Forty-Plus Races In His Fortieth Year: An Interview With Michael Wardian

An in-depth interview with masters runner Mike Wardian.

By on January 22, 2015 | Comments

Michael Wardian needs little introduction. His accomplishments precede him: he has qualified for and run the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials three times (2004, 2008, 2012), set national and world records, won national championships, and medaled at the IAU 100k World Championships. In short, he has raced serially at a very high level for years. In fact, last year when he turned 40 years old and became a masters runner, he finished over 40 races—54 to be exact—and finished top 10 in all but 10 of them. He capped off his 2014 campaign by resetting his own indoor track 50k world record. ‘Iron’ Mike Wardian is surely proving that youth isn’t necessary for success and that his heavily saturated racing schedule is still more than manageable.

How long does Wardian think he can maintain his rampant racing with such success? In what cases might he consider racing less? With a family and full-time job, how does he manage his lifestyle, which includes racing roughly once a week, often outside of his hometown of Arlington, Virginia? Wardian answers these questions and more in the following lively interview.

Michael Wardian

Michael Wardian. Photo: Dave Freedman

iRunFar: Mike, you ran over 40 races last year—that’s a whole bunch! Were those all marathon distance or longer or does that include some shorter races, too?

Mike Wardian: No, they were not [all marathon distance or longer.] So, I did 11 marathons and 18 ultramarathons. Then, I don’t know, some other stuff. I can tell you, I have my results right here. It was 25 other races.

iRunFar: The shortest was probably a 5k?

Mike Wardian: The shortest was actually the uphill challenge in Salt Lake City. I only managed 1.7 miles but I came in second—I actually came in ahead of Max King, of all people. I was right behind Sage [Canaday]. You only had 15 minutes at 15% grade.

iRunFar: Right, it was on the treadmill.

Mike Wardian: Yeah, yeah, so that went really well, I was super surprised—I had never done that before. Then my second-shortest race was an open-water swim, a three-mile open-water swim. That took me as long as it takes—that took me two hours and 20 minutes—so about as long as it takes me to [run] a marathon.

iRunFar: You’re a swimmer, then?

Mike Wardian: No, not at all. It just scared me, so I did it, man. They actually had a nine-mile [swim] that I chickened out of; that was the one that really fascinated me but I was too scared to do that one the first time. Thirty minutes [into the swim] I was so glad that I chose the three mile. I was almost dead last; I was chasing the cutoff.

iRunFar: Did you get any time in the pool ahead of the race?

Mike Wardian: No. Well, I did a couple swims of 30 minutes, thinking that would be enough, and that just wasn’t enough. I wasn’t very prepared—I suffered. I was getting hypothermia at the end. It was in the ocean—Ocean City, Maryland—so it was legit, the waves were crashing around and you had to sight and all that. I got to the end and my arms were all quivering and cramping. I didn’t eat or anything [during the swim], so that was a long time to be out there. It was awesome; I would totally do it again.

iRunFar: Maybe you’ll do the nine-mile swim next year!

Mike Wardian: [laughs] I was thinking about that, yeah!

iRunFar: So, including the swim and uphill challenge, how many races did you finish with last year exactly and how does that compare to other years?

Wardian: I actually ended up with 54 races. That was a pretty high number. Usually I average between 40 and 50. So, I was able to slide in a couple more. When I was injured in 2012, I had just 20 races. In 2013, I had 41 races. I usually run more marathons than ultras, but in 2014 it was the inverse.

Michael Wardian wins the 2014 North Pole Marathon

Michael Wardian wins the 2014 North Pole Marathon. Photo: The North Pole Marathon

iRunFar: 2013—that was your first year back from injury.

Wardian: Yeah.

iRunFar: What did you think of your 2014 season overall? Were you mostly happy or did you fail to achieve some things that you had hoped to?

Wardian: No, man, I was completely stoked with how it went. I didn’t have the races that I wanted at the world championships—for the 50k I ended up sixth and I suffered at the 100k and ended up, for the first time, not scoring for the U.S. but still finished fourth for the team. It was cool that we won a gold medal but I like to participate in the scoring for that. I ran my slowest road 100k that I’ve ever run.

iRunFar: Which was 7:18 or so?

