He circled the block and then did it again. And then again and again. Wardian ended up running for more than 2½ days, skipping sleep and piling up miles. When he finally unlaced his shoes late Monday night, he’d run 262½ miles in all, winning a long-distance event called the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, a virtual race inspired by the social distancing recommendations that make a standard road race impossible in the midst of a pandemic.
The unique event was intended to fill a void for distance runners who saw their race calendars wiped clean by the spread of the coronavirus. It brought together more than 2,000 runners from nearly 60 countries and turned into a captivating affair with a drama-filled, controversial finish.
“We do not know when this situation is going to end, and this is a fun way to bring a whole bunch of people together to be able to test their fitness, join a community, and do something together when many people cannot leave their homes,” a Calgary-based distance-running outfit called Personal Peak wrote in a March post announcing the race.
The rules were simple enough. The runners had to honor social distancing recommendations and either compete on a treadmill or in some sequestered environment. Some, such as Wardian, circled their neighborhood, while others circled their backyard. One entrant did laps around his living room in Dubai, and another ran circles in a Canadian coffee shop that had been closed because of the virus.
Runners were connected via Zoom and required to run 4.167 miles each hour. After hitting their hourly mark, the runners flashed their watch to the camera and then waited for the next lap to begin at the top of the hour.
For each 4.167-mile lap in the race, Wardian made 10 loops around the block in his Arlington neighborhood. That means that once the race began Saturday morning, he passed the same neighbors, same trees, same parked cars — same everything — more than 620 times.
The race began with more than 2,400 entrants, but they slowly dropped, and Monday was mostly a duel between Wardian and a runner halfway around the world named Radek Brunner, who was pounding out miles on a treadmill in the Czech Republic. Wardian officially won shortly before midnight Monday after more than 62½ hours of running when Brunner was disqualified because of a technicality.
Brunner failed to start running his 63rd lap precisely at the top of the hour, apparently because of some technical difficulty or confusion, and organizers reluctantly said they had no choice but to disqualify him for a rules violation.
In winning the event, Wardian ran the equivalent of 10 marathons in a little more than 2½ days. That’s a bit farther than running straight from Washington to Pittsburgh. Perhaps equally impressive: A sleep-deprived Wardian consistently turned in sub-10-minute miles, but his fastest lap was his final one, when he averaged 7:23 over the event’s final four miles.
Wardian, who turns 46 on Sunday, is well-known on the ultra circuit, his running exploits growing longer each year. He has raced against horses, run around the Capital Beltway, completed marathons on seven continents (twice) and competed in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials and most every other premier distance event. Until this virtual competition, though, he had never run so many hours and so many miles consecutively, he said.
To prepare, Wardian ran a full marathon in his neighborhood the week before, knowing he would be in for a grueling turn in the virtual race. After the first hours of the event ticked by Saturday, the field whittled down quickly. Treadmills broke, hamstrings tweaked, work and real life beckoned, quick power naps turned into full-bore slumber. But mostly the miles and hours just became too much.
By Sunday evening, after 36 hours and 150 miles, the field was down to 14. By that point, Wardian was running in the dark, and his kids were nearing bedtime. Overnight, the runners kept dropping, and at one point, Wardian thought he would be joining them. Around 3 a.m., he briefly stopped running and walked over to his wife, Jennifer.
“I was crumbling in the middle of the night,” he later explained. “She asked if I was all right. I said, ‘No, I just don’t want to be doing this anymore.’ She said that’s not a good enough excuse.”
So he kept going, finding a second wind. He would usually finish his 4.167-mile lap in 40 or so minutes, which gave him a bit of time to catch his breath before lining up again at the top of the hour. This was the reflective period when others typically bowed out.
After 42 hours and 175 miles, Matt Shepard, who had been circling the Tall Timber coffee shop in Canada, Matthieu Weiner of Pennsylvania and Scott Martin from Oregon all dropped. Then Greg Armstrong in Tennessee an hour later. And then, after 46 hours of running, the last female runner, Anna Carlsson, who had been trekking through the outdoors near the northern tip of Sweden, had to stop. She had been running on a frozen lake that had been plowed for the occasion but had to drop when a snowstorm approached.
Finally, as the race hit the 48-hour mark Monday morning, just Wardian and Brunner were left. Both knew it wasn’t the speed or mile-pace that counted. It was a race of attrition, and the last man standing would be the sole winner. Brunner sneaked quick naps at the bottom of each hour, but Wardian hadn’t slept since Friday night.
“Sleep, what? None,” Wardian said at one point. “This is my money race. I don’t need to sleep.”
Because we live in virtual times, the entire event was streamed online, first on YouTube and later on Facebook, and thousands tuned in to watch the runners in Zoom’s now-familiar checkerboard format. The audience was able to engage and ask questions of the runners as they rested between laps.
“Let’s keep doing this!” Wardian said into the camera after he was 216 miles into the race.
And so they kept running into a third day and night. Even with 250 miles behind them — around 9 p.m. Monday — both were turning in a relatively fast pace, and Wardian had his sights set on what organizers say is the virtual backyard ultra record: 69 laps.
But then a whistle sounded for lap No. 63. Wardian took off running in the dark, but more than 4,000 miles away, Brunner stood still on his treadmill, seemingly unaware the lap had started. The online audience watched as Brunner fielded a phone call from race organizers, visibly in disbelief that after 62 hours of running, he was disqualified over what seemed like a minor infraction.
Wardian finished his lap and was slightly confused, too — and also disappointed the race was over and he couldn’t add another record to his lengthy race résumé.