When faced with a three-day holiday weekend with nothing to do, most full-time workers would kick back, do a barbecue and maybe catch up some things around the house.
Michael Wardian is not most people. When the well-known endurance athlete saw nothing on his calendar, he set out to try the “hardest thing he’s ever done.”
But to set an FKT (fastest known time) on the C&O Canal Path, Wardian would need a support team. His two-man crew consisted of his father, William Richard Wardian, and a friend, James Whiteside.
“When I had two people —and I figured it would only be two people — I thought this is an opportunity,” he says. “I just set my 100-mile PR a few weeks before so I knew had some good fitness, I felt OK and I had a little gap in my schedule. That’s usually a limiting factor — how much time do I have before I need to go somewhere around the world to race. I had the opportunity so I took advantage of it.”
The C&O path is an historic trail, about 184.5 miles end to end. It begins in Georgetown and ends in Cumberland, Md., near the Gap Trail, which runs to Pittsburgh. It’s mostly dirt with gravel in places.
Thanks to the recent rainy weather, there were sections of trail that had been washed out or very muddy. “The conditions were pretty tough; it was pretty hot in the northern Virginia/Maryland area,” Wardian says. “And it was humid — unbelievably humid. That made it tough. There were definitely better times of the year when I could have planned this.”
In earlier days, neighbors along the canal path would take care of their section of the trail. That same community spirit lifted Wardian up and to the finish line, 12 minutes faster than the previous record.
Getting a little help from my (social media) friends
With his mind set, fitness dialed in and his crew in place, Wardian turned to the community via his social media channels. “Luckily, they found it interesting.”
People promised to meet him at a particular point. Others rallied a group together for an impromptu aid station.
“I didn’t know if anyone would actually show but it was super nice for so many people to show up and help me, James and my dad,” Wardian says. “We were able to take advantage of the community and get it done. It was really crazy to run that far and barely break that time. All of that help mattered and helped me achieve it.”
Wardian’s dad and friend set up aid stations at various points while checking up on him. Some aid stations were planned out and at other times they adjusted to what the trail allowed. At one point, Wardian went about 50K, or five hours, without seeing them.
“I left with a single 16-ounce bottle because the Park Service said the wells were working, but that was not accurate,” he says. “The wells are about 4-5 miles apart. I went about 90 minutes without refilling water until I met up with a cyclist who was nice enough to give me a bottle of water. Later I met up with some people who came out to run with my and they gave me some water or else I would still be in that 30-mile section trying to figure out how to get out of there. It was pretty brutal since it was the hotter part of the day.”
Throughout the run — about 130 miles — he had at least one other person running with him. The community support went well beyond running buddies.
“There were so many people who were involved one way or the other,” he says. “They set up aid stations, came out with their kids in the middle of the night to cheer me on, making runs to 7-Eleven for ice, coconut water or gels. It was so cool.”
Wardian compares it to the famous scene in "Forrest Gump" when people from all walks of life joined in the cross-country run. “I was a vehicle to get people together and hang out and wait for me to come,” he says. “They made little groups and friendships. I was just kinda the straw that stirred the drink. I couldn’t believe the amount of goodwill that was out there. I needed it all because it was super hard.”
Beating a 42-year-old record by 12 minutes
After setting his PR at the Great Cranberry 100-miler, a new race in Maine, Wardian looked at the calendar and realized nothing was scheduled for Labor Day Weekend. “A three-day weekend was nice so even if it goes really bad, I have an extra day to get back to work,” he recalls. “The weather didn’t look great but I was confident since I have run in some pretty tough conditions.”
Admitting, “it was kind of thrown together, really,” Wardian set off the Saturday morning with his dad and friend. They drove out to Cumberland with a car packed with water, food and gels, a half-dozen pair of running shoes and socks. “Let’s see what we can do.”
Through all of Wardian’s feats of endurance, he has only run one race longer (400K in five days) than the FKT attempt. He remembers severe chafing during that race so went into the FKT knowing he had to take care of such issues early.
“Knowing I had the fitness from the 100-miler, getting to the starting line in good shape and just needing to take care of things when they came up,” he notes, describing his mindset at the start. “I had the endurance but I wasn’t sure if I could hold that pace for that long of a distance.”
Honoring old-school ultra runners
During Wardian’s research, he learned that Park Barner set the fastest known time in 1976 with 36 hours, 48 minutes and 14 seconds.
“I thought it would be a cool way to honor the old-school ultra runners just out there seeing what they could do,” Wardian says. “There are a lot of times I was out there cursing him (laughs) because he ran it so hard. There was no time to really let up. I was at my limit and needed to keep moving the whole time.”