Wardian: Yeah, 7:19. Almost 30 minutes slower that I’ve ever run before for that distance. So it wasn’t a great result but at the end we still won [as a team] so that was cool. But personally I wasn’t super excited about how it went for me. I love to kind of push what is possible and maybe that caught up to me a little bit. I’ve been known to do that and it’s something I kind of love doing. I had a lot of great results. I was able to win a national championship in the 12k as a master, too.

iRunFar: That’s right. I think one other goal you might have had last year was to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials for the fourth time?

Wardian: That wasn’t—I was hoping I would have a chance at Twin Cities [Marathon] and I ran like 2:22 and that course, I knew, would be a little bit tough to do it at. But I’m actually trying to get the standard this weekend at [the Houston Marathon.] I think I should be able to run pretty fast there and I got a good block of training in after the 50k, so, I don’t know—it just depends if I can hold the pace or not, that’s what it comes down to. You have to run 5:15 pace [per mile] as long as you can. That’s what I’m going to try to do.

iRunFar: When you put it that way, it’s so simple.

Wardian: Exactly! And you only have to average that. So if you start off a little faster, you can fall off a little at the end.

iRunFar: Well you must be feeling pretty good despite all that racing last year since you managed to reset your own indoor track 50k world record at the end of the year.

Wardian: I feel amazing, yeah. I was doing more miles before I got hurt a couple years ago and I miss being able to do those miles, but I try to be really cognizant of addressing something if it feels a little off and not letting it linger and turn into something else.

iRunFar: In terms of mileage—you said you had a good training block between the 50k and now—how many miles were you putting in a week?

Wardian: I would say probably averaging 70 to 90 miles per week.

iRunFar: Got it. Tell me about how that 50k went. I think you were basically running solo the whole time?

Wardian: There was another guy that was going to run as far as he could [with me]. I was hoping he was going to run about 15k with me, but he only lasted about 4k. At 5k he stopped. So, yeah, I was basically by myself the whole time.

Michael Wardian setting the 50k indoor track world record

Michael Wardian setting the 50k indoor track world record. Photo: Hagerstown Herald-Mail/Andy Mason

iRunFar: And how many laps was it?

Wardian: It was 250 laps for the 50k.

iRunFar: So you’re 100 laps into the race. What are you thinking at that point when you still have another 150 laps?

Wardian: It was amazing, they did such a fantastic job—it’s a really well run, organized event. Mike Spinnler was there and he was giving me splits every time I would come around. That made it really nice. Every 42 seconds for a really long time, he would tell me where I was. Then I started slowing down a little bit, I didn’t feel well—I felt terrible the whole time. The night before I had been at a party for New Years and had not the best food choices, so it was very evident in how I was feeling. I had to stop and go to the bathroom.

But I came back and felt really good for maybe 50 minutes and was clicking off 42[-second laps] again. Then it started to be 43, 44, 45, and about 45 seconds was the slowest—that’s about six-minute-per-mile pace on a 200-meter track. It’s funny because every second you lose is eight seconds over the course of a mile. So I was very cognizant—every time I came around I took a split with my watch, too, just because I’ve done these races before where the lap counters weren’t as efficient, so I didn’t want to have to do more laps than I had to.

But I felt really strong and focused. Every lap I was thinking about what I needed to do, how fast I was going, and everybody on the track—there were maybe 15 of us—was aware of what I was trying to do and were very supportive and cleared out of the way if they could. It worked out very well.

Michael Wardian setting the 50k indoor track world record 2

En route to a 50k indoor track world record. Photo: Hagerstown Herald-Mail/Andy Mason

iRunFar: Was there a point where the number of laps remaining was no longer daunting and you actually started to maybe gain strength knowing you clicked off another one?

Wardian: Actually I just kind of stayed nose to the ground the whole time. I was never worried about the amount of laps, just about holding the pace.

iRunFar: So, you weren’t really counting laps?

