Professional ultra marathoner Mike Wardian won the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, a last-man-standing virtual race where runners need to complete a 4.167-mile loop every hour, after running 63 laps for 262.52 miles in 63 hours.
The race started at 9 a.m. ET on Saturday and ended in the late hours of Monday night.
The race had more than 1,000 people participating from around the world and was conducted over Zoom. Runners had to obey social distancing guidelines and run each lap alone before uploading their results to the website and fitness app Strava. It was inspired by Big's Backyard Ultra in Tennessee.
The race featured several professional runners including Wardian, Big's Backyard champion Maggie Guterl and renowned ultra star Courtney Dauwalter. Some runners ran outdoors while others logged their mileage on a treadmill.
Sweden's Anna Carlsson ended up being the last woman standing but dropped out after 44 hours. Then it was down to just two.
Wardian and Radek Brunner were locked in a duel since Monday morning. Wardian ran the same loop in his Arlington, Va., neighborhood for more than 60 hours. Brunner elected for the treadmill in the Czech Republic.
Shortly after 11 p.m. on Monday night, race organizers from Personal Peak Endurance Coaching disqualified Brunner after he failed to start the 63rd loop on the hour. Wardian, who also works a full-time job as an international shipbroker, completed his lap and was named the winner.
"Radek Brunner failed to leave the corral when the bell rang," Personal Peak said in a Facebook post. "This is what makes the backyard format so heart-wrenching. The bell doesn't care. The bell just rings. It is we who care. It is we who do not wish it to end. But it never ends well. It may only end gracefully."
As the winner of the race, Wardian wins a golden toilet paper roll.
Sports Illustrated caught up with Wardian over the phone on Tuesday afternoon for more insight into his race, the ending and how the coronavirus pandemic has affected his racing plans for 2020. The following interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
SI: I’m guessing you’re a little tired right now.
Mike Wardian: Yeah, man. But mainly super stoked to have been able to go as far as I did. Just a little bit bummed that we didn’t get a chance to go a little bit further. I wish we could’ve kept going. I felt really good. I still feel really good. I haven’t had a chance to really process everything. It was nice to be a part of something that was helping people have some normalcy again.
SI: I shot you a message just before 10 a.m. and was surprised you’re awake. You said that you had some work to do, what did that entail?
MW: I had to do a lot of work. I got home and within 20 minutes of walking in the house, I did like three offers. The last one just went in at 11 o’clock this morning. I’ve been busy.
SI: It’s barely been 12 hours since the race ended but what are your thoughts on the way it all ended?
MW: I wish I could’ve kept going. I don’t know what part of the live feed still lives but when the race ended I concluded my last lap and they said they weren’t going to let Radek keep going because he didn’t start on time. I was still feeling good. I asked if they wanted us to keep going or re-do the lap or whatever, I was happy to do that. If I could just keep going on my own, I was bummed that they said no. The way that it works, according to the rules, is that if there aren’t two people then once someone completes that loop, the race has to end. I was like, “Drat!” Because I felt like I was in a good spot at least at that point physically and mentally to be able to push on and go on even further. It’s just unfortunate that it turned out the way that it did.
SI: You made it 262 miles. When you said you could keep going, how much longer do you think you could’ve kept going?
MW: I think I had to go to about 268 miles for the record. I was thinking of getting the most ever. Really what I was thinking in my head was that it would be really cool to get into the 300’s because we weren’ that far away – not really when you think about it. It was like less than 10 hours. I think I worked it out that we would’ve gotten the old record around 4 o’clock in the morning. It would’ve been cool to try to get to 300 but before this even started, I thought it would be amazing to still be in it and match what Maggie did last year. Early in the race, I was thinking that going longer than I have ever run straight would be an accomplishment. It shows what high competition can do. It brings out the best in everyone.
SI: I’ve seen Radek described as a relative unknown. You two were locked in a duel for 15 hours. How much did you know about him before this?
MW: Actually, it was funny. Early on, when it was just him and I, we were chatting and I was wishing him well. I guess we ran into each other at the Spartathlon (a 153-mile ultramarathon in Greece) at an aid station. I was chafed from my neck to my knees and hypothermic because they had a freak hail storm. My brother, who was crewing me, made some poor choices in taking my jacket. I was in a bad spot and (Radek) was just trying to get me going out of the aid station by saying, “C’mon man! You’re fast! You can do it!” I was not having any of it. We kind of joked about that. I was in a bad mental state when we met the first time because I was just about to DNF a race and that normally doesn’t happen for me. I didn’t really remember our first encounter but I knew that he was a strong competitor. He was pushing me beyond anywhere I have ever been and I was, in turn, bringing his best race out. That’s the most important part of it. We were able to continue battling and I was hoping to continue but it wasn’t my choice to end it the way it did.
SI: What was your strategy coming into this? There are many ways to approach it. You can run the distance faster and recover longer or you can be conservative and run slower closer to the limit.
MW: I talked to Maggie and I was trying to be super conservative. Even the first loop and maybe for the first 100 miles, I tried not to go any faster than like 10-minute pace. I was routinely averaging between 10 and 13-minute pace. It took a little bit of getting used to but that was part of my plan to conserve as much energy, continue to eat and take care of myself. I started off with a little box of food and then my wife, Jennifer, saved the day by setting up an aid station and all of a sudden the whole neighborhood came out. They all found out about it and the whole community was supporting it. It turned into this amazingly awesome thing.
