Most people would look at the complex running challenges Michael Wardian dreams up and think they’re probably an impossibility. For Wardian, it’s always about possibility.
The 43-year-old runner from Arlington, Va., has traveled all over the world to tackle multi-race endeavors and crazy running adventures in recent years. He regularly keeps the most complicated and prolific racing schedule of anyone in the running world, and yet he finds a way to run fast and set new records, albeit in sometimes rather odd and unique ways.
For example, Wardian set a new record for running all six World Marathon Majors in 2016 (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York, with a 2:31:09 average), and this year set a new record for running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents in the the World Marathon Challenge (with a 2:45:56 average per marathon). He’s also won the Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon dressed in an Elvis Presley costume and once ran two sub 3-hour marathons in two different cities on the same day. He’s won the Boston to Big Sur Challenge on several occasions, qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon three times, run across the Grand Canyon and back at night and set a world record for 50K on a treadmill.
Well, he’s done it again. The seemingly superhuman Hoka-sponsored runner with limitless energy and an uncanny ability to recover became the second person to pull off the ridiculously challenging feat of running the Leadville Trail 100 late Saturday night and then completing the Pikes Peak Marathon on Sunday afternoon. Legendary endurance athlete Marshall Ulrich was the first person to tackle that double, doing it in 1992, and since only a few people have even considered it—for good reason.
Pulling off this rare double entails running 100 miles with an average altitude above 10,000 feet of elevation around Leadville, Colorado, and finishing it quickly enough (about 22 hours or faster) in order to have time to get into a car and drive two hours to the quirky mountain town of Manitou Springs to reach the starting line of the Pikes Peak Marathon at 7 a.m. Sunday morning.
To begin his crazy running endeavor in earnest, Wardian woke up at 2:20 a.m. on Saturday in advance of the 4 a.m. start of the Leadville 100. He had a light breakfast, got into his race gear and met up with Scott Allender, who would be crewing for him. He ran strong on the course that twice sends runners over 12,600 feet, despite experiencing stomach problems throughout the day. (He had to venture into a porta-potty 14 times and even had to resort to sacrificing one of his arm sleeves in the absence of toilet paper on one occasion.) Just after midnight, he finished the out-and-back course in 10th place overall in 20:18. While that would have been plenty for most runners, Wardian’s endorphin-fueled weekend of fun wasn’t done yet.
From there, he jogged over to the house where he was staying a few blocks away, showered, packed his bags, hopped into his rental car and drove to Manitou Springs. He arrived in town at 4:50 a.m., and, in lieu of having a full meal for the first time since Friday night, bought a bag of seasoned nuts from a Loaf and Jug convenience store and tried to take a 30-minute nap in his car. (The nap turned out to be a 20-minute shut-eye session without any sleep.) He then headed to the Pikes Peak Marathon registration tent to pick up his race bib, all the while chatting and taking photos with the many runners who recognized him.
By 7 a.m., he looked his usually smiling, well-rested and energetic self as he toed the starting line for a race that would send him 7,815 feet up and down Pikes Peak, the iconic 14,115-foot purple mountain majesty that served as one of the main influences for the song known as “America the Beautiful.”
With tired legs, but his typically positive mindset, Wardian charged up and down the mountain and finished the marathon in 6:02:55, placing 111th overall after passing 115 people over the second half of the race on his way down from the summit. Along with his 20:18 effort in Leadville, his combined time was 26:20, easily besting Ulrich’s longstanding previous mark of 31:14. (For perspective, Ian Sharman won the Leadville Trail 100 in 17:34, while Rémi Bonnet won the Pikes Peak Marathon in 3:37:08 which would result in a 21:11 cumulative time.)
“I read that years ago Marshall Ulrich had set a record for running the Leadville 100 and Pikes Peak Marathon on the same weekend and thought I’d want to try that someday if I had the opportunity,” Wardian said late Sunday. “I was super lucky to get in both Leadville and Pikes Peak this summer and went for it. Regarding breaking his record, I knew I would have to execute to best Marshall’s times, and I was really struggling during Leadville with altitude and bathroom problems. I thought the goal was slipping away, but as happens so many times in ultras, I found a well of strength to persevere and had a terrific support team.”
Ulrich was known for setting records and pulling off unique endurance feats in the 1990s and early 2000s, including a 586-mile quadruple crossing of Death Valley. He set the original record for the Leadville 100/Pikes Peak Marathon double in 1992 by running Leadville in 21:40 and finishing the marathon in 9:34.
Since then many trail runners have considered this high-altitude double and a few have actually attempted it, but no one else had completed it until Sunday.
“This is fantastic, I LOVE IT,” the 66-year-old Ulrich wrote in an email when he learned of the new record. “After 24 years, it’s about time!”
This double might be one of the most impressive accomplishments that Wardian has ever achieved. In all, it included 126.2 miles of running with an average elevation above 10,000 feet and about 22,800 feet of cumulative elevation gain—all with no sleep in a span of just over 33 hours. Just think about that for a moment.
Perhaps even more impressive was that Wardian was able to stand upright and play foosball in the Ancient Mariner pub in Manitou Springs before heading for the airport for an 11 p.m. red-eye flight from Denver back to Washington D.C.
After completing a feat that would leave most mere mortals battered and beaten, Wardian shared that he didn’t feel overly sore or worn out.
“I definitely find this challenge unforgettable and really tough,” Wardian said before boarding his flight. “I still can’t believe it worked out. I’m so pumped. I really enjoy testing my perceived limits, and this is the biggest post 100-miler thing I have ever done, so I was nervous and excited and so happy my body was up for the challenge.”