Before five stress fractures and five hernias requiring surgery,he used to pound out between 100 and 120 miles per week. Now,he only runs between 40 and 60.
On March 16,he took second place in the Rock ‘n Roll Marathon,the first time since 2009 he didn’t take first. He’ll be making an attempt for a half-marathon world record at the Pittsburgh marathon in May.
For him,that’s taking it easy.
“I just need to gradually work back into being able to do those kind of miles again,” Wardian said. “I’m coming back really slow and carefully,I think.”
Wardian,39,has come a long way since the day in 2012 when he went on an easy jog to work and then couldn’t walk across the office.
“He was just barely able to walk,” said Keith Powell,Wardian’s boss and president of Potomac Maritime. “Really,in moving around,he was clearly in a tremendous amount of pain.”
Before the stress fractures,Wardian had never had a serious running injury. His wife,Jennifer,36,dreaded the day it would come.
“Other people had told me,when their spouses got injured,how awful it was,” Jennifer said. “It was just as bad as I thought it would be.”
Wardian may have won or placed in dozens of marathons and ultra marathons,but he still thinks of himself as a lacrosse player. He played from fourth grade until his junior year at Michigan State,when he visited a friend over Easter. His friend’s mother had recently run the Boston marathon,and she showed Wardian her medals and a blanket given to her after the race.
“I was just taken by it,because I’d always seen it on TV,and I’d never known anyone that had actually done it before,” Wardian said. “So I started asking her questions about it. I was like,’I want to do that!’”
Wardian began a training schedule for a marathon,putting him on the path toward his record-breaking career. After an internship with Potomac Maritime,he was offered a job as an international shipbroker,where he still works full time.
Jennifer knew what she was getting into when she married him in 2004.
“It was a great perk,” Jennifer said. “In the first part of our marriage,before we had kids,we would travel every weekend. Maybe not someplace super exotic,but someplace fun.”
The birth of their two sons — Pierce,6,and Grant,4,didn’t slow Wardian down. The boys became a part of his races — when Pierce was 10 months old,Wardian broke the world record for fastest marathon while pushing him in a jogging stroller,and Pierce was given the middle name “Miler” in recognition of the races.
As Wardian’s young family grew up,the racer gained momentum. In 2011,he took third place at the Badwater Ultramarathon,running 135 miles from Death Valley,Calif.,to the trailhead at Mount Whitney,nearly 8,300 feet higher than the start of the course. In June 2011,he set a personal record for the marathon in 2 hours,17 minutes and 49 seconds at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth,Minn.,taking 13th place and qualifying for the Olympic Trials.
Wardian is good enough that he has sponsors who support him in his running.
Wardian began to seem more and more like a superhero — literally. In March 2011,he snagged the Guinness World Record for fastest marathon while dressed as a superhero — Spiderman.
“It’s actually a hard costume to run in because it covers your mouth,so the mask goes down and there’s really nowhere to put water in,” Wardian said,”And [the eyes] have sparkling things,so when the sun hits it,you’re sun blind.”
After smashing records and winning races in 2011,he seemed poised for another incredible year.
Looking back,both Jennifer and Wardian agree that things were “a little off” in the second half of 2011.
Still,neither of them could have predicted the strength of the storm to come. Just before Wardian was scheduled to run the New York marathon over Halloween weekend in October 2011,Grant began having seizures.
“He had a seizure on a Friday … and then Mike went for a run on the day after Halloween,that Tuesday,and tripped on a rock and cracked his teeth,” Jennifer said. “No one stopped to help him — they thought he was still wearing a costume. And then Grant had three more seizures in the next three days. “
Grant was diagnosed with epilepsy,and his attentive parents began waking up to check on him every few hours.
“That kind of stress — we’ve never known before,” Jennifer said.
With long hours of family care,a full-time job and miles of running,Wardian wasn’t recovering from his workouts.
“I think that he has such a drive that he was able to push the pain away for so long,” Wardian’s boss,Powell,said. “He has such a competitive spirit that he was basically able to will himself to compete well beyond the point he should have been competing with these injuries.
“But at a point,it just broke him.”
The extreme nature of an elite runner means that doctors don’t always know what to do with athletes who run upwards of 100 miles a week.
“A lot of times when these guys go to the doctor,they’re really looked upon as,’Well,you’re hurt because you run all these miles,and we don’t know what to do,” said Gavin Cribb,a physical therapist at the Endurance Athletic Center,in Falls Church,Va.,near Wardian’s home in Arlington,Va.
Wardian,Cribb’s patient,visits the center twice a week.
Wardian stayed in shape by switching from running to lower-impact activities such as aquatics and biking. The exercises have helped him keep his edge.
“By him really refusing to stop his training even while he couldn’t run,he was able to come back pretty darn quick,” Powell said. “I wouldn’t say he’s anywhere close to being full speed,but goodness,help the competitors once he does get back!”
Knock on wood
“We were happy to ring in 2013,” Jennifer said.
Grant is coming up on one year without seizures. Because of his age,Jennifer said the doctors think there is a 70 percent chance he will grow out of his epilepsy.
Wardian’s kids don’t seem to be all that impressed by their father’s comeback.
“They don’t realize that I’m not going to win every race,” Wardian said.
Jennifer recalled a recent race at the U.S.A. Indoor Track and Field Championships where Wardian was passed on the last lap by a competitor.
“I was filming it and making a quick little clip,and I didn’t hit ‘end’ fast enough,and I got some commentary from the 6-year old,” Jennifer said,laughing. “I said,’Daddy got third!’ He said,’Ugh,come on!'”
Wardian knows he has a long way to go before he’s back at full speed,but he doesn’t seem concerned about getting there.
“I’m just so happy to be running again,” he said.
Reach reporter Matt Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-2735. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.