April 20, 2009
A Brief Chat With Michael Wardian
By Peter VigneronPhotos supplied by Mr. WardianMichael Wardian, 34, of Arlington, Virginia, is running Monday's Boston Marathon. Wardian recently
finished 8th at the Marathon Des Sables, a 150-mile ultramarathon through the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Wardian is a famously prolific road runner and raced over 50 times in 2008. He is an eight-time Boston finisher, and last month ran the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach and the National Marathon in Washington, D.C. on consecutive days. Wardian's fastest marathon is 2:21:37 from Shamrock in 2007. He works full-time as an international shipping broker and is sponsored by The North Face, Power Bar, Moeben Sleeves, and MarathonGuide.com.
"I'm unbelievably grateful," Wardian says. "If you want to put any of that in the article that would be terrific."
You got back from Marathon des Sables 10 days ago? Or two weeks ago?
Michael Wardian: Ah, yeah. I think it was April 5...it'll be 15 by the race.
And how many days is the race?
MW: It was supposed to be seven days, six days of running, and about 150 miles, and it turned out to be six days, four days of running. What happened was, they had kind of epic flooding, actually. The desert flooded, and so the first camp we were supposed to stay at, a bivouac, was completely washed out. They lost a Land Rover. This is crazy. The people in the towns had never seen this much rain. They were asking - the people in the race were asking, like 'Have you ever seen this much rain?' And people couldn't remember in their lifetimes, seeing the amount of downpour that they had. So they basically got washed out the first day, and each day they basically had to make the course for the next day. So, I think logistically, they canceled the first day and then the last day. It's usually just almost like - it's kind of a Tour de France, it's a stage race, and the last day is almost like on the Champs Elysees. The race is usually over at that point, and so it's just 13 miles to get you to the finish line. So they decided not to do it, I think, because it wasn't worth it.
And we had already done four days of hard running. The first day was in the dunes and it was 18 or 19 miles, but really, really challenging. The biggest dunes in North Africa, I guess. And then the second day was 24 miles, also dunes and dunettes, which are basically crappy little small hills. They consider dunes these three-story things. The dunettes are just...they suck. I don't even know how to describe it. They're like rollers - if you're running on a road and someone will say it's got rollers. They're like rollers but they're crappy footing and you're sliding and you're running like this (Wardian makes an unbalanced motion) and your foot's getting sliced on the bottom of your shoe because you're not hitting flat. You're pulling your feet out of the sand.
It was really impressive to see the top guys and how they choose to land - it can make a big difference to take three steps to the left, or run in the jeep track or something, because it's just better footing, and you use a lot less energy. And that's the whole game: management of your energy and resources.
So do you think it's less a matter of who's the fittest and more who knows how to run in the sand really well?
MW: Well, I think there's a lot of that, and that's what I learned. I think that if I got most of those guys on the roads I'd be able to beat most of them, although the top guys—I was talking to all of them, as much as I could, I don't speak French so it was somewhat limited and there's no talking when we're in the group—but afterwards, everyone chats and hangs out, and somebody's friend speaks English, and so they would go and the guy I was running with all day would bring his friend over that spoke English and be like 'I want to tell you something!'
The Spanish guy I ran with a lot was the 2005, through I think 2008, 100K champ from Spain, so a legit guy, I think he ran 6:26 for 100K, which is almost world record - I think it's 6:13 or something. And then this guy from Jordan I met ran 2:46 or 47 for 50K in Jordan with is freaking fast.
What's the American record?
MW: Josh Cox got it in 2:47 I think, right around the same pace. It's like 5:22 pace, which is pretty solid. And I think some of the guys had old marathon PRs of 2:14, 2:16 or so. So it was interesting to watch how they did it, and as I mentioned, they were really, really efficient at getting through the transitions.
They have these special packs, it's almost like a saddle, it's like a front pack and a back pack and so,
on the front pack they have a compartment, and they give you one-and-a-half liter bottles, like the big ones, so you come in and they write your number on it and on the cap, and you have a punch thing, like on a card, so you have to get punched every time you go through a checkpoint, so they know you've gone through the checkpoint and they know you have water, and if you litter, you get a half hour penalty, which basically means you lose. So you have to be really cognizant of where you put your water and your trash, which is great because if you've got 900 people in the desert and there's no consequence, you're just going to have this trail of trash.
