IN THE MIDDLE of quarantine lockdown, professional ultra-runner Mike Wardian took on a challenge that was as much mental as physical: running the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, a last-man-standing virtual race. At the top of each hour, runners ran a 4.167-mile loop in their own “backyards” to see who could complete the most circuits. Wardian, who is 47 and based in Arlington, Virginia, completed 262.5 miles in 63 hours over two and a half days, winning the race.
I went out and bought the starter kit from Walmart, not thinking I’d play more than once. But I loved it.”
While that is an incredible feat, it’s all in a day’s work for Wardian, who is no stranger to big, crazy running challenges. Over his storied career, he’s run seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, has set the record for the fastest runs on routes all over the country, and doesn’t think twice about jumping into a 100-mile race on any given weekend.
But lately, Wardian has added a second sport to his regimen—pickleball—and is applying his well-honed focus to his new passion. In fact, he’s setting his sights on the professional ranks.
A CHANGE OF PACE
Wardian first learned of pickleball last summer, when a fellow runner introduced him to the game. “I went out and bought the starter kit from Walmart, not thinking I’d play more than once,” he says. “But I loved it. I immediately added the PlayTime Scheduler [website] and began looking for people to play with.”
It didn’t take long for Wardian to become one of the better players in the Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, area, where he and his family have a second home. The First State Pickleball Club took note and invited Wardian to join their competitive ranks. He’s joined USA Pickleball and has plans to play in his first sanctioned tournament in the near future.
For a guy who spends hours on end putting one foot in front of the other, what is it about pickleball that appeals? Many things, he says: “It allows me to work on my hand-eye coordination. I love finessing the ball and learning about different shots and techniques.”
Wardian also likes the versatility of pickleball. “You can play the game in so many different ways,” he points out. “You can be a power hitter or be someone who is great at defense. You can control the tempo of the game based on where and how you hit the shots.”
As with running, too, Wardian appreciates seeing his rapid progression with pickleball. “It’s a low barrier to entry, but if you put in the hard work, you can improve quickly,” he says.
Because Wardian travels so much for running, he has started bringing his paddle with him on the road, fitting in games along the way. Whether or not achieving elite-level status in two sports is doable is still a big unknown. “I’m committed to working my way up the ranks,” he says, “and would love any tips from pros who want to share them. Maybe that would expedite my rise—or maybe I will learn it’s harder than I expect, and I’ll have to temper my expectations.” With pickleball, the finish line might not be quite so clear, but Wardian is racing toward it, wherever the fascinating route may take him.