was trying to earn a spot in the Western States 100 in June. I ran pretty hard for the first three fourths of the race. I now have a heavy respect for the course and think I can drastically improve my time and finish next year.

iRF: What were your biggest take home lessons from each other those races?

Wardian: For the Marathon des Sables (MdS), I learned that you’ve got to be ready to go everyday and that means knowing your limits. I ran a little too hard in the third stage (of six), a stage that should have suited me, and got overheated. I also need to do some heat training; I didn’t do any this year. I need to cut my pack weight a little bit more, too.

Michael Wardian 2009 Marathon des Sables

Michael Wardian’s secret to the Marathon des Sables? Not camel riding.

At Miwok, I figured that since I’d run up and down mountains and over sand with a heavy pack on in the Sahara (at MdS) that a race on beautiful trails with plenty of aid in California would be a breeze. It was not a breeze. It was a good lesson not to take anything for granted.

For instance, I should have studied the course more as I had to wait for others runners multiple times to avoid getting lost. Even though the course was well marked, there were places where you could easily choose the wrong path and I did that in a couple instances.

In addition, if I’d payed closer attention to the elevation profile and knew about the monster climbs late in the race, I might have toned down the pace a bit as I was pushing pretty hard early in the race. I remember I saw you (Bryon Powell) on the course and said, “I grossly underestimated that climb,” when I came into the Pantoll Aid Station (mile 49.5).

If I’d slowed it down by 10 to 15 seconds per miles and maybe toned down some of the climbs at the beginning, it would have be a different story, but I didn’t and paid the price.

iRF: You’re headed to the Comrades Marathon in South Africa along with North Face Teammates Kami Semick and Niki Kimball as well as American 50k record holder Josh Cox. Why do you think there’s such a sudden interest in the race from Americans?

Wardian: I think there’s a lot of emphasis on South Africa right now as the FIFA World Cup begins two weeks after Comrades. It’s also the 85th running of Comrades. The race began in 1921, but the race wasn’t run for a few years during World War II.

There’s also a big US interest in ultramarathons at the moment. If you’re going to run a road ultra, Comrades is considered by many around the world as one of if not the greatest road ultra. Unlike the 50k and 100k World Championships on the roads, there’s quite a bit of prize money at Comrades, so you’re going to get the best guys in the world.

Comrades is also the biggest ultramarathon in the world with over 23,000 entrants this year. I’m going to be running for more than five hours, but hopefully be in a pack with nearly 100 guys for a while. That doesn’t normally happen in an ultra.

Finally, I’m running for the Starfish Greathearts Foundation, an international development charity aiming to bring life, hope and opportunity to children in South Africa, who have been orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. You can read more about the charity in Kami Semick’s interview with a Trail Runner’s Blog. You can also make a donation to Starfish via The North Face team of me, Kami, Nikki, and Lizzy Hawker.

Nikki Kimball Lizzy Hawker Kami Semick Devon Crosby-Helms

Wardian’s Comrades’ company (left to right) Nikki Kimball, Lizzy Hawker, and Kami Semick along with Devon Crosby-Helms at the TNF Endurance Challenge Championship in 2009.

iRF: Are you going out to Comrades to try and win?

Wardian: Yeah. I don’t like to lose and am always try to compete. I want to be on the podium and, hopefully, on top of the podium. It’s a big challenge. I’ve been talking to a number of past Comrades winners, including Bruce Fordyce who won Comrades 9 times. I’ve gotten some good advice. There’s a lot to learn. There are the differences in the “up” and “down” years, as well as the intricacies of pacing and crewing.

iRF: MdS (a desert stage race), Miwok (a hilly trail ultra), and Comrades (a road ultra) are quite different races to focus on in a two month span and that range pales in comparison to the range of races you run in a year. What is your typical training week that allows you to race such a range of races so well?

Wardian: My training is pretty comprehensive. I try to in 100 miles a week, if not more. I try to work in speed work and tempo runs. If I’m not racing, I also get in a long run. I’m able to run a lot of races, which keeps me really motivated to see what I can do.

iRF: Not only do you race a wide variety of races, but you compete in a phenomenal number of events each year. A month ago you ran the Marathon des Sables, Boston Marathon, Big Sur Marathon, and Miwok 100k in four weeks. Wouldn’t some tapering make you more competitive at key races?

Wardian: I get that a lot and it’s something I’m taking under advisement. Believe it or not, I didn’t race this past weekend. I’m trying to follow Bruce Fordyce’s advice about tapering. When a guy wins a race 9 times, you’ve got to listen. I’ve been very cautious this past week and I’m just bouncing off the walls.

iRF: You’ve run really well with a third place at the 50k world champs and sixth place at the 100k world champs last year. In fact that 50k to 100k distance seems like a real specialty of yours. That said, you race events from a mile to a 100 mile in a year. Have you considered specializing between the marathon and 100k?

