Late bloomer hopes to make Olympic run
For most of the top runners in the Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston, the race will be the pinnacle of months of training. For Mike Wardian, it’ll just be a typical Saturday.
The event, which will send the top three men’s and women’s finishers to London in August, features top talent like 2008 Olympic qualifiers Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein, who have both been elite runners since junior high school. Then there’s the 37-year-old Arlington, Va., father of two, who started running on a whim as an adult.
“I started training for my first marathon when I was in college and my buddy Vince’s mom had some pictures from the Boston Marathon,” said Wardian, who played lacrosse as a kid. “My goal was to qualify, so I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 1996. I ran 3:06 and I ran Boston and I was hooked.”
And like a pony-tailed Forrest Gump, he kept running and running and running.
Wardian qualified for the trials with a personal best 2:17:49 in the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., in June, one of 15 marathons he completed in 2011. In addition to the regular 26.2-mile marathons, Wardian completed 11 ultra-endurance races in 2011, ranging from 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon in Death Valley, where he placed third.
He set a course record at the Tussey Mountain 50-mile race in October after running back-to-back marathons in Hartford, Conn., and Mount Desert Island, Maine, the weekend before, where he placed third and first, respectively. While most elite runners taper their mileage before big races, Wardian trains about 100 miles each week, regardless of the event. He gets in two or three runs per day as well as a 12-mile round-trip bike commute to work when weather permits.
“Recovery is really important in order to perform to your potential,” said Bill Pierce, director of the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. “That kind of weekly stress, if he’s racing 26.2 miles every week or so, is quite remarkable. Although if he’s running in the 2:20s, that may not be that stressful to him."
Wardian has been fortunate enough to avoid major injuries in the past 15 years, crediting proper nutrition and a lack of mileage while his body was still developing.
“I’m not burned out,” Wardian said. “Many top guys start running when they’re 8 or 9 and have been competing at a high level for a long time. A lot of people in their late 30s think they’re done with sports. I’m still setting (personal records).”
Wardian’s frequency of races isn’t the only difference between him and his fellow elite runners. While he does have a number of sponsors, including The North Face and PowerBar, to help cover travel expenses, Wardian works full-time as an international shipbroker dealing in U.S. government and food-aid cargoes. All of the merchandise on the Maersk Alabama, which was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, was contracted by Wardian.
“I’m usually in my hotel room before a race with my laptop making sure the ships are where they need to be,” Wardian said.
Saturday, Wardian hopes to position himself among the top group of elite runners as they make their way through the streets of downtown Houston. Even though Wardian’s personal best time puts him 53rd among the 85 men’s entrants, he figures he has just as good a shot at an Olympic berth as anyone.
“I’m planning to be near the front as long as I can and ride everybody else and see what happens,” said Wardian, who took a rare month off from competing prior to the trials. “The cool thing about the U.S. is it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done before. The first three guys across the line get to go.”