Cup 34

Person: Mike Wardian

Location: His office in Washington, DC

Mike Wardian is a running junkie, getting up at dawn to put in a dozen miles before leaving for work and another dozen miles during lunch. He ran 17 marathons last year, has qualified for the Olympic trials twice, and is sponsored by companies like NorthFace, Powerbar and MarathonGuide.com. This year he is headed to South Africa for the Two Oceans Marathon (about 34 miles) and the Comrades Marathon (56 miles), before running the Badwater 135 Mile race in Death Valley this past July.

He is an animal on the road and one respected and feared by other ultra-marathoners.

That’s not the Mike I met for coffee.

When I walked into his unassuming office, tucked away in a building off Wisconsin Ave just outside of Washington, D.C., Mike greeted me before we sat down at a conference table with a model cargo ship sitting in the middle. Aside from being sinewy like a seasoned runner and having long hair tied in a knot at the base of his neck, he was like any businessman I’d met. He was wearing a tie and our conversation started off in a formal tone.

This makes sense if you consider how many post-race interviews he’s been through. I asked him questions about his running and training, and told him stories about my running experiences. I also explained how I had found him. My attempts to get back into running had gotten me thinking back to my serious days of running, when discipline was a crucial piece of my running success. Finding that discipline after a long running hiatus has been a challenge, I decided to find an ultra-marathoner for coffee, because I could think of few things requiring more discipline than running for 30 hours straight.

A basic Google search led me to Mike. The Michigan State Alumni Association highlighted his running accomplishments in an article, which led me to his website, where I discovered he was running the D.C. Marathon the same weekend my friend and I were running the D.C. Half-Marathon. When I reached out to him, I discovered he actually lived in D.C. and we scheduled a meeting for the day before the race.

Mike was born in Morgantown, West Virginia, and moved to Washington, D.C., in 4th grade. He left the area to go to college at Michigan State, which at the time had a Division I Lacrosse team. He competed for a few years, but ended up leaving the team to pursue other interests. He had never been interested in running but joined a friend for a race and realized he had a talent for the sport and a competitive drive to be good at it.

While continuing to pursue the sport, he took a job back in D.C., where he has been for 10 years now, working as a freight broker. It’s a job he enjoys, but more importantly, one that offers him the flexibility that his training demands, while also allowing him to spend time with his wife and two young sons.

Running itself isn’t hard, it’s just putting one foot in front of the other. The hard part is to keep putting one foot in front of the other when it starts to hurt. I asked Mike how he did it and his response made it obvious running was woven into his DNA. He said he’s always the first person ready to start running and the last one who wants to stop. In fact, he’d prefer to be putting in 150-200 miles a week, but time constraints don’t allow it.

I asked him how he kept running when he’s 60 miles into a 100-mile race. He said he hits patches that are tough but he pushes through those moments by focusing on his race goals and making sure to get enough food and water. Before long, he cycles out of the rough spot and starts to feel good again.

At the start of his career, people told Mike he couldn’t run a 100-mile race, nor run three marathons in one month, nor be a competitive runner and hold down a job. But he tried anyway because he figured even if the skeptics were right, he’d rather find out for himself instead of just taking their word for it. So far he’s proved them wrong and has had some incredible times in the process—both literally and figuratively.

As he said, there will always be 50 people telling you why you can’t do something—and they may tell you with the best of intentions—but if you always listen to those people, you’ll never get anything done. You just have to decide what’s best for you and do it.

When we parted ways, I couldn’t help but think about how I hadn’t seen the real Mike. He’s a runner with an office job, not an office-man with a hobby for running. I felt like we had only scratched the surface of his running and travel adventures. But when you’re juggling a family, a running career, and a job, time is of the essence. I didn’t want to take any more of his time than I already had.

Luckily, I had my chance the following morning. Less than 30 minutes after I had finished running my 13.1 miles through the streets of D.C., Mike finished his 26.2 mile race, claiming his fifth D.C. Marathon victory in the last six years.

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My friend and I waded through the frenetic crowd to the VIP Hospitality tent, where we found Mike recovering with his wife and two sons. I called out his name and he walked over smiling. We didn’t talk long, just enough to share race-stories, meet his oldest son, and snap a picture, before I headed for the Metro station and he went for post-race interviews.

Leaving the race felt much better than leaving his office. This time, I felt like I’d gotten to see Mike in his element—celebrating another marathon victory with wife and kids.

That mental image is what I will take away from Cup 34.

As an athlete with a full-time job and family, Mike understands time. Whether he’s running a race or living his life, the clock is always adding pressure. To be a successful runner requires efficiency of resources—making the best use of time and energy. Being a successful father and businessman on top of that is the exact same. We all have limited time and energy.

Mike doesn’t waste any of it.

Mike is a great example of someone with clearly defined goals and priorities, which led me to examine my own goals and priorities. I realized there are plenty of people who will say you can’t accomplish something, and countless distractions that will try to get in the way—but if you have a clear finish line in mind, you can overcome those barriers.

And have a great time celebrating at the end.

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