Wardian: I think that racing 10ks and training to race 10k fast feeds into the longer stuff. If you’re able to run a fast 10k, you can transition that into being able to run longer stuff. You just have to build up more stamina. I think my speed from the 10k makes it easier to run 5:30 pace in an ultra. That pace feels like cruising when you racing 10k at 4:45 pace… not that I’ve done that yet, but I hope to.

iRF: What are your key races after Comrades?

Wardian: I’ll be shooting for my qualifier for the US Olympics trails in the marathon, so I’ll find an early fall race to try and do that. My big keys in the ultramarathon world are the 50k and 100k world championships in Galway, Ireland (August) and Gibraltar (November), respectively. I’ll shoot for gold in the 50k and aim to move up on my 9th and 6th place finishes the past two years in the 100k by trying to bring home a gold in that, as well.

The week after Comrades, I’ll try to earn my spot at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships by winning the Washington, DC Endurance Challenge.

iRF: You have been improving in both road and trail ultras. For example, you nailed the two World Championships last year and then after Miwok Anton Krupicka noted how impressed he was with your running on the hills. To what do you think you owe your improvement in ultras and especially on the trail?

Wardian: I have to thank Tony, because he whooped my butt at the White River 50 mile last year. That was the first time I was handled that like that in an ultra, especially at an ultra where I’ve done well. I’d previously run under 7 hours at White River. Tony showed me that what I thought was good wasn’t good. While we were racing at Miwok I even told him, “Thanks for beating me down last summer, because I know I can do better. If you can do that well, then I have to work harder to climb like that.” I’ve focused some on trying to get better at climbing. I felt like I should have been able to climb better at Miwok. It’s something that I understand that I need to improve upon if I’m looking toward the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in 2011. To be able to compete against the Europeans you need to be able to climb like them.

Anton Krupicka Michael Wardian White River 50 mile 2009

Anton Krupicka (l) Michael Wardian (r) after the White River 50 mile in 2009.

I also have to thank Mohamad Ahansal (iRF Video Interview) for showing me that what I thought was descending is a joke. He showed me how to do it at the Marathon de Sables. I realized that you have to be fearless. You’ve got to go down those hills like you’re indestructible.

iRF: Best of luck in your future endeavors, Mike. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us an inform iRunFar’s readers.

Wardian: Thank you very much for having me. It’s always great to be on iRunFar.

Bonus Question
iRF: We’ve heard that you play video games while you’re on the treadmill in the morning. What’s your favorite game at the moment?

Wardian: Legos Starwars. I play with my son. I’m which ever character he tells me to be, so he’s usually Anakin Skywalker and I’m usually Obi-Wan Kenobi.

iRF: I could see Obi-Wan in you.

Wardian: I wouldn’t mind being Qui-Gon Jinn, but he died in the first Star Wars movie.

iRF: Thanks again, Michael.

There are 3 comments

  1. Brad K

    I would be interested to hear Michael's thoughts on balancing training and family.  If I remember correctly, he has two children at home, as do I.  I constantly struggle to find balance and frequently have no choice but to run late at night, and into the night, sacrificing sleep.

    I would also love to hear Michael's thoughts on altitude tents… does he use them? (or have you tried them?) If so, does he use them all the time or just to acclimate (before a high altitude race, perhaps)?

    Mike… Good luck out there!!!

  2. Shannon Beasley

    Hi, Michael. When I get to Heaven, God will let me run like you.

    Near the end of the interview you state, "I also have to thank Mohamad Ahansal for showing me that what I thought was descending is a joke. He showed me how to do it at the Marathon de Sables. I realized that you have to be fearless. You’ve got to go down those hills like you’re indestructible."

    I suck at downhills on technical trails. On all trails really. All I see is my foot catching on a root or rock and me breaking my face or something. It seems I have to "brake" the whole way down in order to *stay within myself*/not let my body commit to something my legs can't keep up with.

    Annnyway, can you offer any advice about how to become faster/more proficient on descents (stride length, braking, foot placement, "seeing" the trail, use of arms, etc.)? Thank you.

    I can't wait to see the amazing things you'll do next!

    Best wishes, friend.

  3. ewlake

    I'd like to submit a reader question for Michael Wardian:

    I grew up in Virginia, not far from where you call home. Arlington isn't exactly a hotbed of trail running – at least, not to my knowledge! Is there a secret community flourishing? :) Living where you do, do you ever feel at a training disadvantage when you participate in western races?

    Love reading about your results – inspirational! Best of luck in the remainder of your 2010 races.

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