Mike Wardian’s Road/Trail to Recovery

An interview with Michael Wardian as he returns to racing after a significant injury break.

By on March 19, 2013 | 41 comments

When I think of Mike Wardian, I think of a Greyhound. The dog, not the bus. Always twitchy, waiting to catch sight of something moving, ready to play chase to whatever that is. What I mean is that Mike loves to run fast and race hard. And, when he does, he does so without bias to distance, surface, or anything else. Except for a period of six or so months during the second half of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 when he was severely injured. Just like a caged dog is an awful travesty, so was an injured Mike.

In this interview, learn about Mike’s injuries, what caused them, his recovery, how he’s trying to be a smarter runner, and his picks for 2013’s best trail and ultrarunners. Oh and you should know that it’s impossible to interview Mike. I’ve tried several times now, over the years. He interviews himself, tells you what you were going to ask him anyway. Basically you steer him in the right direction and he runs with it. Again the Greyhound. Finally, hold out for the end of the article because Mike lists all his tips for navigating a big-time injury. Here’s how our interview went:

iRF: How are you?

Wardian: I’m feeling good, man.

iRF: Man? This is great! I saw you in February [when we got together to run in Washington, D.C.] and now we’re chit chatting on the phone.

Wardian: Yes, that was one of my first runs back. And I’ve been able to do some longer runs since then. It’s nice being able to run without pain.

Michael Wardian - DC - February 2013

Wardian and the iRunFar crew after the February run.

iRF: That is such good news! That is why I wanted to interview you. You’re always at the forefront of ultrarunning because you race so successfully and prolifically. Then, all of the sudden, you’re off the radar. I want to talk about your many injuries and your recovery.

Wardian: Since August or so [I’ve been too injured to run]… The last ultra I did was Western States. I ran the San Francisco Marathon and got third and that was the last race I did. I ran 2:27 or 2:28 and I felt super off. More off than I was for the rest of the year. You saw me before the 100k [World Championships in April of 2012], and things were kind of weird even then.

Jonas Buud, Michael Wardian, Marja Vrajic, Meghan Arbogast, and Giorgio Calcaterra

Mike Wardian and friends at the 2012 IAU 100k World Championships.

iRF: The lead-up to the injuries… I recall you saying you were battling plantar fasciitis at worlds, and that you were having issues with a couple other things. So there was already stuff going on last April?

Wardian: Yes, for most of 2012, it felt like my stomach was sort of loose and not all together. When I’d start a run, I’d have a sharp pain. I was going around asking people, “Hey, do you ever start a run and feel like your stomach is falling out?” and everyone is kind of like, “No??” I kept going to my doctor asking if I had a hernia or something and they kept saying no. Eventually, you just have to keep going back and saying, “something’s not right.” For me, I didn’t find out for a long time [that I did have hernias.]

I had five stress fractures and I had to stop running for them. They could see there was some “other activity” on the MRI, but they thought it was the healing from the stress fractures. I took the time off from the stress fracture, so I wasn’t really running. I was cycling and aqua jogging. My MRIs still never looked better. That’s when they figured out I had these hernias. They thought it was just two, but when they went in there to repair one on each side, they also found one in my belly button and two smaller ones on the left side. So I had two sports hernias and three inguinal. The one in my belly button wasn’t so small. I thought I had a super outie, but turns out it was a hernia.

iRF: Oh my gosh… so when you’d ask your friends, “Have you ever felt like your stomach is coming out?” your stomach was actually coming out. Did doctors have any explanation of how that all happened?

Wardian: Physical therapists figured out that I don’t have a great range of motion in my hips. My extension was zero and it’s supposed to be [more than zero.] Since I didn’t have long range of motion when I would follow through with my legs, I would tilt my body forward and put more stress on my pelvis and that’s how I’d get the extension rather than through the actual hip extension. They were saying, “I don’t know how you can run that fast with no extension.”

So now I’ve been doing that more to try to strengthen that area. I don’t want to get the same injuries. I’ve been building up really slowly. I think the most I’ve done in a week is 60 miles. I’m building up really, really slow and cycling a lot and hiking.

iRF: Retrace for me the string of injuries. Plantar fasciitis first last spring?

