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Ultramarathoner Michael Wardian is determined to go as far as he can, as fast as he can

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010; D01

When Arlington's Michael Wardian removed his running shoes during a presentation in his son's preschool classroom last week, the children pressed forward eagerly. Nearby adults winced.

On the plus side, Wardian said, his toes aren't entirely black anymore. But most of his toe nails haven't grown back and blood blisters populate his feet. Wardian explained that his lower extremities don't feel as bad as they look.

Or maybe he just doesn't notice the pain anymore. That would be a good thing, given the activity he's lined up for Sunday.

Six weeks after finishing third in a 151-mile, six-day race across the Sahara Desert, toting food, supplies and bedding on his back, Wardian, 36, will compete in the world's most popular ultramarathon, a 56-mile sprint from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa.

It will be his 13th race of the year at or beyond the marathon distance of 26.2 miles, and he's a favorite to win a medal, an achievement that would cement his growing stature as one of the very best in the world at ultra-distance running. Wardian has finished first or second in five of the nine marathons in which he's competed this year, and recently won the 2010 USA Track and Field 50-kilometer title.

"The most remarkable thing about Michael is he is, from all casual observation, a perfectly normal guy; he's got a job, a couple of kids," said Keith Powell, Wardian's boss at Potomac Maritime LLC in Georgetown. "But he's anything but a normal person."

On a typical weekday, Wardian rises at 4:45 a.m. and pushes one or both of his early-rising boys, ages 4 years and 18 months, in a jog stroller for his day's first training run (usually 7 to 15 miles), or watches over them in the basement as he pounds out miles on the treadmill. Then he heads to his job as an international shipping broker at Potomac Maritime, taking a midday break for a second training run (another 7 to 15 miles) through Rock Creek Park, followed by lunch at his desk.

Upon arriving home, he dives into the evening's child-care challenges: diaper-changing, book-reading and bath-administering. "When I get home, I'm a dad," Wardian said. "That's how I make it work."

On Thursday afternoon, after spending the morning trying to meet a work deadline, he caught a flight to Durban.

"I guess there are times that I'm tired, but for the most part, I'm just excited to be able to do all of these things,' Wardian said, standing outside the Kinhaven School after Tuesday's preschool presentation. "I enjoy being productive, I guess."

'I love racing'

Ultra runners may be some of the world's most indefatigable athletes, and Wardian stands near the top of the unfathomably pain-resistant group. His resting heart rate is 31 beats per minute. He looks like a javelin with long, bushy hair; he stands 6 feet tall and his weight hovers between 138 and 142 pounds.

He destroys two or three pairs of running shoes each month and strives to run 100 miles a week, though he would log 160 if he had more time. He is a vegetarian. He says he almost never gets sick and, other than possessing grotesquely messed-up feet, he has no health problems and does not struggle to get out of bed in the morning.

He hasn't gone more than two days without running in about a decade.

On some work days, he runs the 5.3 miles to and from work -- it's much more pleasant, he said, than driving in rush-hour traffic -- in addition to his two daily training runs.

"A couple years after we met, he started doing 100-mile races, and I was like, 'This is not normal,' " said his wife, Jennifer Wardian, whom he started dating in 1999. "He likes to race a lot. His philosophy is, 'Why do a long run if there is a marathon within driving distance?' "

Few people would do marathons in back-to-back months; Wardian has done them on consecutive days. In March of last year, he finished third in Virginia Beach's Shamrock Sportsfest Marathon in 2:35.13, less than 24 hours after finishing second in Washington's National Marathon (2:22.15).

On five consecutive weekends in March and April, he ran a 50-kilometer race, three marathons, a half-marathon and began the 151-mile race through the Sahara. One of those was his fourth win at the National Marathon (2:21.58).

"I love racing," he said. "I love that feeling of stepping up to the line. You have to perform. There's no hiding -- whatever your time is, your time is. No one cares whether you ran 100 [kilometers] the day before."

Wardian wore a 15-pound backpack during the Lower Potomac River Marathon in Piney Point, Md., on March 14, a choice of attire that left him with raw shoulder blades, a blood-stained shirt and his worst marathon time of the year (2:48.48). But it provided him with exactly the sort of experience he sought before he tackled the Sahara Desert in Morocco's Marathon des Sables in early April.

That race required running 20 to 50 miles per day for six days in 100-degree-plus heat, while carrying food, gear and the snake-bite kit required by organizers, in a backpack. The racing was no problem, other than Wardian's vomiting a few times at the end of the third stage. But sleeping comfortably was not easy. Wardian was unnerved when one of his tent-mates was stung by a scorpion that crawled into her sleeping bag. She got blood poisoning and had to withdraw from the competition.

During the race, Wardian covered his head with a rag to protect his eyes from the swirling sand gusts and passed the time by pondering race strategy, analyzing his water, salt and food intake and gauging the distance between himself and his rivals.

Wardian's third-place finish in 23 hours 1 minute 3 seconds, was the best ever by an American. His pace: just over a nine-minute mile.

"I feel like I'm still on the upswing of my career," Wardian said. "I'm getting better and better at various distances I'm trying to focus on."

Wardian says his unusual gifts are completely natural, that he's never taken any performance-enhancing drugs. He has been tested once.

'Still fires me up'

An Oakton High graduate and lacrosse player at Michigan State University, Wardian always ran circles around his peers during the team's dreaded three-mile training runs, but he had no formal running experience. When he graduated from college and landed a job with Potomac Maritime, he decided to enter the 1996 Marine Corps Marathon on a lark. He ran about five miles a day to prepare for that event.

He wore a pair of long, baggy lacrosse shorts and ran without a race plan. Despite his inexperience, he had a blast and finished in the enviable time of 3:08, qualifying for the esteemed Boston Marathon on his first attempt.

"At first I was just happy to be beating guys who wore running shorts," Wardian said. "I was running 30 miles a week. I thought, 'This is awesome, why do I need to train more?' "

Yet he couldn't resist the temptation to keep moving up. The more he learned about what the fast guys were doing, the more he became determined to match their training and beat them. If he could run this fast with no experience and light training, how fast would he go if he ran 50 miles a week? Or 80?

By 2008, he had become the U.S. champion in the 50- and 100-kilometer, feats that helped him attract sponsorships from MarathonGuide.com, The North Face and Power Bar. He's not ready to give up his day job, but those deals have helped defray the cost of competing in races around the world and bringing his family along on many occasions.

Jennifer Wardian said despite her husband's grueling training schedule, he hasn't cut corners with his family responsibilities. She flatly states that she has no intention of giving up her personal time in the mornings. "He does the morning shift," she said. "I don't clock in until 7 or 7:30 a.m."

Wardian, who competed at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic marathon trials, expects to qualify for the 2012 trials, but making the Olympic marathon team seems out of reach with his current propensity to do it all, frequently. He often gets asked: Why not concentrate on running regular marathons -- and reasonable numbers of them? Couldn't you be among the best in the world if you narrowed your focus?

Wardian isn't sure he wants to choose. He'd love to be an Olympian, but he also wants to win his first world titles at the upcoming 50- and 100-kilometer championships.

"What's most fulfilling to me is showing people you can do . . . a lot more than you think you can do," he said. "It's not always easy, it's not always fun, but that feeling of crossing the finish line, that still fires me up, whether it's a one-mile race or a 100-mile race."

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