It’s hard to imagine a more accomplished and well-rounded distance runner than Michael Wardian. In 1996 he ran the Marine Corps Marathon, his first, in a swift 3:08. The rest is in the annals of history: more than 150 marathons and more than 60 ultras; more than 30 marathon wins; three-time US Olympics Trails qualifier; five-time member of Team USA in the 100K World Championships (bagging gold and silver medals); two-time member of Team USA for the 50K World Championships; podium finisher in the Marathon des Sables and the Badwater Ultra; USA Track and Field Ultra Runner of the year four times. He’s the Guinness World Records holder for the fastest marathon with a jogging stroller. All of this, and Wardian still has a day job as a ship broker, where he booked the cargo for the Maersk Alabama, the ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates and is the subject of the new movie Captain Phillips. We caught up with Michael for a workout and a chat about chivalry, apple pie and running really far.
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. The one thing that I would like to pass on to our boys, and that I think every guy should know, is to be a gentlemen. Chivalry is not dead.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. The hardest thing I have ever done is watch our son have a seizure. He has epilepsy and not being able to help him made me feel very small, weak and helpless.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. I am working getting my fitness back after suffering from some major injuries in 2012. I had five stress fractures of my pelvis and five hernias, so it has been a bit of a recovery, but I am finding my form and so excited for the end of 2013 and beyond.
It strips you down. There’s no hiding. There’s no talking your way out of it.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. I know it is cliché, but my family: they are my foundation, inspiration and motivate me to do more than I think is possible — and no matter what they hold me accountable.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: I am a pretty driven person but I love seeing what others are doing in the world and am definitely influenced by what is going on around me with other athletes — but also anyone that is pushing what they are capable of and seeing their limits and trying to expand them.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. I just picked up World War Z by Max Brooks on the way to Santiago, Chile, for The North Face Endurance Challenge Chile. I got into zombie stuff while injured (think hours upon countless hours of treadmill time) and I am enjoying the mind candy (no pun intended).
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. I don’t like chocolate. I know, I know…strange, but true.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. I would have tap water from the annex of our fraternity house (Pi Kappa Alpha) at Michigan State University. Everything else about that place was a dump, absolutely what you would expect, but for some reason the tap water was so amazing — perhaps it is a hazy recollection, but that would be my drink for sure. For the meal, I would have to say fresh fruit: huge bananas, blackberries, strawberries, oranges, mango, cherimoya (just had it in Chile) to start, followed by fresh bread, a baguette right out of the oven of a Belgian bakery (there was one down the street while I studied there in college), and for the main course, I am thinking Tofurky: it’s super tasty and my wife, Jennifer, crushes making it. Finish it off with my wife’s homemade apple pie and fresh vanilla ice cream from Smitten in San Francisco. Yep, that would be a pretty good way to go out.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. If I could talk to my 16-year-old self and that 16-year-old me would listen (which is something that I don’t think the 16-year-old me would be apt to do), I would suggest working even harder on languages. During my travels I love trying to communicate with people, but I feel terrible that I can’t do it in their native tongue.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. I think if I could be remembered as a good father, husband, colleague and an athlete that inspired others to do more than they think they can, that would be terrific.
Q. A lot of people would say that ultra running is crazy. How would you respond to that?
A. What’s interesting is that it’s defined by your peer group. We were all sitting around in Chile [where Wardian finished second in an 80k] talking about six-day races being crazy, or 10-day races being crazy — or, I know someone who did a deca Ironman, which is 10 Ironmans in a row — and we’re like, wow that guy is crazy. But we nonchalantly talk about doing 100 milers or a marathon this weekend and that’s completely normal. If you were to ask my family a few years ago if they knew anyone who had run across the Sahara or in Death Valley, they’d say, “No, that’s crazy.”
Q. So why do you do it?
A. For me, it’s about exploring and pushing my limits. You know you should be able to finish, but there’s always that uncertainty. Even when you do a marathon you don’t know what’s going to happen, and when you increase the distance the likelihood that something could happen that could force you to stop or test you goes up. That’s what I like: that challenge, that uncertainty, knowing that you’ll have discomfort and you’ll have to overcome it. It strips you down. There’s no hiding. There’s no talking your way out of it. You either do it or you don’t do it. I love that part of it.
Q. I’ve done a 50. It’s hard. How do you deal with the ups and downs?
A. Sometimes you have a perfect day, and I’ve had it a couple of times. I’ve heard golfers say there’s always a shot that brings you back. There’s always a point in a race that brings you back. You’re going to see something, run into another runner. The other day I was running and I stumbled on a deer and it didn’t move. I could have reached my hand out and touched it. That’s powerful. And just being in motion is pretty neat, and to know that it’s possible to do these things. I hope that people when they see me, they think, if that joker can do it then I can do it, too.
We first met Michael Wardian at an event launching the Mountain Athletics Training Apparel from The North Face. Learn more at thenorthface.com