Michael Wardian’s list of running accomplishments would fill a 100-mile trail. He has successfully navigated races ranging from the Badwater Ultra Marathon to the fastest combined times in all the marathon majors. Among his records is the fastest marathon dressed as Elvis.
But this spring the race “that eats its own (or young)” — the infamous Barkley Marathon
in rural Tennessee — posed the greatest challenge that Wardian has so far faced. He’s determined to go back and apply what he learned during a very difficult race.
Wardian graciously agreed to an interview on his Barkley experience, what he learned and his desire to return.
Henry Howard: Let’s focus on the Barkley Marathon. Start out by telling me why you wanted to do this race.
Michael Wardian: I wanted to tackle Barkley because it’s one of the races that is most iconic. It has a lot of the things that I have not had the opportunity to experience like navigation, the amount of time you are going to be out there, and the off-trail nature of the course. It’s something I want to embrace more of. It’s been on my list for a while and this year it worked out perfectly. I got in a race called the Hard Rock 100-miler. It has a lot of vertical in it. I was talking with the race director at Barkley a couple of years ago when I was coming off some injuries — five stress fractures in my pelvis. I thought it would be fun to run Barkley because it’s not a race where you have to be super fast, you just have to maintain a specific pace. That’s how you get to the finish. When I wanted to do that in 2013, I asked the race director — Laz — ‘Would it be OK to come?’ He said, ‘If you are not super confident in your fitness, don’t come until you are ready.’ I felt like this year I was ready to take on the challenge. I had the fitness. I had done some long races, up to 34 hours. Not even half of what you need to do to do Barkley. It was a good representation of what I was capable of. I put my name in and was fortunate that I got in. I wanted to see what it was all about. But unfortunately it didn’t go as I expected. I was timed out after the first loop. But it was definitely everything I was hoping it would be and I am looking forward to the opportunity to go back and try it again.
HH: Tell me about how you specifically trained for the race. I’m sure there was hill work; how about the navigation aspect of your training?
MW: I did do a lot of hill work. Each day I ran or hiked on the treadmill at 12 or 15 percent grade. I was augmenting that with some trail races and longer workouts. I even did a workout once with the guy who ended up finishing this year, John Kelly, who lives around the area. I went out to Frederick and ran a 500-foot hill for seven hours. I thought I was really prepared for that aspect of it. For the navigation part, I took a map and compass class three weeks out from the race. I was confident in my ability to take a bearing and kind of figure out where I needed to go. I ended up following a route, it’s not just taking bearings. I should have been more confident in my own ability, rather than following somebody else. I made the mistake of following a veteran — that’s usually a good strategy. But in the rain and fog this year, it was a bit of a disaster. I lost a huge chunk of time between book one and book two. By the time I got to book two, my race was kind of done. I met up with a group of people and we found all the books, eventually, in about 15 hours.
HH: Before the race starts, my understanding is that you and the other competitors get a map and a compass and plot out your race course. What was your level of confidence after doing that?
MW: I had a lot of help from veterans preparing the map, getting the lines correctly drawn. With all the rain and fog, when you get to a river and from the river go 180 degrees, because of all the rain all the rivers looked the same. Some were not normally rivers but because it had been raining so much, they were rivers. Everything started to look the same. And it was hard to know where you were and that proved disastrous for me. I was confident at the beginning but less confident after about an hour and a half in the woods, kind of wandering around, being on the same river for three hours, not knowing how to get from one place to another. It was a bit of a learning curve. That’s a big part of it — having confidence in your skills and understanding what you are looking for, based on the directions, which are kind of complicated. It makes sense once you have done it. But when you have not done it, it’s kind of a nuance.
HH: Describe what it was like to wait for the unknown start time, and then to finally hear Laz blow the conch.
MW: That was the one thing that kinda sucks. That part went well for me. I went to bed at 8 p.m. and slept until midnight. I felt fine. That was perfect. That’s as much straight sleep as I get. I felt fantastic. I was just going to the bathroom when the conch blew and that couldn’t have worked out better for me. I kind of like racing at night. It was raining but not as hard as it sounded on the tent. It was chilly but not cold. I have nice Petzl headlamps so I could see. I love running at night and early in the morning. I was looking forward to just being out there. It would give us a chance to do a lot of the beginning stuff together with our headlamps on. Of course, this was wrong, but I thought it would be easy to see everybody in the woods and it would be easy to follow people in front of you. What I didn’t expect was that once we got out of camp and up the mountain, the fog would be so severe that you couldn’t really see the end of your hand. People got 10 yards in front of you and you couldn’t see them anymore. That definitely made it a bit harder. I was fired up for it starting early in the morning. I figured it would bode well later laps and for my race but it didn’t work out that way.
HH: Walk me through the start of the race and finding that first book.
