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Confessions of a Serial Racer

Photo: Tim Kemble
Photo: Tim Kemble

One-of-a-kind Mike Wardian races long, often, and well.

Interview by: Duncan Larkin

Once upon a time, runners were told to take one day off for every mile raced. They were also told that the marathon was an event best raced once a season if not once a year–something to plan and train for with patience and caution.

Those were the old days.

Meet Mike Wardian. Mike runs marathons and ultra marathons nearly every weekend, winning most of them. Wardian, 35, is a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon and a three-time U.S. champion in the 100K, 50K, and 50-mile trail events. At the 2008 World 100K Championships, he finished 9th overall and was the top American.

Mike Wardian lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife, Jennifer, and sons, Pierce and Grant. Why do you choose to run so many marathons and ultra marathons back to back? Why not go with the periodization approach where you get yourself to peak for one specific race?

Mike Wardian: A lot of the races build on themselves. I’m trying to do well in all of them, but they build on themselves and I have the ability to recover pretty quickly, so I’m able to do that where other people don’t have that luxury or don’t feel they have that luxury. I think more people could do it if they wanted to.

Have you always approached racing this way or is this a fairly recent thing in your running career?

I’ve always raced a lot and then I was able to start improving doing it the way that I have been. I’ve kind of hit a pinnacle at the moment, but I’m thinking I can break that barrier of 2:20 [marathon] shortly. I was hoping to do it this past weekend and it didn’t work out. I ran 2:23 in Jacksonville. I’m right around that level. As far as marathons go, I really hope to run sub-2:19 at the National Marathon in a couple weeks. Between then and now, I’ve got a couple races lined up. I’ve got the 50K National Championships and the Lower Potomac Marathon, which I intend to run with my pack on to prepare for the Marathon des Sables.

For me, it works out really well. I like to run and really like to race. It’s what it’s all about. I like to go to the line to see what I can do each and every time. No one cares what you’ve done before; they are there to beat you. You have to be on top of your game each time you go to the line.

So how do you do it? How do you deal with delayed onset muscle soreness and the pounding that the human body takes from running at the speeds you are running at for hours upon hours week after week? Can you share some of your recovery secrets?

I don’t have a lot of secrets. I keep trying to move after the race. I’ve started doing some stuff with compression. I don’t know if it really helps. I’m experimenting. I never feel there is a magic bullet. You’ve always got to keep trying new things and figuring out what works for you. As far as the compression goes, I’m not 100 percent sold on it. I have some compression tights that I put on after the race. I can’t tell, man. They feel so good when they come off. I can’t tell if they have anything to do with recovery. My legs feel pretty good after a race, so maybe I need to push harder.

Moving is the biggest thing, I think.  I try to keep moving the next day and just get back into my training, because I usually have something else going on right afterwards. I don’t do the active rest like the Hansons guys [Hansons Brooks Distance Project coaches Keith and Kevin Hanson], or anything like that. I just get back into training and start going at it again, because there are a lot of things I want to accomplish. I don’t have the luxury of taking three weeks off in order to fully recover, I guess. If I have to race tired, I will. That’s part of the game. Usually, when I come to the line, I’m feeling pretty good and ready to go.

Besides ultras and marathons, you are also racing 5Ks and shorter-distance races, correct?

Yeah. I’m actually looking at my accounting from last year for taxes and I ran 44 races last year. It looks like 5K is probably the shortest distance I raced up to the Marathon des Sables in Morocco with 100Ks and 100-milers thrown in there for good measure.

Do you feel that anything you do in terms of hydration or fueling during one race helps you recover for your next one?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I like to try and keep up with things. I don’t forgo liquids or anything like that. It’s funny. My wife was giving me a hard time, because we had a Kenyan stay with us. And my wife was like, “Joseph, do you eat gels?” And Joseph was like, “I have no time for that!” And that made me wonder. I think I have like three or four [during marathons]. My wife then was like, “How can you have time for gels, but Joseph doesn’t have time for them?” I said, “I don’t know. I guess it’s because he’s running faster than I am.” I think he’s a 2:11 guy.

I won’t turn around and get a water if I miss it, which happened yesterday. I do try to drink early and even within the first two miles and then stay on top of it. I take salt if I need it. And make sure I keep up with my nutrition—especially in ultras, it can get to the point where you are in a debt that you are never going to climb back out of. At least for a while and it’s going to suck while you are in it. I mean, it’s going to suck anyhow, but if you can, delay the point where you’re going to start having to hurt as long as you can. That’s what I like to try and do.

Do you eat different combinations of foods before and after a race to help your recovery?

I’ve done some different things in that regard. In the past, I’ve not eaten dairy leading up to a race. I’ve tried different things. For the most part, I try to eat like I normally do. I’m a vegetarian so I’m not eating meat and having to worry about stuff trying to be digested, I guess. Everything moves pretty quickly through me. I don’t try to do anything special. After a race, I might eat stuff I might not normally eat. I might get an ice cream or something like that just to enjoy the satisfaction of having a good race.

I don’t know if you do this, but I make a deal with myself that if I hold the pace, I can have whatever I want. I’ve definitely made those deals. If you don’t come through on them, you are going to remember that the next time it gets hard. Sometimes I eat stuff that’s not normally in my diet like Pringles after a race for the salt. I think after Western States I had a Slurpee. I can’t tell you the last time I had a Slurpee. It looked good. If it’s a big event and I had a pretty solid result, then I might treat myself to something that’s not in my normal repertoire.

Do you forgo alcohol?

For the most part I do. I’m not a really big drinker in the first place, which is a lot different than when I was younger. I think maybe last year I had 10 or 15 beers. A lot of times after a race, I’ll have a beer just because I’m jacked up on caffeine.

Is that caffeine from the gels you eat?

Yeah. And that’s the other thing I should mention: I don’t drink caffeine or use caffeine except when I’m racing. That works really well for me.

Because you don’t drink caffeine regularly and then have it in a race, do you think that magnifies the effects and improves your performance?

Yeah, I think it does. I think it works really well for me as opposed to someone who drinks it all the time. I don’t think it adversely affects me. It keeps my head more focused so I don’t start daydreaming to what I’m going to do after the race or how nice the wind feels. I’m worried about my pace and how I feel. I’m monitoring where my energy level is, what the best lie of the course is, where I’m trying to go, if I can catch the guy in front of me, and who’s behind me: all the things you have to think about while you are racing.

Has anyone ever approached you asking if they can study how you are able to race so often, so consistently, and yet are still able to remain relatively injury free?

I’ve definitely had people like massage therapists, physical therapists, and active release-type people come to me, because they think if they worked on me then I could be even faster. As far as Tim Noakes or somebody like him hooking me up to a machine, no I haven’t had any requests like that. I’d certainly be interested in being studied. I think that would be pretty cool. But I don’t want to spend $2000 to get a breath test where they hook you up to a machine.

Have you ever had the desire to experiment with a periodization-type plan where you are not racing consistently and instead focused on peaking at the right time?

Yeah. I definitely am considering that. I’ve always had pretty good success with the way I’ve always done things—you know, racing a lot and being able to do really well. If I have to change things, I’m not so illogical that if something is not working, I’m not going to change it. If I’m not going to get the results I want or get where I think I should be, then maybe I have to do something different. I’m not so rigid or ignorant to think that my way is the only way. If I’m not achieving what I want to achieve, it’s within my power to try and change things. Other people have had success doing it that way. It’s something I definitely take seriously. If I don’t get to where I want to be in six months or so, then I definitely think I will make some changes and see how it works out.


Duncan Larkin is a 2:32 marathoner living in West Chester, PA.