Bottles all over the place.
MW: Yeah. And even with the penalty I saw some guys throwing stuff. But so I had my little hand-held (water bottle) which I use in ultras, and they're really handy, but when the other guy just takes it, slides it in, and then is out the other side, and you're like this (he demonstrates fumbling with a water bottle).
And trying not to drop the cap.
MW: Because it's a half hour penalty! So it's a big difference. As I was saying, I run for North Face and Marathon Guide and Power Bar and Moeben, so I had a North Face bag, and it's designed to last forever, and it's super well built and just really nice, sturdy, and these guys had little—
Canvas satchels or something
.MW: Yeah. Well actually Lahcen [Ahansal, 10-time race winner] had a bag that he designed himself, and it's like, I swear, I was feeling the material and it's almost like parachute material, so super strong but really lightweight.
My bag was probably like a couple kilos, and theirs was probably one, so that just means you can have more food, or you have to carry a flare—you have mandatory stuff you have to carry—so a flare, a snake bite kit, a knife, a compass, the road book, which basically tells you what the route is. It's a marked course but it's not like you run this path. There's a blaze here, and 300 yards down a blaze, and in the dunes there's no blazes, so you have to read your compass or follow the guy in front of you, and so being with the lead group, it was amazing to see how they - you know, there might be a string of dunes this way, and then a string of dunes that way, and somehow they would snake a way through where they would take the most minimalist way to get to where they needed to go.
And does the course change from year to year? Do they know, or are they just efficient at figuring out the fastest way?
MW: The course changes from year to year. And I never saw them look at their compasses once, which is crazy because I got separated from them, and I was standing there one time, and I was just like, 'I have no idea where to go.' My compass was in my backpack, and I'm going to take five minutes to figure it out, and I'm not even sure I know how to read it that well, so I'm going to get screwed here, so I'm just going to wait and hope that somebody comes. And then I saw some camels, and I was like, 'Oh, maybe those are camels from the race,' and they were just guys out there on camels, and I was like, 'I'm hosed, so I'm just going to keep running,' and I did, and it worked out.
And you found them?
MW: Yeah, I did. But there's definitely some route finding that I could do better. And I think next time I might just take a GPS and just put in the coordinates. So there's things like that, and my nutrition, as I was saying before, I brought a lot of Power Bars, which I love, but there's also—you need to get some variety. I had some freeze-dried meals that I loved when I was at my desk and it was 72 degrees, that weren't as appetizing at 120 degrees, and didn't look good at all. And you've just run for 20 or 30 miles, and you're just like, 'I don't know if I can eat that.' And you're sitting on the floor and it's not comfortable. That's part of the race though.
So then you got sick?MW: Yeah, I got sick on the long day, at the end of the race I had to stop and go to the bathroom a couple times. But I had also bonked really hard. I went from fourth at 50 miles to 10th place by 56 miles. And it took me like three hours and two minutes to go 26K, which is 14 or 15 miles—basically not that far, for that long.
So what exactly do you do? I know it's shipping.
MW: International ship broking. The most recent thing that we know about was the Maersk Alabama [the ship that made news recently for being held hostage by Somali pirates]. Everything on that ship is something that I chartered. They're my biggest client. So that was a big nightmare. And it was right when I got back, so I was glad I was back.
Did you have to deal with that situation at all?
MW: Yeah, we did. We had to deal with the government. My big client is Maersk Line and I love the guy that I deal with, but we didn't have to deal with the pirates or anything like that, but we're the ones that helped arrange all the cargo, the relief cargo that was on board, that's actually what we do.
This is a problem you've probably been paying attention to for several years.
