“This Will Be A Chance To Test Myself In A Way I Haven’t Done Before:” Mike Wardian Starts His Run Across The Continent
On May 1 at 7 a.m., ultrarunner, Guinness World Record holder, and bee-keeper Mike Wardian began his run across the continent. Starting in San Francisco and Finishing in Dewey Beach, Delaware, the Mike Wardian U.S. Run will be following Highway 50, nicknamed The Loneliest Road in America. He, however, won’t be alone.
Following Wardian will be his father Richard Wardian, friend and skilled event organizer Phil Hargis, a medical team, and a community of fans and like-minded people from all around the world, some of whom might ask: but Mike, why?
A run like this needs to have a purpose. What else could help one overcome the mental and physical struggle of running an ultramarathon every day for over two months?
Wardian’s main goal for this adventure is to raise $100,000 for World Vision. This charity is a non-governmental provider of clean water all around the world. So far, they’ve helped over 20 million people gain access to clean water, and every $1,000 raised adds 20 more people to this number.
“More than 800 children under age 5 die every day from diarrhea caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation, and unsafe hygiene,” writes World Vision on their website. In addition to supplying drinking water, “by providing hygiene behavior change support and sanitation facilities, such as latrines and handwashing stations, the health benefits of clean water are multiplied through reduction of the spread of illness and disease.”
“That’s the big why [for the run],” Wardian said about supporting this cause.
Another, much more personal reason for going through with this run is to reconnect with his father.
“I haven’t been able to spend this much uninterrupted time with him since I left the house [some] 25 years ago,” he said. Wardian hopes this project will give them the chance to “re-learn each other and spend some quality time together.”
“Dad is older… I don’t know how many opportunities we’re gonna have to do these things,” he said.
His last goal is to just see “if it’s possible for [himself] to run that far” and take the “chance to see our country.”
“I’ve only ever run about a thousand kilometers at one time,” Wardian said. “Anything over 10 days will be all new territory for me and I feel like it’s an evolution of everything that I’ve worked for over the years as a runner.”
It’s also one thing to know the country from traveling for races or to see what those three thousand miles look like from the air when flying. But “when you’re actually running every step of it, that’s a whole different level of understanding.”
“It’s a really cool chance I think to get a snapshot of the culture along where I’m going. What they’re eating, what snacks they have, what sodas they consume, what the billboards look like, what the wildlife is like… all those things are exciting and interesting to me,” Wardian said.
For those who were wondering, yes, ‘seeing the country’ includes food—and Wardian will need a lot of that.
Calories and Other Numbers
During the following 65 days, Wardian will put some 3,500 miles between him and the San Francisco starting line, running roughly 50 miles every day. To be able to pull this off, his body will need quite a lot of energy; between 5,000 and 10,000 calories a day, to be exact.
Wardian plans on some of these calories being local foods and drinks he can find along the way. One of the reasons he waited until the pandemic was under control was to have “more opportunity to interact with people and more chances to sample some of the local goods.” Since he’s “vegetarian, pretty much vegan,” it might not be the Colorado steak or the Kansas chicken but he’s looking forward to tasting the different sodas and candies and, most importantly, fruits and veggies.
“In California, there’s so many good fruits and vegetables, and I’d like to try all the different [kinds of honey],…” he said. Trying local honey along the way is one of the small things he’s looking forward to the most.
Wardian will be running 10 to 14 hours a day and plans to do most of his running in the daylight, even though there might be a section or two where this simply won’t be possible.
He will also stop every six to eight miles to meet up with the medical crew for testing. They will be collecting data during the entirety of his endeavor to see how it influences his body and to supplement a study on endurance athletes.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Wardian will also be taking part in the May 8 Wings for Life World Run, a global race that donates 100% of all entry fees toward spinal cord injury research.
Logistics and The Crew
According to Wardian, Phil Hargis is the main force behind making this truly cross-country run possible.
“He’s the only reason I know where I’m going,” he said. His only plan was to run east—it was Hargis who came up with the exact route, the stops, and most everything else.
“He’s definitely one of the people I look to any time I have a question,” Wardian said.
Wardian’s father, Richard Wardian, is going to provide moral support and deal with all the small things that always come up but nobody can predict. In short, he has a crucial job he already knows very well—to be a dad.
“Dick knows how to do this as well as anybody, how to keep Mike motivated,” said Hargis.
The last member of the crew is skilled ultrarunner and crew chief Eric Belz, the driver who also happens to have indispensable knowledge of a significant part of the route. He led crews for several ultra athletes who’d run the Appalachian Trail and one who did the Old Pony Express Route between Sacramento and Missouri; about a third of Wardian’s route.
“He will be invaluable because he’ll have a clue where we are,” said Richard Wardian.
Together, this stellar team will make sure that Wardian is in Dewey Beach in a bit over two months, dipping his toes in the Atlantic Ocean, happy and healthy, having finished his epic journey.
