It began on a glacier in Antarctica, the morning of Jan. 23, a Monday. Seven days later, it ended in the middle of a Sunday night on a beach in Sydney, Australia. By the end of the World Marathon Challenge, with stops in Argentina, Miami, Madrid, Morocco and Dubai, 31 runners had run 26.2 miles on each of the seven continents.
In the lead, Michael Wardian, frequent-marathoner and current average time record holder for running all six World Marathon Majors in 2016, had averaged 2:45:56 per marathon, winning and shattering the record for the event, which was previously 3:32:25 per marathon, set by Dan Cartica of Chicago during last year’s challenge.
The World Marathon Challenge was conceived and is now managed by Irishman Richard Donavan. In 2009, Donavan, flying coach on commercial airlines, completed the feat himself in five days, nine hours and eight minutes, raising funds for the international aid agency, GOAL that works to alleviate suffering in Sudan and Somalia. In 2012 Donovan did it again and lowered his total elapsed time record to 4 days, 22 hours and 3 minutes.
In 2015, Donovan organized the first official challenge, this time in a chartered plane taking 10 runners around the world. In 2016, 15 more runners completed the challenge. This year, 32 runners ponied up the $38,000 entry fee, and 31 joined the club, with one having to drop out after Antarctica due to injury.
Despite having had little sleep for a week, Wardian was enthusiastic and full of energy when he spoke on the phone from Sydney on Sunday afternoon U.S. time, early morning Monday Sydney time. He had just returned from running an additional 17 miles in order to get 200 miles in one week for the first time in his life. “I feel fantastic,” Wardian said. “I’m excited about the way my body responded and what it allowed me to do.”
Wardian compared the challenge to a stage race such as the Marathon de Sables (156 miles over six days in the Sahara Desert), which he’s completed three times. “It’s a mobile stage race,” Wardian said. “A globe-trotting stage race. It’s got all the things you experience in a stage race, except that you’re changing locations by thousands of miles. So you have to deal with all the challenges that come with travel.”
While the charter plane reduced some of those challenges, many still remained. “Getting your passport stamped, making sure you have the right visa, making sure you fill out the customs forms. Figuring out where the bathroom is. Being confined to a small space,” Wardian listed. “Also, running a marathon then jumping on a plane, so your feet swell up.”
And the schedule was relentless. “Most people get somewhere and it takes you a week to adjust to a new time zone,” Wardian said. During the Challenge, however, he explained, “You just get off the plane, and you start running. You have like two hours to clear customs, change into your running kit—sometimes change in the airport—then you go run, then get back on the plane. I thought I’d have time to work and get food and stuff. None of that. It really was all encompassing. It took every ounce of energy just to be ready to go the next day.”
Wardian said he went all out every day. “If I just ran a marathon in a couple weeks, I’d probably be in the low 2:20s. That would feel pretty comfortable,” he said. “That was the kind of effort I was putting out. But with all the different circumstances, that’s not quite the time you’re able to put up on a daily basis.”
Participants carried their own luggage, and Wardian, a vegetarian, also brought much of his own food, including oatmeal, almond butter, ramen noodles, nuts, and dried fruit. “I had a big duffel, and a relatively big backpack, and a bunch of plastic bags of food,” he said. “I looked like a homeless person.” He wore the same running gear every day, washing it out by hand, although he did have several pairs of Hoka Bondi and Cliftons, which he alternated in different locations.
Wardian was able to take advantage of what he called a “Hunger Games air drop” from his wife in Miami, who switched out his cold weather clothes from Antarctica for lighter gear more suited for the hotter climes to come.
“One of the biggest challenges was being able to adjust to all the temperatures we needed to run in,” Wardian said. “From Antanctica at -30 to Dubai at 95 and no shade, with a headwind, to last night [in Sydney] with the humidity.”
That variety reflected the vastly different places they ran in, which was both a challenge and a major part of the appeal. “It was so cool, the diversity,” Wardian said. “From Antarctica, one of the most barren places I’ve ever been, but also stunningly beautiful, to the little red buildings in Morocco, to the glitzy skyscrapers of Dubai, to the surf hippy culture of Manly Beach, to a scrappy little town in Argentina. In Madrid, we went to a park and ran a marathon. There were trees on both sides of the road, and bikers and joggers. Everywhere we went, there were people out.”