MW: Yeah, we have. Well, it's probably been most prevalent in the last couple years, and then we actually, we put special service - they thought that where they were was safe, so they actually had already amended their service to try and account for the pirates, so it was surprising that they were that far off the coast. Four hundred miles is actually kind of far, especially in a little boat. And that ship was actually faster than a lot of the ships they (the pirates) were using, so they had put her in specifically to try and counteract the pirates, and it seems like the pirates we able to overcome those obstacles, which is super annoying. But the crew did a tremendous job, and the captain, and the military.
I was going to ask you if Boston was just another marathon or do get up for this race, is this a big deal?
MW: Oh, yeah. For sure. I try to get up for every race, but this one in particular. Some races don't have the same panache or whatever, but every time I go to a race I want to do well. When you step to the line you put yourself out there. There's no reason that you shouldn't try to do your best. But this is one of those races where it's got such a rich history, and everyone is into it, and everyone knows. A lot of races you'll go to and they don't even know how far a marathon is. They'll be like, 'How far is that again?' Everyone here, it's such a part of who these people are, and the city. I mean, it's a holiday, for Christ's sake. It's freaking awesome.
I know this is a question you get, probably every interview you've ever done, but why do you race so much?
MW: I mean, I do get it all the time, and I don't mind because it is a legitimate question. A lot of people say, 'Oh, you could be a 2:12 guy or a 2:14 guy if you just focused on one race a year, or two races a year and really built up.' And I think the counter argument is that you could get hurt and you wouldn't have any races a year. There are so many opportunities out there and I love to toe the line. I love to see what I can do and just push the limits and try and experiment with myself.
I like that people can look at me, and say, 'Wow, if that guy can do 13 marathons a year and do pretty well, maybe I can do one.' I think a lot of people can relate to that. Like, 'that guy works a real job. He's not a professional runner.'
I like the fact that people can look at me and say, 'Maybe it's not that hard. There's something to that. Or, I talked to him and he seems happy. He's not crazy.'
He's no nutcase.
MW: Yeah exactly! He doesn't own a health food store, he's not trying to sell me bee pollen. I feel like it's something they can relate to. And, 'He's got a family too. He's a normal guy. And so if he can do it, why can't I.' I like that.
Racing is stressful for a lot of people. Like, I get nervous for races, and there's a certain amount of strain that goes into—
MW: Travel and logistics. Yeah, that's a fantastic observation you make, and I think a lot of people do get nervous. I have to say, I'm not excluded. I get super nervous before races too, and I've thrown up before races. And all that stuff can be super stressful, especially when it's your only race for the year. You've put a year's worth of training into it. I can't imagine what Ryan Hall's thinking now. And you've got all these sponsors that have goals for you, and all the interviews, and that's just a lot to deal with. But that's part of your job too, that's what it is to be a professional athlete. But even for the normal runners there's a lot of stress.
I think for me I have a great support system. My wife and my children, it's been a part of our life, and my extended family, and my in-laws are coming up, and my parents are helping to watch my house and my dog, and they do that all the time, and my brother and sister. My boss is just a rock star. Without him and my clients being supportive - I was joking that I want to go to Comrades this year, but I have to go to the office every now and then.
Any ideas on race strategy for Boston?
MW: Well, my goal is to try to get a qualifier (2:19 for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials) so I've got to run pretty fast. My goal originally was to run 2:16, which I mentioned would be a big PR, I think that's like 5:10, 5:12 pace, so it's pretty fast for me. I can hit anywhere between 2:20 and 2:30 pretty consistently. I think this year I've run 2:22 and 2:23, so I know that pace pretty well. This will be a big increase for me, but Boston is a really special race.
Posted at 12:03 AM Permalink« April 17: Can Kara Goucher and Ryan Hall Win the Boston Marathon // What's Going on at Brian Sell's House? // How Lorraine Moller Fell in Love With Boston // Famiglietti, Solinsky, and Wurth-Thomas Are in Mt. SAC 5000s // Plus a Chat With Shannon Rowbury Main April 20: Salina Kosgei Wins Boston Marathon; Kara Goucher Is Third // Deriba Merga Is Boston Men's Champ; Ryan Hall Is Third // Anna Willard Outkicks Shalane Flanagan in B.A.A. Mile // Oregon Edges UCLA in Dual Meet // Plus a Chat With Michael Wardian »