'This is my jam': Michael Wardian, 48, runs across the US in Forrest Gump-style feat

LAUREL, Md. — The skinny guy with the scraggly beard jogged north along the shoulder of the highway Tuesday, with the late-afternoon sun beating down on him and six strangers-turned-running-companions just behind.

It was Day 59, and Michael Wardian had run 44 miles in and around Washington D.C. so far that day — more than 1½ marathons. And he still had about eight miles to go before nightfall.

"I feel like I was made to do this," Wardian said with a grin. "This is my jam, for sure."

The 48-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, was nearing the end of a Forrest Gump-style feat – something that only the craziest ultra-runners have even attempted.

Since May 1, he had been running the entire length of the United States, primarily on Route 50, with the goal of finishing in 75 days or less. It's a journey that spans 3,234 miles, across 13 states, with more than 132,000 feet in elevation change.

And believe it or not, he finished significantly ahead of schedule.

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On Friday morning, Wardian dipped his toes in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Delaware, capping the longest run — and craziest adventure — of his life.

"I feel like it’s been 59 adventures so far," he told a reporter while jogging up Route 1, with a few miles still to go on Day 59.

"Every day I’m seeing new things, getting to have new experiences."

Ultra-runner Michael Wardian traverses a stretch of Route 50 in western Nevada on May 8, 2022.
Ultra-runner Michael Wardian traverses a stretch of Route 50 in western Nevada on May 8, 2022.

Wardian joins a group of fewer than 400 people who are known to have crossed the U.S. on foot, according to Jim McCord, who achieved the feat himself in 2002 and now moderates a Facebook group called USA Crossers. For comparison, that's fewer people than summitted Mount Everest last spring alone.

Wardian spent between 11 and 15 hours a day on the move, covering an average of about 52 miles — the equivalent of two marathons — before climbing into an RV for the night.

Sometimes, he had company — friends, fellow ultra-runners, weekend joggers who wanted to tag along for a few miles. Most of the time, he was alone. He ran through snow in Colorado, and a heat index of 110 degrees in southern Illinois. He listened to an estimated 35 audiobooks, most at two-times speed. He went through three pairs of Hoka running shoes. He lost at least 12 pounds.

"It takes a lot of grit," said crew chief Eric Belz, who's been driving the RV and supporting Wardian throughout his journey. "And a lot of passion."

A former Michigan State lacrosse player, Wardian is an international ship broker by trade but has become a well-known figure in the ultra-running community over the years. He has run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, and previously held the world record for fastest marathons on a treadmill and while pushing a stroller.

He described this transcontinental run (inspired, yes, by Forrest Gump) as a long-held dream — something he'd thought about for decades, but always put off for one reason or another. Then, in 2020, he started dealing with herniated discs in his back and wondered if he'd ever be able to run long distances again.

"It was really humbling," Wardian said. "You always think you have more time."

The injury, he said, was a spark. With the support of his wife, Jennifer, and their two teenage boys, Wardian took a leave of absence from his day job and connected with Belz, who had previously helped ultramarathoner Karl Meltzer run the Appalachian Trail in record time in 2016.

Together, they mapped out a route along Route 50, with the expected starting and stopping points for each day. They rented an RV and stocked up on supplies. And Wardian decided to use the trip as a way to raise money for the charitable organization World Vision, helping families around the world get access to clean drinking water. (By Thursday night, he had exceeded his $100,000 goal.)

Ultra-runner Michael Wardian, left, and crew chief Eric Belz pose near a road sign outside Sacramento, California on May 3, 2022.
Ultra-runner Michael Wardian, left, and crew chief Eric Belz pose near a road sign outside Sacramento, California on May 3, 2022.

Then, starting on the steps of city hall in San Francisco on May 1, Wardian hit the road. In a strange twist, his first six miles were actually in the opposite direction, to touch the ocean. He's been running east ever since.

"It’s been a wild ride," said Belz, 44. "Six miles up the road, where I’m going to crew Mike, I really don’t know what’s up there yet. So it’s just the excitement of: What’s down the road for us?”

On Day 38, for example, Wardian said he was jogging through western Missouri with a few others when a stray retriever started running alongside them. They called the dog "Yellow," and it joined them for the next 40 miles.

On Day 46, on the way from Illinois to Indiana, a woman saw Wardian walking alone on the side of the highway and stopped to offer him a ride in her mini-van. He explained that he was running across the country, and politely declined. She then came back a few minutes later, just to be sure. "I wouldn't tell anyone, (that) I gave you a ride," she said.

On Day 51, Wardian said, someone threw a half-eaten hamburger at him.

"It missed me and hit the girl I was running with right in the chest," he said. "Yeah, it was pretty gross."

Ultra-runner Michael Wardian runs along part of Route 1 outside Laurel, Maryland on June 28, 2022.
Ultra-runner Michael Wardian runs along part of Route 1 outside Laurel, Maryland on June 28, 2022.

Wardian admitted he's been discouraged at times by the lack of sidewalks along his route, the drivers who have rolled down their windows to call him an idiot, the truckers who have tried to nudge him off the road.

But the overwhelming feeling, he said, is gratitude — for those who have joined him along the way, and for the beauty of the country.

"I’m so Team America right now," he said. "For all the negative stuff, this country is super special. And there’s beauty everywhere.

"People talk about 'flyover country.' Some of the most beautiful places I saw were in the middle of America, and some of the kindest people."

Through it all, Belz said he's been impressed by Wardian's consistency and good spirits – his frequent desire to add a few more miles to the day, even after he's run 50.

James Hale, a 42-year-old ultra-runner from Catonsville, Maryland, marveled at the mental fortitude it takes to complete such a trek — on top of all the aches and pains.

"Even most ultra-runners can’t do this in a day, at his pace," said Hale, who joined Wardian for the second half of his run Tuesday. "He’s sort of that superhuman that can just move."

Wardian, who lives less than a mile off Route 50 in Arlington, ran through his neighborhood Tuesday morning before continuing on. He said he's already got a few bike races on his schedule, after his run across the country ends — as well as dreams of eventually becoming a professional pickleball player and climbing Mount Everest.

On this day, though, it was more miles along the side of the highway — north toward Baltimore, then east toward the Atlantic Ocean. He said he's been dealing with "some pretty big blisters" in recent weeks, but otherwise felt great.

"I feel like I could do this every day until the end of time, right now," Wardian said.

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Michael Wardian runs across US in stunning ultra-running feat