“I feel super lucky. There’s no way I’d be able to do this without them,” Wardian said.
The crew has been working for quite some time now; their job didn’t start this past Sunday when Wardian left San Francisco behind his back and headed home to Delaware. There was planning to do—a lot of planning.
At first, the team had more than enough time to plan everything—due to the pandemic, planning went on for about two years. However, on New Year’s Day, Wardian just “threw it out there,” as Hargis said, that he’d start his run on May 1 and suddenly, there was a lot that had to be planned “pretty fast.” In fact, there wasn’t a solid, detailed plan up until a few days before Wardian set out on his journey.
Even though it was a lot, “most of it was relatively easy [to plan],” Hargis said. It was the very beginning of the run, from the San Francisco City Hall to south Sacramento, that gave him the most trouble.
“Getting out of San Francisco was the part that I struggled with the most,” he said. Luckily, Belz was able to come out and drive the route from San Francisco to Sacramento to “know very confidently that the Strava route we mapped out was going to work,” Hargis said.
It wasn’t just Wardian’s journey; plans and preparations had to be made for the crew as well. Things like medical appointments, daily administrative tasks, or insurance had to be resolved before everyone could leave for this adventure.
“Just if you’re wondering, we have permission from the women in our lives,” Richard Wardian chimed in when Hargis talked about what their life on the road would look like for the next two months.
He, Wardian, and Belz will live mostly out of an RV. Wardian’s father said there would be a “nice queen-sized double bed where we’ll be putting the runner” and that “absolutely, at least once every seven days, we’re gonna book a night at a motel that has a washer and a dryer available. So we’ll wash clothes, take nice, long, hot, unlimited showers, and sleep in beds with sheets.”
A member of the running community who works for a hotel chain company reached out and offered to sponsor and put Wardian and the crew in a few hotels along the way.
“The generosity of the community in the sport is just really awesome,” said Hargis.
Even though they will be staying in a few hotels during the journey, booking rooms for every night would be a logistical nightmare. The crew “really can’t plan more than 3 days ahead,” Richard Wardian said. Due to the nature of the endeavor, no dates and times are set in stone; Wardian can have a terrible day or two when he doesn’t meet his goal, then he can have a great streak when he not only makes it up but adds a few miles on top of that. With a feat like this one, it’s impossible to tell how exactly things will work out.
The Birth of an Idea
This journey didn’t start on May 1 when Wardian dipped his toes in the Pacific. It didn’t start when he asked Hargis to help him plan it. It started much earlier, almost 30 years ago.
It was the year 1993 and Wardian was watching Forrest Gump leave his front yard and, “for no particular reason, … go for a little run.” As Gump “ran to the end of the road,” then “to the end of town,” then “clear across Alabama,…” Wardian got an idea. He didn’t know if he could really do it back then but knew almost immediately that one day, he’d attempt it.
“I wasn’t even really a runner then,” he said. He played lacrosse. So when he started running, he was in for a surprise: he found it quite enjoyable.
“I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did,” he said.
As the distances grew and skills accumulated, the idea to run across the country turned from “something far away” into something “more concrete.” The moment Wardian knew he would definitely go through with the run was in 2019, right after he set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the Israel National Trail which he now calls his “test run.”
During this successful FKT attempt, he ran 1,016 kilometers (631 miles) in 10 days.
“As I was going, I was getting stronger and stronger,” Wardian said. Since then, he’s been educating himself on the history of ultra distances. He learned about the Ultra Pedestrians who’d walk across the country, covering “huge distances that would just blow people’s minds today” while “sleeping on the side of the road, eating something like a chunk of bread with some cheese, and walking 50 miles a day.”
Originally, Wardian started running with the idea of doing the Boston Marathon once. It was his dad who eventually helped him get into running ultras. Both his parents drove to Boston to support Wardian during the 1997 Boston Marathon where he “got hooked.” He then decided to run all the major marathons in one year, “which is pretty unusual—most people run a marathon in the spring maybe, and a marathon in the fall…” Wardian decided to do Chicago, Marin Corps, and New York which took place within roughly a month.
Instead of getting hurt like many people predicted, Wardian realized he “was getting stronger and felt better.”
“And then my dad found out about somebody giving a talk.”
That somebody was none other than Scott Mills, a runner with quite a few ultramarathons under his belt and a ton of experience. He was talking at his store, Fleet Feet, about the JFK 50-mile race.
“I didn’t actually believe him when he told me that you could run 50 miles,” said Wardian.
After hearing the talk and thinking, “Wait, this is real? People actually run 50 miles?” Wardian went from “This is going to be complete trash” to “Fine, I’m going to win the race.”
He didn’t win the race.
“I was getting beat by these old guys that would run-walk… I was basically running in one place,” he said.