Wardian: Not really. It was more like, How many kilometers do I have to go, or how many miles? I like getting my kilometer splits. I really liked having that kind of feedback. It’s really cool having that instant feedback, where you’re like, Oh yeah, I feel like I’m running fast! Then you come around and it’s 45 seconds and you’re like, What? No way! That’s not true! Then you can pick it back up and get down to 42 [seconds]. I really like that.

I was actually thinking [laughs] it would be cool to do something even longer [on an indoor track]. I don’t even know, you know, if you could do an 80k on the indoor track. That might be fun to do.

iRunFar: I think you would have the world record the first time you did it, Mike.

Wardian: [laughs] Yeah, I don’t think anyone else is doing that.

iRunFar: Let’s go back to last year. You ran a ton of races, which is relatively normal for you. You’ve talked about your love of competition being an impetus for your serial racing—you love to toe the line and see what you can do. Do you think your continual racing will hinder your performance now that you’re getting older?

Wardian: Well, not if you’re Meghan Arbogast!

iRunFar: [laughs] Right, but I don’t think she races quite as much as you. But, I mean, back in 2008 you ran a 2:21 marathon on Saturday and then a 2:31 on Sunday. That’s mind-blowing. Do you think you could still do that now, at your age?

Wardian: Oh, I think I could. Oh yeah, for sure. At the moment, yeah, I think I have that kind of fitness. I felt that I could have done [close to that] after Twin Cities when I ran the 2:22. The 2:31 I ran that day, back in 2008, I ran with plantar fasciitis. I was in so much pain. If it were the right courses, I think I could do that again.

iRunFar: Maybe I’m asking the question too early. Maybe if I come back in eight years and ask the same question, it will be a different story.

Wardian: Unless I’m Mbarak Hussein! Which I’m not. But, man, that guy beat me at the Twin Cities Marathon and he’s 49 years old! He beat me by 21 seconds. He was stronger. I think I would have been able to run him down in the past, but I think I’m starting to get that back now—I can feel it in training. I prefer to run from the front and inflict damage on people, and that’s when it’s really fun for me to run—I like that kind of front-runner mentality.

iRunFar: I’m going to ask this question differently. Suppose there comes a time when you can tell you’re not racing as well. Maybe it’s 10 years from now, maybe 20. What do you plan to do, would you scale it back to maintain some better results?

Wardian: Yeah, I think it’s a similar answer to what I’ve given before. If I’m not achieving—I have my own expectations of where I think I should finish and what I want to achieve with each event, and if I’m not achieving what I want to achieve then, yeah, I’m going to make changes to get the results that I want. If that means I run fewer events and focus on them in a more traditional style, I guess—I mean, most of us do more events then we probably should. If I’m not getting the results I want, and it means that I need to race less to achieve what I want to achieve, then that’s what I’ll do. I think that’s just smart in general: if you don’t get the outcome you want, then you need to do something differently.

iRunFar: Right. For you—it’s hard for me to tell if being in competition for you is more about how you place among the field or if it’s more about competing with yourself and achieving what you think you’re capable of. Is it equal?

Wardian: I think that’s a good question; you’re trying to parse it out. I think, first and foremost, I want to compete with myself and see what I’m capable of and run the best race I possibly can. And then, obviously, I want to win. So, if I’m coming in 20th place, then that’s not where I want to be and maybe I need to do something differently to try to improve on that.

But my worst finish in 2014 was at The Nation’s Triathlon [laughs]. I was 166th. It was one week after Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). And at UTMB I was 123rd and that was my second-worst finish.

iRunFar: But in those races you’re really stretching your realm of comfort.

Wardian: Of course, yeah. I did a Spartan race and finished 54th. It was the first I had ever done and I did it to see if I could do it. Kind of like the open-water swim.

Looking at last year, though, I had 18 first-place finishes, six second-place finishes, four third-place finishes, a couple fourth places—only 10 times was I out of the top 10 in 54 races. I think most people would be happy with that. I just have high expectations.

Michael Wardian 2014 UTMB

Michael Wardian early in the 2014 UTMB. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

iRunFar: Most people would also be happy with a 7:19 100k time.

Wardian: Yeah, exactly. But that’s—we’re different in that we expect more of ourselves. And I think that we should. That’s how you get to the level that you’re at and that’s how you keep improving. If you just settle for ‘good enough,’ I don’t think that’s the way you should try to achieve things—for me, it’s not satisfying.

iRunFar: Whether it’s running or anything else.