MW: The race started at 1:42 in the morning. It’s pretty low-key — no timing mats, no corrals. You just stroll over there with everyone else. It’s kind of anticlimactic. There’s a 10-second countdown. Laz lights a cigarette and then you charge off into the woods. There’s no course to follow so you just head right out of the camp. You go into the first climb and to the first book. That went really well. I was going to stick with a big group and when the course started to go off-trail I linked up with some veterans and was hoping to stick with them for a couple of loops of the course. I was in the group of three guys who found the first book, first. It was awesome — the coolest thing I think I've ever done. You’re in the middle of the woods, next to a pile of rocks, or whatever and there’s a book. The coolest thing I think I’ve ever done. But then I was overconfident. ‘Oh, man. Got the first book.’ Then there’s mayhem because someone yells out that they found it and you hear other people scrambling, like wildebeests, to get the book. Then we (Gary Robbins, Jamil Coury) climbed up to a ridge line, looked out and thought, ‘Oh, we go there. Oh, OK. We’ll just jump this ledge with sharp rocks and sticks and trees. Ten steps later, those guys were out of sight and I knew that was a mistake. I thought I would catch them at the bottom and they were nowhere to be seen. I got off course with a French guy named Remy who had done the race twice before but never in the dark. He thought we were on the right trail but we were not. It was so funny; it went from elation to ‘oh man’ in no time. I thought I might not even be able to find five books, or even the second one. Like, how lame is that? Then I bumped into some other people like Ann from Ohio. A guy named James from Scotland. They were a couple of hours behind where we were. But by the time I got back to the right area, we were all kind of moving together. We decided to stay together and do the race together, but unfortunately it was too slow to make the cutoff.
HH: One thing I really like about running and trail races, especially ultras, is the camaraderie. Tell me about that at this bizarre race where you are working together. Did you feel that sense of camaraderie?
MW: For sure. Even though we were competing against each other we really were not. A lot of trail races, if someone loses a water bottle, you give them a water bottle. Or a gel, or a pep talk. At the end of the day, you want to win, but not at someone else’s expense, if you can help them out. I feel like that’s how it was at Barkley. We all helped each other navigate and figure out what the directions mean. Unfortunately, as a group, that means that we were slower. But on my own I don’t think I would have done much better because I would have bombed down some mountain only come to realize that I was at the wrong ridge line or wrong draw. It was cool to be in a group and work together and form a bond with people, people who I would not normally get to run with. I got to see the race from a different perspective or point of view. I was happy for the experience.
HH: You answered this before, but for the record, will you enter Barkley again — why or why not?
MW: Yeah, I definitely will enter again. If I can get in again and if I can get the opportunity again, I would like to try it again. I think I can make it around at least one or two more loops but I’d like to finish, which is five total loops. I got a chance to see it in one direction. It would be nice to see it in another direction and at different points in the day to see if it’s something I am capable of. I had the fitness for it. It’s unfortunate if you make too many mistakes. You can make a couple of mistakes. But I made too many mistakes the first time and that means you are not going to to get the finish.
HH: If you do get the chance to do Barkley again, what would you different in your training?
MW: I felt pretty strong in everything. I finished the loop but I was only out there for 15 hours. I don’t know if I was out there for 60 hours how I would feel. I feel like everything was pretty dialed in. I would maybe tweak my backup setup for sure, maybe do more vert. I felt like I was strong on that but what I need to practice is descending at the rate those guys were, being able to do off-trail really aggressively and that just takes practice and there is not a lot of opportunity for that around here. But that is something I would try to improve on — downhill at a rapid pace off trail, jumping over rocks and roots, feeling comfortable descending at the point of danger. I’m never as fast as those gusy when they do that but I need to improve that so that I don’t get dropped. Climbing I was fine but descending I don’t have the same level of ‘I don’t care what happens to me that some of the other guys have.’
HH: Usually when I wrap these up, I ask the person what their bucket race list is. But for you, an average week, is someone else’s bucket list. So what else are you looking forward to on your calendar this year?
MW: Everything. Boston (Marathon) on Monday, then Big Sur a couple of weeks after that. A trip to Kosovo for the State Department and raise the awareness for gender equality and share that experience with the running community in Kosovo. Going to Australia for the Ultra Trail Australia and then Western States 100, one of the most iconic races in the world, and I got into the Hard Rock 100 for the first time ever. That was a six-year process so really looking forward to being out in Colorado and seeing what that race is all about. Everyone says it’s unbelievably beautiful and one of the iconic races in the world. Everything this year is ridiculously awesome. I just got into a 400-kilometer race across the Gobi Desert. I would like to see what the Tibetan Plateau is all about. It’s an all-supported, all-self-navigated race. So it’s something I am really looking forward to. It’s going to be an awesome year.