After that, he wasn’t sure he’d ever do it again. As it often happens in the ultra running circles, after a few weeks, Wardian’s outlook changed from “I think I’m good” to “wow, that was actually pretty cool.” A few triathlons and an Iron Man race later, Wardian ended up at Marathon des Sables.
“My dad actually took me again, so you can see a theme here,” he said.
He crushed the race, even though he wasn’t as prepared as he could have been. It all started rolling from there and soon, he was setting FKTs, going on running adventures, and participating in races all around the world. Now, he’s ready to Run Home during this #runninghome journey, accompanied by none other than the man who started it all.
“It’s great that he’s here for this ultimate adventure,” Wardian said about his father.
Training for The Unknown
To train for the run, Wardian used his usual marathon and ultramarathon training into which he gradually incorporated strength training and mobility exercises. He also made sure to keep his body healthy overall.
“That was the one thing, when I was doing the run across Israel, that I figured I could improve on,” Wardian said. He felt he could manage his speed and running economy well but figured out that speed wasn’t really the most important aspect of a run like this.
“When you’re doing these longer distances, what I found out is that you don’t have to go fast. That’s the whole thing. There’s no speed component to this,” he said.
Instead, he decided to incorporate more endurance and mind-based runs into his training. Races like backyard ultras proved to be the perfect choice for this purpose. During these events, “you’re not going fast but you’re going until your mind gives up.”
To gain some mass, he also included cross-fit training. It was important for Wardian to “become a bit thicker and stronger” for this event because long-time efforts like this are extremely taxing on the body.
“You just can’t keep on weight,” he said.
There was more to the preparations than the usual strength and endurance training that often comes to mind. For example, to get ready for the temperatures he’ll encounter out in the desert and to remind himself what it is like to run back-to-back long efforts, he ran a 250-mile race in Sri Lanka. To train at altitude, he headed out to the Galapagos and did some FKT efforts. (Volcán Wolf, the tallest peak in Galapagos, is 5,610 feet tall.)
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. In 2019, Wardian felt the fittest he’s ever been. This resulted in him doing FKT attempts, running around the Beltway (a 64-mile interstate highway that runs around Washington, D.C.), or running to all the taco shops in the area and having a taco (over 100-kilometer journey) every weekend. This streak was cut in 2020 when Wardian got injured during Spartan Games—he herniated a disk in his back. It took about four months and a lot of physical therapy to recover, and a year and a half of active recovery to build back his strength and endurance. He recovered well and now, his VO2max and aerobic capacity are back at the levels they were before his injury.
“So I’m pretty confident in my body and that I’m ready for the journey,” Wardian said.
The running community has already been indispensable when it came to route planning. Hargis said that runners from all around helped him find the route that would be safe and even suggested there should be a chaser car following Wardian through a few rougher sections instead of just leaving him on his own.
Now that Wardian is running, there’s one more way the community can help out—by running with him. Many members of the running community have already joined Wardian for a short run during his send-off. So far, there are also about 50 runners who will be joining in on the fun for a few miles here and there according to Wardian’s father but more are always welcome.
“Mike loves people to come out and run with him,” said Hargis.
The best way to join Wardian for a mile or two (or a day or two!) is to email Hargis at hargis.phil (at) gmail (dot) com to get the most-recent plans and details and set up a meeting point. The route itself is planned out in Strava and there’s a document with planned days and stops for every night where those interested can find the approximate time Wardian will be running through their area.
Unfortunately, unless it’s an emergency, “we won’t be able to[provide rides],” said Richard Wardian. This means that whoever
joins Wardian will have to figure out a way to get to/from where they join/leave him on their own.
“It’s really unfortunate, we wish we could [give people rides],” said Hargis.
Hargis also addressed the concern many may have: keeping up with Wardian.
“The number one question that people ask is, ‘I would love to come out to run with Mike but I can’t keep up with the guy that runs five-minute miles.’ Don’t worry about that; he’s not going to run five-minute miles across the country,” he said.
According to him, Wardian will most likely be running around 10-12 minute miles; nobody should be afraid to run with him.
“Mike would love the company and he can run at any pace and it really does help to motivate him to know that somebody is coming up down the road to meet up with him,” Hargis said. “Mike loves to talk and he would love to have someone there to share stories with about anything. Talk about running, talk about family, talk about politics, Fantasy Football, you name it. He’s a really smart guy that knows a lot about everything. I learn from Mike all the time and I think he loves to learn from others and that’s why he’s such a smart guy.”
There’s a Facebook group with daily updates on where Wardian is and how he’s doing and he also has his personal Instagram and Twitter accounts that will most likely be updated as well. The most interesting for some might be a GPS tracking website where Wardian’s location will be updated in real time as he runs.
The San Francisco Marathon will also follow Wardian’s journey closely and provide updates and interviews along the way. What more, Wardian is coming back to run The San Francisco Marathon at the end of his journey and everyone will have the chance to race with him on July 23 and 24.