Early Sunday evening, Wardian finished in 36 hours 36 minutes and 3 seconds, besting Barner’s mark by 12 minutes.
“I’ve always been interested in FKTs and I’ve been around the sport of trail and ultra running a long time so there are some established ones I’ve run like the rim-to-rim-to-rim at the Grand Canyon,” he says. “I’ve looked at doing the Zion Traverse. Those are neat trails. But I thought since I have done so much running on the C&O trail ever since I started running in the late 90s, I thought someday it would be so cool to run from Georgetown out to Cumberland or back. I actually though it would be cooler to run back because then I would be running toward my house. It’s always been percolating but I didn’t know if I could do it. It’s kind of daunting to do something that big. Now I feel like I have the experience and the support now to do it.”
Another part of Wardian’s motivation was to showcase the area. “We have so many great things around here. This is a way to rally people around the fact that we have these resources and we should use them.”
Never a sure thing
I chatted with Michael a few days after his successful FKT. His recovery was going well. And he was still glowing from the achievement — and thankful for all the support he received along the way.
“This kind of pushed me to the boundaries that I haven’t been to before,” he says. “That’s what I was looking for but whenever you do that you don’t really know what to expect. It was incredible. One of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”
Wardian also called it “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” With 50 miles go to, he thought it was impossible. But he kept digging, set the demons aside and remained focused on the goal.
“The physical limit, the sleep deprivation, the complete and utter exhaustion, not knowing if you are going to be able to continue, not knowing if it’s even worthwhile to continue, the environment — the hot and humid weather — it’s debilitating at points,” he says. “To overcome those obstacles and keep projecting yourself forward. I had to go a lot deeper than I ever had to go before. I was at the point where I was on the verge of passing out. But I was still running an 8-minute pace. It was incredible, eerily difficult.”
There was never a time when Wardian thought it was a sure thing. Not even when he was a few miles away with a half hour to set the FKT.
“There is always that doubt, that this could all come shattering down at any moment,” he recalls. “I wasn’t sure it was going to happen until I touched the mile marker with my hand.”
After touching the post and securing the FKT time, Wardian was “tired, but so happy with myself,” he says. “I would have been so disappointed had I not been able to continue to maintain and achieve what I wanted to achieve. It was such an accomplishment but I also had a sense of gratitude.”
Helping the homeless
Among the other challenges on Wardian’s to-do list includes running the Gillette Stadium Marathon in Foxoboro, Mass., where the New England Patriots play their home games. The 100-lap race is a fundraiser for homeless shelters. “I would like to get some more money for people who need it,” he says, noting his goal is to raise $5,000.
To donate or learn more about the event, visit the race website.
Reflecting back on the C&O run, Wardian cherished the support from his father, friend and of course the running community. He is thankful for the runner who logged 40 miles with him, for the helper who fetched hot soup, for the people who cheered him on from the woods — and via social media.
“It’s so cool to see people from the community who came out to help some random dude achieve this goal that he dreamed up one day on a run,” he says. “There is no way I would have made it without everyone coming out and supporting me. It was super inspiring to see everyone rally around the cause. I am unbelievably grateful.”
Name: Michael Wardian
Hometown: Arlington, Va.
Number of years running: 23 years, before that I was a lacrosse player.
How many miles a week do you typically run: 70-120 miles..
What is your 'why' for running: I want to see what I am capable of and just how far and fast I can go.
Point of pride: I have been lucky to have done a lot of super cool things and it might be recency basis but I think the C&O Canal fastest known time (FKT) was one of the biggest and most interesting things I have done. I also think the seven marathons on seven continents in seven days was a point of pride along with running a 2:17:49 marathon PR.
Favorite race distance: I love all distances but I think one of my favorite distances is the marathon as it is an endurance event but you still have to run at your limit and you can't fake it.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: For pre-race, I tend to go with oatmeal, honey and banana and almond butter. Right before the race I like a GU strompwaffel and then during the race I use GU energy gels. For longer races like ultras I use a lot of different things like fruit, proteins and different sodas and drinks with calories. During training, I like to train with almost nothing to get used to feeling really bad and having to battle.
Favorite piece of gear: I think being a runner one of my favorite pieces of gear is my HOKA ONE ONE running shoes. They give me the ability to train and race like an animal but have kept me safe and protected.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I love running to lots of different songs and I crank up my Jaybirds. I found during the C&O canal I was digging Peace Frog by the Doors.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Stay after it, Be Relentless, Why not today/Why not you?
Where can other runners connect or follow you: