Michael Wardian has finished the Boston Marathon 18 times. He holds the world record for the fastest 50-kilometer run on a treadmill. This year he raced 631 miles across Israel in barely 10 days’ time.
He has twice completed seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, and he holds a world record for that, too. This year, when he got back to the United States, he decided to tack on three more marathons in three days, giving him yet another record: fastest completion of 10 marathons in 10 days.
Oh, and he holds the fastest mark for running a marathon while dressed as Spider-Man. And also Elvis.
Needless to say, Wardian, 45, is an accomplished distance runner who has no problem getting creative to scratch his competitive itch. Which is why he is in Wales this week. Preparing to race 60 horses.
The Arlington, Va., runner will be one of 650 or so humans and five dozen horses racing against each other in the annual Man Versus Horse Marathon on Saturday.
“Like many things that I do, I’m just kind of curious to see if I can do it,” Wardian said in a recent interview. “The chances are probably not good that I’m going to beat the horse. But it’s possible.”
The quirky event started in 1980, according to race lore, when a pair of pub patrons became involved in a bar stool debate: Could distance serve as an equalizer and allow a man to actually outrun a horse? The race has been contested 39 times since then, 22 miles over the Welsh countryside in a tiny town called Llanwrtyd Wells. A horse has won all but two of the events.
“I just randomly saw a picture of it or a story about it, maybe 15 years ago,” Wardian said. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, I have got to do that someday.’ It’s been a bucket list item since then.”
Wardian wouldn’t be running if he didn’t think he had a chance to win. He knows a human would never out-sprint a horse, but Wardian’s body has been trained over years of marathons and ultramarathons to excel at long distances. The longer the race, he figures, the better his odds.
He has tried to understand the terrain and has crunched numbers from the past races. If he can finish in around 2 hours 10 minutes — a manageable six-minute-mile pace — he thinks he has a chance to top the field of horses. The event’s only two human victors posted winning times of 2:05:19 (Huw Lobb in 2004) and 2:20:30 (Florian Holzinger in 2007).
“I don’t know if I need a ton of speed,” Wardian said. “I don’t need to run a five-minute pace or something. I just need to be faster than the horses.”
To avoid a dangerous start, the human runners are sent off 15 minutes ahead of the horses and therefore must cross the finish line 15 minutes before the fastest horse to win. The wild card is the course itself, a rugged trail run that features an elevation gain of 5,000 feet. The race is a bit technical, which Wardian thinks favors the humans. While the horses all have riders guiding them, the stream crossings and rocky terrain could slow the four-legged competitors.
“Especially when you can’t see where you’re putting your feet,” Wardian said. “I think the horses move a little slower at times, and the people have an advantage because they can just bomb down the hills. I think on the uphill climbs it’ll probably be a wash, and the horses will have a good advantage when it’s a flat trail.”
The prize for a human winner is a modest 500 pounds, which rolls over from year to year. Horses have won 11 straight races, which means a two-legged champion would take home nearly $7,000 in U.S. dollars.
“But I think the bigger prize is being able to say you beat a horse,” Wardian said.
While he is taking the race seriously, it’s not the kind of event Wardian typically builds his year around. He targets arduous distances and taxing conditions; often his biggest foe is his own body, mind or spirit, not another person (and never before an animal).
Running the entirety of the Israel National Trail in March, crossing the country from south to north, was a much more grueling challenge. Wardian covered anywhere from 50 to 75 miles every day for 11 straight days — the equivalent of two-plus marathons on all but one of those days.
“I’d never done that many days in a row with that type of volume,” he said. “I feel like I’m still recovering from that. It’s taken a lot longer than I expected.”
Not yet halfway through the calendar year, Wardian has already logged more than 1,100 competitive running miles, topping his total mileage from all of 2018. Whether he beats the field of horses this weekend or not, he is not short on ideas, and his bucket list seems only to grow.
He would like to race around the 64-mile Capital Beltway, do a run across the District that takes him to every street named after a state and stage a marathon in Arlington, where he lives with his wife and two children. And beyond that he has an even grander vision: running across the United States and then immediately hopping in a boat and rowing across the Atlantic.
“I don’t see myself getting bored anytime soon,” he said. “There’s so many things I want to do still.”