Wardian balances life as dad and ultramarathoner

Most kids play games of cops and robbers or Batman and Robin, but there are two little boys in a suburb of Washington D.C. who actually play Marathon de Sables.
Photo of Wardian
Michael and Pierce Wardian 
© Chris Rief

Little two-year-old Grant and five-year-old Pierce don their own hydration packs, go through aid stations, run over obstacles, plan how many energy gels to take and demonstrate a surprising mastery of the skill of grabbing a cup of water without stopping. They aren’t childhood running prodigies yet, but they have watched their father, Michael Wardian, log enough miles and traveled to enough races to become miniature ultra-running experts.

Wardian’s kids live in a household where their daily routine includes climbing out of bed and venturing down to the treadmill to find their dad in the middle of a run. Wardian will pause his training to pour his sons cereal and set the TV to Phineas & Ferb, Power Rangers or some other show equally appealing to their demographic. Wardian joins his sons watching cartoons while they eat breakfast before he hops back onto the treadmill to pound out a few more miles.

“I call it invisible training,” Wardian explained of fitting his training into his family’s lifestyle. “I get up before the kids and workout and when the kids get up I grab their cereal. I have the treadmill so I can train while watching them. It is just part of their life to come down and find me on the treadmill.”

The young boys have traveled all over the world to watch their father race: The Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium and, to the envy of children everywhere, Disney World. In fact, his kids are campaigning for their dad to run the Disney World Marathon again, but Wardian has yet to commit since he is more focused on the Olympic Team Trials only six days after the Disney event.

Wardian could be described as a “race-aholic,” often competing in, and winning, multiple marathons or ultra runs in the same weekend. Wardian most recently won the Mount Desert Island Marathon in Maine in 2:32:36 on Oct. 16, only one day after taking third at the Hartford Marathon in Connecticut in 2:22:18.

Scheduling back to back races not only challenges Wardian’s fitness and recovery, but also his ability to plan the trip from one starting line to the next.

“The logistics are the hardest part of doing this,” said Wardian. “I do the planning all myself, but it is just another part of the challenge.”

Wardian competes in an average of 45-50 races a year and has recorded 225 races in the last five years. He didn’t bother to count until recently. Wardian has found success at distances ranging from half marathons to those of more than 150 miles and has tackled nearly every type of race.

“I like to race anything,” Wardian said, given a choice between trails or roads. “But I like to race against the best people. What matters to me is competition. I love running on narrow single-track trails as much as running in the middle of Times Square.”

For Wardian, it is not a matter of quantity over quality. Wardian won the individual silver medal at the IAU 100 km World Championships and lists that race as one of his proudest accomplishments.

“It was really rewarding to be part of the 100K world team that won our first gold medal. To be on Team USA and to win silver myself, that was pretty exciting.”

While he obviously gets a rush from winning medals, Wardian sees the ultra runs as a mental challenge as well.

“It gets me so excited,” he said.”There is always a time when it isn’t pretty and you have to push through. You find out what you’re made of and I love that. I love the problem solving of issue as they come up and pushing boundaries of what I can do. I think that everyone could do an ultra.”

Wardian has more than compensated for being a bit of a late-bloomer to the sport of running. Wardian played lacrosse in college and only started running as he was looking for something to fill the void between his lacrosse workouts. Wardian didn’t start off with local 5k or 10k races, but jumped straight to the marathon distance.

Wardian thrived on others telling him that something was impossible. He was told he couldn’t do a marathon, so he ran the Marine Corps marathon as his first. He was told he couldn’t do three in one month, so he ran Chicago, Marine Corps and New York City in one month’s time.

“I’ve done some pretty different things,” Wardian said. “I think I’m drawn to them because you can test yourself and push boundaries. I get a kick out of pushing myself and doing these races at a high level.”

With 15 years of racing now under his belt, Wardian’s times continue to improve. This June he ran a PR of 2:17:49 at Grandma’s marathon to qualify for his third U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon.

Before the trials in Houston, Wardian still has four races of a marathon distance or longer on his schedule, including this weekend’s USA 50 Mile Championships.

It’s likely when Wardian lines up at the January 14th marathon trials, he will be the only athlete who ran more than a dozen marathons the previous year. He may also be the only international ship broker who logs his workouts while watching the Disney channel. Regardless of how he is spending his weekends, he’s just their dad to Grant and Pierce.