Wardian: Yeah, exactly. I think you should do the absolute best you can possibly do. A lot of times you learn—it’s so cliché—when things don’t go as well, that you have to look at what you’re doing and try to improve on that.

Also, I don’t just do races that I’m good at. I think a lot of people fall into doing stuff they’re the absolute best at—and it makes sense, it’s fun. If you’re really good at road marathons, why do you want to do 100k in the mountains where you aren’t going to do as well, right? But if you [stick to just one thing], then I think you limit what you’re capable of. I’m probably not the best guy for [a 100 miler] in the mountains around Chamonix, France. But it was an amazing experience and I wouldn’t have missed it. The three-mile open-water swim, I had no business being in that event thinking that I could do anything other than finish. Those are things I like to do. I don’t want to just be doing things I’m good at, I guess, because you don’t know what you’re going to be good at unless you try. Even if you’re not good at something the first time—you probably aren’t going to debut at the marathon distance and set an unbreakable PR. The more you do something, the more experience you have, the better you get at it.

iRunFar: Let me give you two possible seasons. Tell me which you prefer: the year you just had in 2014—54 races, 29 combined marathons and ultramarathons, 44 top-10 finishes—or a year where you run 18 total races—all marathons and ultramarathons—and you finish top three in all of them? Which of those do you like better?

Wardian: Ew. [laughs] Ughhhhh. I don’t know. Um. I don’t know. I think I would still push the envelope… I think a lot of it, for me, it’s the experience of being out there and sharing the trails and roads with everybody and taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves and being open to new experiences.

If they were 18 events that I was able to be in and get to do the things I wanted to do—that would be fantastic. And, of course, I would love to be on the podium every time I race, that would be amazing. But if I’m not [on the podium every time] and I’m able to race at high level and compete and be competitive and be a part of things and share that with people—that’s important, too. And I love the opportunities I have to do that. I don’t know if it’s just me thinking this or not but I think a reason a lot of people identify with me is that I have a lot of the same obligations and requirements that people who aren’t doing this on a professional basis have—with the kids, and the family, and the dog, and the Volvo, and the job—that I’m still able to compete at a high level. Fitting the training in around work and those things that normal people have to do.

The quantity of racing—a lot of us like to race a lot—it gets to be part of who we are and what we do. I like seeing my friends out there and making new friends. Those experiences are almost as important as doing well. There is only every one winner; everybody else is not the winner. So, I think showing people you can still be competitive but not win, or just finish. I’ve only every not finished three or four races, and one was in 2014, and it was tough—I made it 90k out of 100k and it was a great lesson: you shouldn’t take anything for granted. I came back from that stronger because I knew that I didn’t want to let that happen again, it lit a fire to train harder and keep pushing what is possible. I think it shows that everybody is human and things are bigger than you and you have to know when to say when.

iRunFar: I don’t think that was an easy question for you to answer.

Wardian: Yeah, I think it was a good question. It’s a really thoughtful question. You’re not the first person to ask me that but you asked it in a unique way. Over the course of my career, my wife, Jennifer, has said, “If I had a dollar every time someone said, ‘If you only race two times a year, you could be a 2:12 marathoner.’” I don’t know if that appeals to me as much as the lifestyle that I’ve chosen.

iRunFar: But I think that’s the wrong question to ask you. Could you be a 2:10 marathoner if you only ran two a year? It doesn’t vibe well with your personality. It’s also the other extreme end of the spectrum: you’re on one end, doing all different races, doing a bunch of them; the other side is doing just two races, one specific event. The question to ask you is not that, but something in the middle: would you prefer to do 20 races extremely well or 40 pretty well?

Wardian: I think that’s a really thoughtful way to ask it. I’ve definitely considered that, too. The problem is that there are no guarantees. You can have the best race possible, for you, and someone else has a better race. There are guys out there—and girls out there—that are crazy fast and strong and that’s what is so crazy about these events. There are always new people coming into the sport, or older people coming back from injury—there are so many factors out of your control. You could be in the best possible shape of your life and be on the way to your start and twist your ankle walking there, or get food poisoning, or your flight doesn’t make it to the event. There are things outside of your control.

