Trading Jabs With Iron Mike

By Mario Fraioli

Photo: Courtesy of Michael Wardian

“In running, the times are the times and if you’re not performing or you’re not doing what you used to be capable of, I can see that it would be hard to find the motivation. Running is not a very forgiving sport. If you don’t do the work, you’re not going to see results. Like, you always have the ability to ride a bike. That’s muscle memory. But, the ability to run a 5-minute mile? That’s not muscle memory. That’s training, and the training is something you have to do all the time. There’s no break — when you’re not running, you’re still training. If you want to go out and party, that’s not helping your running. It’s a full-time lifestyle. You’re in it all the time. Running is very transparent — it’s easy to see if you’ve done the work or not.”

Michael Wardian’s enthusiasm for running, competing and pushing perceived boundaries is palpable through a phone line, which is one of the realizations I came to while talking to him for about an hour a week ago today. After the call, my own motivation meter shot up a few ticks and I started thinking about different ways I could test myself this fall.

“Everyone is competing against everyone else, but really you’re competing against yourself,” Wardian explained to me in the latest installment of the morning shakeout’s “Going Long” interview series. “At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters. If you run the best time you’ve ever run and you come in 100th, that’s still an achievement. I’d be happier with that than winning a race and not living up to getting that excellence out of myself. Competition has always been something that breeds that in me — that ability to dig and find something better than you could on your own.

Wardian is the exception to almost every racing rule. That, or he just likes to break them with astounding and unmatched regularity. The 43-year-old ship broker from Washington, D.C., races a lot — around 50 times a year, on average–and he isn’t afraid to throw down a fast mile on the track or mix it up in a grueling off-road ultra, sometimes doing both on the same weekend. It’s not uncommon for Wardian to race multiple days in a row either, as he did earlier this year, winning the World Marathon Challenge, averaging an eye-popping 2:45:56 for seven marathons on seven different continents over the course of seven days. [Ed. note: Wardian ran an extra 17 miles after the last race just to hit 200 for the week.] He’s also set a number of wacky world records over the years — fastest 50K ever run on a treadmill, fastest marathon ever run wearing various costumes, fastest marathon ever run on an indoor track, and pushing a baby stroller, to name a few — and regularly tackles challenging ultra endeavors such as Badwater, Marathon des Sables, and the Barkley Marathons (which he failed to finish earlier this year). He’s qualified for three Olympic Trials marathons, won a number of national titles and placed on the podium at world championship events.

A little over a week ago, Wardian pulled off one of his most challenging back-to-backs yet, running the Pikes Peak Marathon, featuring 7,815 feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of loss on a rugged mountain course that tops out at 14,115 feet — in 6 hours, 2 minutes and 55 seconds, mere hours after finishing tenth in the Leadville 100 in 20 hours, 18 minutes and 57 seconds.

I spoke to Wardian about his recent high-altitude double, why he’s motivated to race as much as he does, what he does to recover between monster efforts, how he fits it all in along with being a dad, husband and ship broker, and much more. Settle in and enjoy the conversation.

“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.” Paul Cuno-Booth recently profiled Wardian for Trail Runner magazine and I recommend checking it out. (Cuno-Booth’s feature and the aforelinked interview complement one another rather nicely, if you ask me.)

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.