Wardian: That started December 2011 right at TNF EC 50 in San Francisco was when it kind of started. It was painful all year really. Then the loose stomach and feeling off happened after the Olympic Trials in early 2012. I was still racing pretty well. As the year went on, I started getting weird leg pains which was some of the stress fractures. I got off the flight for Comrades in [June of] 2012 and I couldn’t walk up the stairs. I was freaking out because I just flew down there—how was I going to run this race? I didn’t know what was going to happen, but 2k into the race, it was like normal. I just started racing. I did the best I could. Even during Western it didn’t bother me too much. I didn’t even really notice it until I did the San Fran Marathon and everything was kind of weird but okay.

Michael Wardian - 2011 TNF EC 50

Wardian battling the field and PF at the TNF EC 50 in 2011.

Then in August I ran eight miles to work and couldn’t walk when I got there. It was the week before UTMB; I was supposed to go over for that. I went and got a massage because I just thought I pulled something in my butt. I had them digging into it and it was a stress fracture. I was about to black out. It was unbelievable pain like I’ve never felt before.

iRF: To the massage therapist, you’re like, “Keep working on it! Keep working on it!”

Wardian: I was! “Work it out!” We were supposed to fly out on Friday to the race and this was Wednesday. I was still thinking, “Maybe I can gut it out. If I can’t run that, then maybe I can run a marathon.” It was crazy. I couldn’t even walk from one side of the office to the other.

I think about it now and it was kind of like the first step to realizing you have a problem is admitting you have a problem. I definitely had to come to terms with something actually being wrong. I went and got an x-ray and that didn’t really show anything; I got a CT scan and that didn’t really show anything. Then I got an MRI and it showed a stress fracture.

I didn’t really know anything about stress fractures. I talked to a bunch of people. Mostly it happens to women. A lot of times it’s related to running high mileage and you’re not getting proper nutrients. Basically, you’re doing more damage than your body is able to repair.

The contributing factor is that I’ve always been really good at recovery. But we have had an issue with [my son] Grant having seizures. He was diagnosed with epilepsy in October of 2011. We were and still are waking up every couple hours to check on him. So I was never getting any proper block of sleep and still trying to do the miles and the racing and I think it was just too much. I didn’t have enough time for my body to recover properly between the workouts.

Then shifting my gait somewhat to take some of the pain away from the plantar fasciitis may have put undue stress on my pelvis.

iRF: The hernias are repaired; the stress fractures have presumably healed up. Is the plantar fasciitis healed now, too?

Wardian: It’s pretty good. I figured it would not bother me at all because I’d taken all that time off from running, but sometimes I can kind of feel it at various points. My stomach feels the best it has in a long time. My hips are holding up pretty well. It’s nice to be able to run and not have pain. There’s the pain of not being as fit as you’d like, but…

iRF: More mental angst than anything, right?

Wardian: Yes, when you first start back from injury, every run you’re on “high alert,” scanning for pain. Even when we were running [together in D.C.], the whole time my brain was being diagnostic. It’s not as enjoyable as if you’re just running and carefree.

It’s definitely taking a lot of patience to come back deliberately and not rush into things. I’ve strung a couple races together—I did a 50k last week and a marathon the weekend after. [Editor’s Note: Since our interview, Mike also ran last weekend’s National Marathon.] Those are my longest runs. It’s pretty minimal what I’ve been able to do running-wise. But it’s encouraging to be able to run near six minute/mile pace and feel pretty comfortable.

iRF: Talk about monitoring your comeback. Are you letting pain be your guide or a slow progression of mileage increase?

Wardian: I think a lot of us, especially me, I don’t know how good pain is as a guide because I was able to run for a really long time in quite a bit of pain and it didn’t seem that crazy to me.

iRF: Your internal regulator is set at a far higher level than most human beings.

Wardian: Or maybe I’m able to override it more. So I’m trying to err on the side of caution. It’s kind of textbook, but I don’t want to increase more than 10% [a week]. Even in February, I was going to run a marathon and if I did it would have been 70 miles for that week. The day before, I was doing a shake-out run and something hurt, so “Nope, not doing it.” I just ran a couple of hours easy instead. I’d rather miss one race than miss six months again.

When you’re injured, you lose your peer group—your running support system. No one really wants to be around someone who’s hurt.

iRF: Contagious maybe!

