When Michael Wardian first stepped off the start line of the Boston Marathon, he had one goal in mind: break three hours then “move on.”
He wasn’t counting on the impact the world’s oldest continuously held marathon was about to have on his life.
Having earned his qualifying spot, the 44-year-old recalls: “I figured I would just go to Boston and get it out of my system. But if you’ve been, you know that once you go it gets in your blood. I became a devotee of the Boston Marathon and fell in love with the sport even more.”
That was in 1997 and he has returned 18 times since, including this year. But his love affair with Boston has broadened into the entire sport, and it’s one that has brought the international ship broker a hefty cargo of honours along the way.
Wardian has clocked the fastest reported average time of any runner to have completed all six AbbottWMM races in a calendar year, earning that precious Six Star medal in the process. He has also run three times in the US Olympic trials marathon, but it’s in the world of ultra-distance and multi-day events that he has carved out a place for himself in the sport’s rich tapestry of characters.
He has set the fastest time for the World Marathon Challenge (seven marathons on seven continents in seven days), ran the fastest marathon and 50km on an indoor 200-meter track, ran the fastest time in the Leadville 100-miler and Pike's Peak marathon double, recorded the fastest 50km on a treadmill and has also completed some of the most difficult races in the world, including the 135-mile Badwater Ultra marathon in Death Valley and the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara.
This year already he returned to win all seven races again in the World Marathon Challenge and added another three consecutive days of 26.2-milers to lay claim to the ‘10 in 10’ world record. Each finish line was celebrated with a Fortnite-style dance, making good on a promise he made to his two kids.
A short period of recovery back home – in which he still laced up his shoes and ran the 10km to the office – was then followed by setting the fastest known time for the 631-mile Israel National Trail in March, his time of 10 days 16 hours and 36 minutes sealing him another record.
All this from a kid more au fait with team sports in his youth than the concept of endurance running.
“I started out playing lacrosse,” he says. “I played through university but then stepped away and picked up running to stay fit in 1996. I wanted to run Boston but realised I needed a qualifier, so I ran the Marine Corps Marathon. I needed to run 3:10 and ran 3:06.”
He then pitched up in Hopkinton, and like so many others on that famous start line, was bitten by the bug. “I ran it and have never been as emotional. I was taken aback by the fans, the crowd, the electric atmosphere. It’s a special event with so much history and the sense of community around it - not just between the runners but the in city itself.”
It sparked a mission to run the other big city races in his home country and despite planning a heavy schedule of New York City, Chicago, and the Marine Corps Marathon again in the same year, Wardian found he just kept improving – and yearning to go further.
“I ended up running the JFK 50 miler. That was my first foray into ultras. I had thought the marathon was the end of the world. I just didn’t know there was anything beyond that, it didn’t make sense to me. But when I did my first 50-miler, I wrongly thought you’d just take your marathon time and double it to get your 50-mile time, and so thought I was going to win. That was not the case!”
With that lesson learned, Wardian began his odyssey through some of the world’s most prestigious ultra events, but never closed the book on his marathon running. “I always loved marathons. Some people do ultras and feel like they’re done with marathons, the roads lose their appeal and they want to run in mountains, but I’ve always liked to straddle both the roads and the trails.”
He has completed the Marathon des Sables on three occasions, improving from 25th overall in 2000 to third in 2010, before refocusing on the marathon distance, setting a PB of 2:17:49 in 2011 at Grandma's Marathon in Minnesota.
2016 saw him cut a swathe through the AbbottWMM calendar to claim that fastest time for anyone to have done all six in one year, then in 2017 he set the ‘seven in seven record’.
Having won it again this year and following up so soon with his epic adventure across the Holy Land, it’s clear his regime of high mileage and strength work in the gym are effective for Wardian. But he credits the fortitude between his ears just as much as his physiology.
“Being mentally determined and having a lot of grit goes a long way in endurance running. A lot of people say you have to have talent, but most people at highest level have talent. It’s more the willingness to do what’s necessary to get where they want to go. They have that mindset.”
It’s a mindset that sees him continue to set new goals. He would like to run faster in the Majors, especially in Berlin. “I felt I could have had a better race at Berlin,” he says. “I want to do more with my marathon time, I want to improve on that which would be cool as an older athlete.”
Cool is a word that rests easily on Wardian’s shoulders. You’re as likely to see his distinctive beard and long hair hurtling around his local fun run as you are traversing a breathtaking mountainside.
“Sometimes I view myself as a trail runner, others times as a marathon runner, other times a 5k hacker or a parkrunner. Wherever I line up I respect what other people are doing and contribute and try to be part of the community.”