My strategy was just to stay in it for as long as I could. As it started getting whittled down, I had little goals like make it to 100 miles or 150 miles. I had never run 200 miles straight so that would be cool. I had never run longer than 36 hours straight so that would be cool to do.
I was wondering if Radek was doing it differently in kilometers. Did he have different milestones than I had? I was cognizant of things like, ‘I bet he wants to get to 500K.’ I do a lot of training in kilometers so those are important numbers for me too. When we got over 400K, I was thought, ‘Holy crap. That’s awesome.’
SI: In many of these ultras, the stories of how athletes eat or nap are what tend to stand out to people. How did you approach sleep and fueling?
MW: I did not sleep at all. I’ve slept like 45 minutes since Saturday morning. That was this morning after I did offers. The ability to not need a lot of sleep is something that’s a strength of mine. People have a lot of different ways to go about this with micronaps or they’ll run really fast and then they’ll have 30 minutes to recover. I try to keep it between 12 to 15 minutes to get fed, use the bathroom, put more lube on and check in with my family. I was answering questions from the comments section and trying to engage with the community.
I was just trying to eat whatever would work. I’d take a bottle of calories like GU’s rocktane drink mix. I drank soda like cokes. I took some ginger ale for when my stomach started to go. We got Slurpees, smoothies and coconut water. I was trying to eat a lot of solid foods and mixing that in with engineered nutrition like energy blocks. There was some plain white rice, some steel-cut oatmeal. I drank pickle juice. I had some popsicles.
SI: How’d you measure out your course to hit the 4.17-mile distance because if you were running 4.2-miles to be safe then you ended up running a little more than 262 miles in total?
MW: It’s basically just a block in my neighborhood. A week ago, I did a fast marathon on that exact same course. I ran like 2:33 just around the neighborhood. I thought that’s the perfect course. It’s like being on a semi-bigger track because it’s something like .44. If I do it 10 times, it’s basically where I need to be. I had my aid station set up at a little fire hydrant. It was a HOKA shoebox with some GU in it. My wife saw Maggie Guterl’s aid station and thought, “Dude, you need to step it up.” She stepped into action and rallied the troops. That’s when I got brought into a higher standard.
SI: Running that marathon in your neighborhood last week is not ideal or what you planned for this spring, how have these race cancellations and restrictions affected your plans? What were you looking forward to this year?
MW: It’s completely changed my life and everyone’s life. I was going to be running the London Marathon for the age group world championships. I was running the Boston Marathon helping pace a guy who wanted to qualify for the Paralympics. I was supposed to be doing a race on the Catalina Island and chasing a course record that’s stood since the 70s or 80s. I was going to be in Sri Lanka for a stage race. The big goal for the year was to run across the country from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s just not really possible in this current environment. You can probably still run but I wanted to do it to have an experience and a chance to learn more about the country and the culture. I just feel like it would be a different experience to do it now.
SI: What are you learning about running and yourself right now while you’re limited in what you can do?
MW: I don’t think I’m limited. I’ve been getting creative with doing “fastest known times.” I just set the fastest known time for running all the state streets in Washington D.C., which was about 65 miles. A couple of days before that, I set an FKT on a popular hiking trail out here. I have plans of running all the boundary stones of Washington D.C. Maybe I’m not able to be in Butan or somewhere like that but I’m still trying to get out, have adventures and include people as much as I can safely.
SI: When we first connected in 2017, it was shortly after you ran seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. That opened people’s eyes to some of the extreme races that you’ve done. How did this compare in terms of fatigue and the challenge?
MW: That’s a good question. As far as physically, I feel like I was prepared for the toll it was going to take. Emotionally, I had incredible support from my family, our friends and neighbors. It would’ve been different if I was somewhere else doing it. Those aspects were strong. Where it pushed me was that this was a race that takes away a lot of advantages that I’ve come to enjoy. It doesn’t really help you to be fast. You have to keep lining up. It takes away a lot of the skills that you may have relied on in the past and makes you learn to do things differently. That’s one of the great things about doing stuff that you’ve never done before. It expands you as an athlete and a person. It gets you to evolve as a runner or endurance athlete. That’s part of why I wanted to do it.
There was a point in there (maybe around 175 miles) where I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I was just lucky that my wife was there. I walked over and she goes, “That’s not a really good excuse.” That was all it took and I was back in the game. It made me a stronger runner and more resilient than I thought I was.
SI: There’s a lot of people who came into this by chance. Sports are on pause. They were looking for entertainment. They may have heard there were runners on Zoom just running forever. What do you hope they take away from the whole thing if they were captivated by what they saw?
MW: I hope that people take this as an opportunity to maybe pay more attention to some of these types of events. Maybe it’s not running? Maybe it’s kiteboarding. There’s a ton of different ways to challenge yourself. I think this was a great way to get people involved in something they maybe didn't know existed. I remember the first time someone told me you could run 50 miles. I didn’t believe them. This can give people something to believe in.
There’s something inherently interesting about people going out to seek out what their limits are. The format is interesting too because you don’t really know if the race is going to end in one day, two days or six days. It ends when the last person either can’t go forward or isn’t allowed to go forward. That’s something I hope people would find interesting and maybe it brings more eyeballs on what we’re doing or inspires them to do it on their own.