Wardian: Yes, everyone’s like “I don’t want that.” You feel isolated. It was nice because I met some people, stress-fracture friends, in the pool. I had a little support group. But you lose touch with your normal running group because they don’t want to tell you about how their running is going because they don’t want you to feel bad. You don’t want to tell them about your injury because that’s just going to make them feel weird. I was lucky because I was able to stay involved and crew for some people. My brother did his first marathon and I was able to go out and support him and do some training runs with him on my bike. I went to some races and crewed for the first couple people.

I did some things I’ve always wanted to do. I biked the Skyline Drive. It was 105 miles and 10,000 feet climbing. I’d always wanted to do it and because of running, I hadn’t. It didn’t bother my stress fractures or the hernias. I did a lot of hiking with the family because that didn’t bother my stress fractures either.

I was able to help out with the kids’ coaching. I’m coaching [my son] Pierce’s single-A baseball team. We’re the Tigers.

iRF: And now, what’s Grant’s status? Is he stabilized? Medications?

Wardian: He was diagnosed in October of 2011 with epilepsy and he had a bunch of seizures up until April, right after I saw you at 100k Worlds. In fact he had one when the family picked me up from the airport from worlds. It was sad. We were in and out of the hospital and back and forth. Since last April 21, he hasn’t had a seizure as far as we know. We haven’t been able to monitor him 24/7, but it seems like he’s been seizure-free.

We’ve been able to take some trips as a family again. We went to Disney in Miami. We’re going to go out to Big Sur for the marathon. In 2011 and 2012, we were on pins and needles. We still are a bit and there still are a lot of logistics involved in going anywhere. We have to take rescue medicine and his normal medicine. But he’s been great and the meds don’t seem to be adversely affecting his learning or his personality. It’s always on your mind, though. Even if you just drop him off at the playground… if he has a seizure at the top of a slide that would be really bad.

We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of his last seizure. After two years, if he hasn’t had a seizure, they start taking the medicine away to see if he’s going to have a seizure again or not. It’s a big deal. Some kids outgrow them—70% will actually outgrow them. That’s the light at the end of the tunnel. All in all he’s better.

iRF: It’s really good to know that. You have a healthy family. You have a healthy body. You have what sounds like a new framework for how to stay healthy…

Wardian: I hope so… that’s the goal.

iRF: Future forward, what are you going to race this year if all systems remain a go?

Michael Wardian - UROC 2011

Wardian leading UROC in 2011.

Wardian: While I was hurt, I had a lot of time to think about stuff. One of the things I promised myself when I was hurt, I was going to run the R2R2R in the Grand Canyon. My brother and my friend, Andy, and I are going to go out there in May and do that just for fun.

I’m going to do some marathons—Big Sur (April), TNF EC 50 in D.C. (June). I’ve got 2 races for The North Face in Ecuador and Costa Rica (80k’s) at the end of June. I signed up to be considered for the USA Track and Field trail team which has a race in Wales.

I’m in Burning River 100 at the end of July. I have my name in for UTMB, but I’m not sure if that’s going to pan out. It just depends on how my body is at that point and if it’s going to work out scheduling-wise. Then in September, I’m one of the elite guys for UROC, so I was going to try and maybe do that. Then, in October, World 100k’s again? That’s a big race for me. I’d like to really do well there and seek redemption for not doing as well there last year. And TNFEC 50 San Fran at the end of the year, subject to everything going well. If I can do some marathons in there, that’s always something I like to do. Instead of doing 50 races/year, it will probably be a lot less than that.

iRF: Last question, fun question. You’re an avid fan of the sport. Even when you were in the throes of your injury, you were following along and cheering for people. I want to know what you think is going to happen in ultrarunning in 2013. Big races, breakout runners. What are your picks for this year?

Wardian: There are so many guys who are so good now—and girls, too. I’d like to think that Tim Olson is going to have a good year again, Hal [Koerner], Lizzy [Hawker]

iRF: You’re listing your team here!

Wardian: I’m following the party line.

iRF: TNF blood through and through.