When you were asking that last question, I was thinking, How many Japanese marathoners do you know that run a 2:08 marathon? There are probably some, but you’ve never heard of them. But there is a Japanese guy that runs 2:08 like every month and he’s an international sensation. He’s awesome. He’s like an everyday hero. He sounds like a badass. But then there are 100 Kenyans and Ethiopians that run 2:06 that you’ve never even heard of. It’s just not fair [to not get recognition] because that’s such an amazing time.

Michael Wardian 2014 Squamish 50k 2

Michael Wardian running the 2014 Squamish 50k. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

iRunFar: Yeah, hard work doesn’t guarantee you anything, or any results, and a couple strong results don’t guarantee any recognition, so a person should try to go for as many solid results as they can—it sounds like that is what you’re saying.

Wardian: Yeah. I mean, the races are so long; there are so many things outside of your control. I don’t know, I can’t see why you would want to limit yourself [to fewer races] if you don’t have to. I’m lucky—I have great support to be able to do these things. Some people are limited—and I was limited at first—by just financing it. I’m not going to go into debt and put my family’s well being in jeopardy to do these things that make me feel good. And I hope I inspire other people to do things—but it’s not responsible for some people. You have to balance everything and somehow I’ve been able to keep the balance a little bit in check. My wife, Jennifer, keeps me in check; and then Mariele and Keith here in the office. They keep me a little bit grounded in reality.

iRunFar: You’ve been asked this, too. I can say, I think with certainty, no one else is doing what you’re doing with respect to travel, racing, competing, working, and all that. How do you make it all work? What happens, for example, when you go to Qatar twice in a month?

Wardian: It wouldn’t be possible without technology as it is now. I take my laptop. My sister, Mariele, and Keith here in the office, they help. They take up the slack—maybe I’m on a plane, or a place with crappy internet and I’m trying to find internet—they’ll deal with whatever needs to be dealt with and then I’ll try to help as much as I can. A lot of it you can do remotely. You don’t need to necessarily be in the office, which is a huge benefit and allows a little more of my lifestyle to happen. There are times when you need to be in the office and you need to get stuff done. I try to schedule so that I can be responsive to clients and their needs.

One example. I was in Hawaii for a marathon and was waking up at like midnight to work with my client here in Virginia. So starting at midnight I would work with him until 10 in the morning. That would be the end of the business day. Then I’d do the stuff with the kids and Jennifer during the day and then wake up at midnight the next day again, after going to be around 10 p.m. I did that for like a week. I didn’t have my best race but it was possible. When you’re other places, you make it work. I have to say, Keith and Mariele are amazing to allow me to the live the dream, make it a reality. If they weren’t doing what they do, it wouldn’t be possible. I’d have to say ‘no’ more than I do now. And it would be unfortunate because there are so many cool things to do.

On the home front, Jennifer stays at home with the kids. She is on board with most of the events. When I’m gone, her mother and father come over and help with the house and everything that goes on. If we’re all gone, my parents help. I really do—I have an amazing support system in that my family and work—and I think we’ve grown together at this—we’ve all kind of grown as a unit. And it’s cool to see that they’re intertwined: my sister is doing her first 50k this year. My boss has done some trail racing and he’s going up Kilimanjaro this year. We have a super-amazing environment where we all take turns to run or work out. It’s been cool to see how we’ve all evolved and made an active lifestyle here in the office but still making sure we get the work done—that’s the important thing, getting the work done.

The kids are starting to see the benefits. They’ve been all around the world already. They’ve been to Germany, Italy, and Ireland. We’ll be in Australia later this year. So an important aspect is getting to share this with them and getting them exposed to different cultures and environments.

There are things I miss out on when I’m away and I hate that. But with FaceTime and Skype you can stay up to date. But I try to make my trips as minimal as possible so I can still take advantage of those opportunities.

iRunFar: Your weekdays back at home are maybe a little more normal?

