Ultimate Mental, Physical Test: 135-Mile Race In Desert

Michael Wardian is making his way toward the top of Townes Pass during the Badwater Ultramarathon. i i

Michael Wardian is making his way toward the top of Townes Pass during the Badwater Ultramarathon. Colin Cooley hide caption

itoggle caption Colin Cooley
Michael Wardian is making his way toward the top of Townes Pass during the Badwater Ultramarathon.

Michael Wardian is making his way toward the top of Townes Pass during the Badwater Ultramarathon.

Colin Cooley

For those in the Badwater Ultramarathon, the goal is to see how far they can push their minds and bodies. They compete in a grueling 135-mile run through the Calif. desert. Michael Wardian placed third in this year's race, and speaks with host Michel Martin about what the event taught him about running and himself.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now, it's time to open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now.

Today, we have a story about a true test of the strength of both body and mind. Every year for the past 24 years, a group of elite runners has assembled in the California desert for a 135-mile race known as the Badwater Ultramarathon.

They climb well over 8,000 feet in a race that takes them from the Badwater Basin of Death Valley to Whitney Portal, which leads up to the highest point in the contiguous United States.

Runners battled 115 degree temperatures, fatigue, hallucinations, all for a belt buckle and bragging rights.

Three runners who competed in this year's race are profiled in this week's Washington Post magazine, and one of them is Michael Wardian, who was nice enough to ride his bike over to our studio.

Thank you so much joining us.

MICHAEL WARDIAN: Oh, thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: And you don't even look sweaty.

WARDIAN: Yeah. I didn't ride very hard.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. Now, you know, people who participate in or follow other extreme sports will probably understand, you know, the appeal of this or perhaps even anybody who participates in any sport where there's the possibility of pain or injury.

But for people who don't, can you try to explain the appeal? Because I'm sure some people are listening to this and thinking, what? Why?

WARDIAN: Yeah. It's incredible. I get that question all the time. Like, you know, I think a lot of people say, like, I can't drive my car that far or, you know, I don't even like being in the car for that long.

Because it took me 26 hours, 22 minutes and one second to finish the race, so basically, you're up for more than a day and that doesn't appeal to a lot of people.

MARTIN: Well, why does it appeal to you? Tell what's in it for you. Why do you like it?

WARDIAN: I love it, because for me, it's all about the challenge. So it's something that I like to try and really explore my boundaries and test my limits and there's something just unbelievably addictive about that.

You get this amazing sense of accomplishment, but you also - for me, it's become, you know - my first thing was to run to qualify for the Boston Marathon and that was my first goal. And then I was able to do that at the Marine Corp Marathon and then I pushed to, like, someone telling me, oh, you couldn't run three marathons in a month. And so then I did that.

And then, you know, there's people that are saying, oh, you can't run 135 miles in the desert in Death Valley in July, over two mountain ranges, finishing at the highest point in the continental US. And you think to yourself, well, there's people that can do that. I can maybe do that. And then, well, let's see if I can do that.

So for me, it's all about trying to explore that and then to be able to do it, you know, working with a full time job and then having a couple of small kids in the house and, you know, trying to manage all that at the same time as competing on this elite level is something that I find really, unbelievably exciting and something I enjoy doing.

MARTIN: And one of the other runner's profiled in the piece said, quote, "Some people buy fancy cars or boats. Some people have children. That's an expense they'll have for 20 years. For me, this is my child." But you know, unlike this runner, you are married, you are the father of two kids.

WARDIAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And so, is this hobby like a third child? And I'm wondering how you kind of manage that, given your other responsibilities. How do you, you know, justify it, given the fact that you could - you could die? I mean, forgive me, but you could.

WARDIAN: Yeah. I know. You definitely are exposing yourself to some risks that other people aren't taking. But I mean, I think that you can argue that, you know, you expose - I ride my bike rather than, you know, drive to work and, you know, you could get in a car crash or I could, you know, be hit by a car on the way to work and/or when I go out for my run. You know? I think there's a lot of different dangers involved in everything we do and I try to be safe and a lot of these races are well supported and so, you know, if you are going to...

MARTIN: So you have a team. You don't just run out there for 135 miles by yourself. You have a team.

WARDIAN: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: In fact, your brother was part of your team.

WARDIAN: Yeah. My brother, Matthew, was part of my team. I had Jay, Ian, Vince, Andy, Rick Poppleton - so a lot of people that were invested in making sure that I did come home. And I make sure that I get my wife's approval and my kids are onboard with it and then also I have my clients, you know, that I'm responsible for making sure that, you know, they have representation. So I want to make sure that I'm around to fulfill all my obligations.

So, you know, I do do some extreme races, but you know, it's always with lots of preparation involved and, you know, to make sure that I have everything I need. I have some great sponsors that make sure I'm taken care of. So...

MARTIN: In fact, there is a very lovely passage where you - there was a point at which you hit the wall, if I can use that term, or did you kind of feel like you were hitting - your body started to shut down and you were really having a tough go of it. And the piece describes, you know, how the members of your team kind of helped pull you through.

Could you talk about that, just briefly, if you would, about what that feels like when you feel like you're hitting the wall? Do you have a sense of despair, like, oh, my goodness, I've put all this into this, I'm not going to finish?

WARDIAN: Yes, yes. For sure. You definitely have that feeling. Yeah.

MARTIN: Where'd it all go?

WARDIAN: And you're thinking, oh, no. I'm going to let down my family. It was my son's birthday, actually. His fifth birthday, so I'm actually locked down for the next three years. Wherever I am, Pierce(ph) and I are going to be together, but he's already made sure of that.

MARTIN: So you're saying, I'm missing my son's birthday and I'm not even going to finish.

WARDIAN: Yeah, exactly. Like, I mean, that's one of the things that run through your head. You know, you've made this sacrifice to be at this event, you've coordinated it with your sponsors, and your work and the clients we represent and, you know, all these people are counting on you to do your best and then, you know? There's a point where, you know, all that stuff doesn't matter anymore and you have draw within yourself. Because it's easy to say, well, you know, you can explain it. You know, it's hot. You know, it's hard and it's not fun anymore.

But that's what I love, is you have to reach down within yourself and it's all about you at that point.

MARTIN: Is there one thing that pulled you through it?

WARDIAN: I think knowing that all the guys that were there were with me and helping me through it. Yeah.

MARTIN: You going to do it again?

WARDIAN: I'd like to try and do it again, for sure.

MARTIN: And if I call your wife, what's she going to say?

WARDIAN: I think she'd be onboard for it. She was impressed. She's one of my biggest supporters.

MARTIN: I'm glad to hear it, but I'm going to call her and ask her some day.

Michael Wardian is a long distance runner. He was one of the three ultramarathoners profiled in the Washington Post magazine this week. If you'd like to read that piece in its entirety and we hope you will, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

Michael Wardian, thanks so much for joining us.

WARDIAN: Oh, thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, most people want to be more attractive, but when does it become an obsession?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I got a little bit of lipo on my tummy area because I'm so vain and I really wanted to have my nostrils taken in. When I learned that they need to break my nose, I was in.

MARTIN: We go behind closed doors to talk about this with celebrity plastic surgeon, Dr. Anthony Youn. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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