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More than 150 miles remain on Michael Wardian‘s running quest. The sticky summer air makes it difficult to breathe and the temperature continues to climb into the mid-80s. The heat index makes it feel much worse. Nothing but miles and miles of a gravel and clay path lay ahead. Wardian starts to crave food. He needs more sleep. And for a second, Wardian does something he has never done before while running: He closes his eyes.
“Like when you’re watching TV and you’re falling asleep,” recalls Wardian.
This is the moment Wardian realizes he’s taken on a challenge unlike any other.
His friends describe him as a “freak of nature,” a local ultramarathon runner who pushes the boundaries of what is physically capable for a human, but by his own account, what he accomplished this Labor Day weekend ranks as one of his toughest feats.
At 5:36 in the afternoon on Sunday, Wardian set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for running the C&O Canal Towpath, which is approximately 184.5 unpaved miles between Cumberland, Maryland and Georgetown, in 36 hours 36 minutes and 3 seconds. His mark topped American Ultrarunning Hall of Fame inductee Park Barner‘s FKT (36:48:14) set in 1976 by just 12 minutes.
“That was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done, for sure,” says Wardian. “I’ve never been that deep before, never had to push myself past the point, in terms of exhaustion, ego, endurance, to some place that I didn’t know existed in me.”
Wardian, 44, grew up in Northern Virginia and lives in Arlington with his wife, Jennifer, and their two young sons. He’s well known in the local running community for both his participation in area races and breaking records.
In early 2017, Wardian achieved international acclaim for setting a record at the World Marathon Challenge, running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days with an average time of 2:45:56 per marathon.
But the C&O Canal is home. He’s run many miles there training as an amateur, sub-elite, and professional runner, and so setting this record has been a personal goal of his for more than a decade.
“I just think it’s important because it’s where I grew up, where I became a runner,” Wardian says. “I wanted to pay homage to that.”
Two weeks earlier, he set a personal record of 15:29:59 in the 100-miler at the Great Cranberry 100 in Maine. The following day, with adrenaline still rushing through his body, he went hiking with his sister, Mariele. He felt invincible, he says, bouncing around the trails and dancing on the rocks.
When he got home, he texted his father, William Richard Wardian, and his friend and fellow ultrarunner, James Whiteside. He had a favor to ask them. He had a gap in his busy racing schedule and he wanted to run the C&O Canal Towpath.
“Only Mike can do something like this in a day and a half without messing up someone’s holiday weekend,” Whiteside says with a chuckle. “With him, it’s always exciting.”
Wardian didn’t sleep much Friday night. He took a brief nap from 9 p.m. until midnight and then drove to Whiteside’s Arlington house in his Subaru Outback with his father and bags full of groceries.
“It was so out of the blue, so Mike in a way. I thought they were bringing two cars at 1:30 in the morning, but he showed up in one car,” says Whiteside, 46. “I was like, ‘Eh, let’s go for it.’”
They went for it.
At 5 a.m. Saturday morning, Wardian begins his journey in the dark. The sun has yet to rise, but the oppressive humidity instantly wraps around his body. For the first 20 miles, Wardian is alone.
Whiteside runs with him for the next 10 miles, but his crew doesn’t see him for the following 30. Exhaustion begins to creep in and doubt enters his mind. His eyes get heavy. He starts to think Barner’s time is out of his reach.
“I was like, man, how did he go so fast and why did he have to go so fast,” Wardian recalls. “That really motivated me.”
Says Whitesaid, “Anyone who does anything with endurance, you can look in their eyes and the pain train is definitely there. …Doubt always crosses your mind in ultras, because there’s so much time, so much could go wrong.”
It begins to rain. For nearly three hours, Wardian is running under a steady flow of water. Some of the trail is washed out, forcing Wardian to take detours, which only adds on the miles.
Meanwhile, Whiteside is posting updates of his friend’s progress on social media. The local community of runners, bikers, and intrigued spectators comes out to cheer him on. Every six to eight miles, a makeshift aid station is set up for Wardian to refuel.
With 30 miles to go, a friend he hasn’t seen in years runs up alongside him, giving him the moral support he needs. A woman he coaches shows up as well. Then a few other runners arrive to help pace. He starts dropping a couple eight minute miles to average just under 12 minutes per mile for almost 200 miles.
“It was very, highly motivating,” Wardian says.
“It would’ve been really neat to do if no one knew about it,” he continues, “but what made it so special for me was the outpouring of support, people coming out and sacrificing their time and energy, just wanting to be involved. That’s what made it special, that it brought together our part of the world.”
In the swampy D.C. summer afternoon, Wardian reaches the final mile marker near Thompson Boat Center next to the Georgetown Waterfront. No banners, no finish line, no screaming fans are waiting for him. He puts both hands on the slab of stone indicating the end and rests there for several seconds with his head down. He’s home.