Wardian: Yeah, yeah my workday is Monday through Friday. I wake up and run or cycle to work, then I run at lunch, and then run or cycle back home. Once I’m home, I’m just a dad. It’s pretty straightforward. After the kids go to bed, I’ll maybe do some interacting with sponsors or people. I’m on the Mountain-Ultra-Trail council, so doing some of that stuff. I’m involved with some races. I’m actually thinking of organizing a marathon and ultramarathon here in D.C.

Michael Wardian 2014 Squamish 50k

Mike after finishing the 2014 Squamish 50k. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

iRunFar: Five years from now, I take it, you plan to be doing the same thing?

Wardian: Yeah, exactly. I think so. The kids will be getting older at that point—in their teens—so as long as it’s manageable and sustainable, I’d like to see myself still being competitive and still doing these kind of adventures. It seems like people are moving more toward expedition-type stuff and I could definitely see myself doing stuff like that if I was given the opportunities and had the ability to do that. But the nice thing about running, even with a long race, is that you’re done by the weekend and you can be back to work or on your way back toward work. I would hope I could still be fairly competitive. I have examples of friends that are older that are still being impressive but also very good at what they do and staying at the forefront. Anybody that can do it, they’re consistent and healthy. If I can do that and continue to do that, I don’t see why I can’t keep competing at a high level.

iRunFar: No disagreement there. Okay, last question: any big plans in 2015? You don’t have to list all 55 races that you’re going to do.

Wardian: [laughs] Are you sure? I don’t have them all yet. I’ll try to get the Olympic qualifying standard [in Houston] [Writer’s Note: Wardian did not achieve the Olympic standard of 2:18 in Houston, finishing in 2:23]. I was hoping to do the Marathon Majors and set the fastest time for that—that’s London, New York, Chicago, Boston, Tokyo, and Berlin—but I don’t know if that will happen, I’m having a devil of a time getting into the Tokyo Marathon. I’m trying but I don’t know if it will happen this year. If it doesn’t, I’d like to try again in 2016. I’m going to Tarawera [Ultramarathon] again so I’d like to take part in the Ultra-Trail World Tour (UTWT), try to get a bunch of points for that and do well in that.

iRunFar: Back to UTMB, then?

Wardian: I’m not sure yet. I think I’ll have the ability to go but I’m not sure if I’ll take that because I think I’d maybe like to do the Spartathlon [Ultra Race], which I’ve never done before. I’m also going to do the Wings For Life World Run in Australia. Also, The North Face Ultra Trail in Australia—it’s 100k. Then I’ll do the National Marathon and the Shamrock Marathon and I’m doing Lake Sonoma [50] for the first time—I’m excited about that, it’s always been on my radar. We’ll see how that goes and then I want to try to win the masters [division] at [the] Boston [Marathon] this year. If I don’t get into Tokyo, I’ll probably run the Big Sur Marathon and try to improve on that Boston to Big Sur record that I set [last year].

iRunFar: That was 2:23 and 2:27?

Wardian: Yeah, that’s right. But I think I can do better.

iRunFar: Those sound like my thoughts after every race I have ever run.

Wardian: [laughs] Yeah, that’s why we do these things. If you didn’t think that, you’d be doing something wrong. But, yeah, it’ll be a pretty cool year. If I don’t get that qualifier in Houston I’ll probably try at Grandma’s [Marathon]. Oh, and I’m doing Western States [100], which will be a big, big race. Typical year: lots of different goals and events and I hope to excel at all of them.

iRunFar: You probably won’t have all of your races figured out until December 31st when the year is over.

Wardian: [laughs] Yeah, it’s just cool. There are a lot of opportunities out there for people doing what we’re doing. Trying to navigate that and figure out where you want to go and what you want to do—it’s a really cool time to be in our sport. I feel really fortunate.

iRunFar: Definitely a very cool thing. Mike, it’s been great to chat. Good luck in 2015.

Wardian: Yeah! Cool, thanks, man.

Michael Wardian 2014 Big Sur Marathon

Michael Wardian winning the 2014 Big Sur Marathon. Photo: Big Sur Marathon

Eric Senseman
Eric Senseman runs far to explore what’s possible and in pursuit of the good life. It will likely keep him running forever. Find out more about him at Good Sense Running.