While Wardian said spectators found the runners going “back and forth, back and forth” a bit strange, he appreciated the small loop courses. “I kind of loved that aspect of it,” he said. “If you’re a faster runner or slower runner or mid-pack, you only get to see the runners around you. This was good, you got to see everyone the whole time. You could see them hurting or looking good. I would try to cheer for everybody every time I saw them. When it got hard, that turned to a thumbs up or a nod.”
That shared experience helped everyone to bond during the week. “We had a really good connection, there is going to be a lot of lasting friendships,” Wardian said. “The group was small enough, you got to interact with everybody during the course of the week. Everyone was cool—full of adventure and exciting. And everyone in the group was super driven and incredibly successful, at the height of whatever they’ve focused on.”
One of those highly successful people was the great marathoner Ryan Hall, who holds the American record for the marathon at 2:04:58. Now retired from competition, Hall accepted an invitation from Pastor Matthew Barnett to run the challenge in order to raise funds for The Dream Center, a non-profit care center in downtown Los Angeles. Hall, a two-time U.S. Olympian, also had some unfinished business.
The night before the final race in Sydney, he said, in a video on Facebook, “This is going to be a special one for me. I never got to say a proper farewell to the marathon distance. This will be that. I came into the sport with a super epic 15-mile run around the lake in my hometown when I was 13. Now I’m 34, I’m going out with 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents. It’s all come full circle. I’m thankful for the marathon. I’m thankful for everything it taught me, all the experiences it gave me, all the people I came into contact with. This is my way of saying thank you to the marathon distance. This is the last run.”
Admittedly unprepared, averaging 30 miles per week with a long run of 8 miles during training, Hall had an up and down experience completing the challenge. After the Miami race, where he finished in 3:15, he wrote in an email, “The hardest thing is the pounding on the legs. We just ran two marathons in a row on concrete, which is 10 times harder than asphalt so my legs are taking a beating. I would never run on concrete in training. Never.”
Unlike Wardian, Hall didn’t seem to have trouble sleeping. “The travel is nice,” he said. “We are on a chartered business class flight so sleeping is no problem. I actually wish the flights were longer so I could sleep more.”
After each run, Hall went to the gym to lift, something he’s doing more than running these days. “I have been doing an hour in the gym after each marathon,” he explained. “Today in Madrid I took an uber to a local gym. It seriously clears my head and helps my body feel better. I rotate between chest/back one day, then arms and shoulders the next. I go harder in the gym then on the runs.”
It must have worked. After struggling home in 3:41 in Madrid, Hall had a surprisingly easy run in Morocco, finishing in 3:04. “Man, today was crazy,” he said in a post-run video on Facebook. “One of the biggest surprises of my career. I thought I was going to feel like trash, I could barely walk when I got up out of bed, and for some reason, I don’t know why, I felt good.”
That would be the last time he felt good, though, struggling in Dubai’s heat, and walking some during his 5:15 final marathon in Sydney. But he said in another video recorded while running mile 23 that he found it fitting. “That’s how my career went, high highs and low lows. That’s what happens when you dream big, train hard and go for everything,” he said. “I’m grateful for everything, good ones and bad ones. I’m grateful for the marathon.”
Of the nine female participants, Silvana Camelio of Chile was the winner, averaging 4:12:37 per marathon. BethAnn Telford, the only American woman, wrote in an email that the hardest race was Dubai, but the hardest part was “saying goodbye and thanking all the participants, race staff, etc. as they ALL have been extremely supportive of me and the rest of the group. It was an amazing bonding experience for us all.” Telford was running with brain cancer, and reportedly raised over $1 million for the foundation ABC2 (Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure).
No one knows the full total of charitable contributions associated with the challenge, “There’s been millions raised for charity!” Donavan said, when asked for an estimate, which seems appropriate. Registration is now open for the 2018 challenge, tentatively scheduled to start in Antarctica Jan. 23.