Wardian: One of my teammates from Marathon Guide—Trent Briney—ran a really good race at JFK. Mike Foote, he’s a really solid runner. I think Lizzy is just amazing. I’d like to see Kami [Semick] race well.

iRF: Again your team! She’s been doing really well on her side of the planet.

Wardian: Yeah, I know. She’s just so solid.

I think it would be nice to see Devon [Yanko] run well this year. I feel like she has a lot on her plate. Ellie [Greenwood] is always unbelievably studly. I hope she runs well. One of my friends from Marathon Guide, Camille [Herron], is going to do Two Oceans this year. She’s run maybe in the 2:30’s as a marathon runner. There’s also that girl from JFK, Emily Harrison. I’ll be curious to see how her year goes.

iRF: She in for Western.

Wardian: I saw that. Then, some of the guys from the 100k team are really good runners, too, Dave Riddle. An international guy, Ryan Sandes. I got to run with him last year and I was super impressed with what a good runner he is. That dude is solid. Younger guys, Jordan McDougal. I don’t know if you have seen that kid run, but he can fly and he’s not afraid.

Mike Wardian’s tips for treating and recovering from injury

As promised, Mike sent along his tips for navigating the complex and muddy waters of injury. Direct from the Greyhound’s mouth:

“1) Learn as much about your injuries as you can. Don’t just take an experts’ advice for fact, as lots of things are up to individual doctors.

2) If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t it and get it checked out until you are confident in the answers you are getting.

3) Write down your questions before going to the doctor’s/expert’s office. I would even fax the questions (for some reason doctors don’t use email for the most part) before your visit because it gives the doctor a chance to check what you are going to say (because if you ask them in the office they are going to hedge).

4) If you have health insurance, learn what the costs are for each doctor/expert and what you are going to be responsible for, what your deductibles are, and if you have “co-insurance.” The costs add up quickly. If you don’t have health insurance, ask if they will give you a discount for paying with cash; you will be surprised at the reply a lot of times.

5) My first question was, “I know I can’t run but what can I do?” I learned that I could swim, cycle, and do non-weight bearing exercise, so I threw myself into those and maintained a good degree of fitness.

6) Mind your intake of fuel during the recovery process as with the decreased exercise the amount of calories needed will also decrease.

7) I suggest trying to figure out if your diet was giving your body what you needed or if you were perhaps lacking something that could have led to the injuries. I feel like my body was working well but since the injuries I have looked at my diet again and made some tweaks that I think are helping me a lot with recovery and also with staying healthy going forward.

8) Find ways to stay engaged and passionate about the sport. I couldn’t run but I was able to crew people, volunteer, and speak about past races. There are plenty of ways to be involved that don’t have to do with actually racing.

9) Do something that you have always wanted to do. I had always wanted to bike the Skyline Drive, 105 miles in Virginia. I did it one week after getting diagnosed with five stress fractures. It wasn’t going to hurt the stress fractures and delay the healing so I did something that had always taken a backseat to my running.

10) Fix any weaknesses. Because of the stress fractures I had a lot of time to think about why I got injured and how to avoid injury in the future. I reached out to a physical therapist (Fast Track in Falls Church, VA; they are great) and worked with them to figure out where I had issues and I am working to improve those areas and become stronger all around.

11) STAY POSITIVE… eventually things are going to get better, and you will be stronger for it.

12) I also used an “Alter G” treadmill (they allow you to run with a percentage of your body weight) during my comeback and will continue to use it to help with my fitness as I get stronger. I also plan to incorporate additional cross training into my schedule/training plan to avoid the chance of overuse issues with just running.”

Meghan Hicks

Meghan Hicks is the Managing Editor of iRunFar. She’s been running since she was 13 years old, and writing and editing about the sport for around 15 years. She’s served as iRunFar’s Managing Editor since 2013. Aside from iRunFar, Meghan has worked in communications and education in several of America’s national parks, was a contributing editor for Trail Runner magazine, and served as a columnist at Marathon & Beyond. She’s the co-author of Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running with Bryon Powell. She won the 2013 Marathon des Sables, finished on the podium of the Hardrock 100 Mile in 2021, and has previously set fastest known times on the Nolan’s 14 mountain running route in 2016 and 2020. Based part-time in Moab, Utah and Silverton, Colorado, Meghan also enjoys reading, biking, backpacking, and watching sunsets.