The ultra of ultras: Ian Sharman on the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning and the Vermont 100

Ian Sharman

Ian Sharman
Photo by Amy Sharman

Ian Sharman is ambitious. Over the course of 2013, he hopes not just to finish the four 100-mile races that make up the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning but to break the record for the fastest combined time, set in 2010 by Neal Gorman.

Although it’s a lofty goal, there’s good reason to think he’ll be successful. Sharman has run more than 170 marathons and ultramarathons since 2005 and, in 2011, he set the record for the fastest time in a 100-mile trail race in the U.S., finishing the Rocky Raccoon 100 in 12:44. And three weeks ago, on a brutally hot day, he ran the Western States 100—the first of the four Grand Slam races—in 16:20, earning fourth place for the day and his fourth straight top-10 finish at Western States.

The next step in the Grand Slam comes on July 20, when Sharman will run the Vermont 100 for the first time. We talked to Sharman about his approach to the Vermont 100 and his strategy for staying strong throughout his Grand Slam attempt.

You ran really well at Western States, coming in fourth with a time of 16:20. Did you hold back at all thinking about the Grand Slam? Or were you going all out and trying not to worry about the upcoming races?

Basically, when you do a 100-miler, whether you do it easy or hard, it’s still going to cause a lot of damage. And in some ways, if you’re out there for longer, it means you have to endure things for longer. I really wanted to treat Western States as a maximum effort. In terms of the training I’ve done, really it was just training for Western States, because it’s not like you can do four times the miles if you’re running four 100-milers. I just wanted to run the first one as quick as possible and then do what I need to do to make myself feel better in between.

How do you feel now, a couple of weeks after the race?

Not too bad, actually. I went for a run yesterday and my legs seemed to be pretty much okay. I’ve already had one massage and I’ll have another one. I think I damaged my legs less than I have in previous years at Western States. Maybe the heat forced me to be a little bit slower on some of those descents.

I understand that you’ll be pacing someone at the Badwater Ultramarathon next week?

Yes. I’m doing this because it’s a lot of fun to go there—it’s not actually a cunning plan for the Grand Slam. I’ll be pacing a guy from the East Coast, Glen Redpath. He lives in New York and he’s been top 10 at Western States before.

The Vermont course is pretty hilly, but about two-thirds of it is on dirt roads and there aren’t any huge peaks to climb. Do you think this course plays to your strengths as a runner?

I think so, yes. I’m basically better suited to a rolling course rather than a really steep one, so something like UTMB [the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc] or Hardrock, where it’s just really steep stuff and potentially some altitude, too, doesn’t really suit my strengths as much. Definitely the easier end of the 100-mile trail spectrum is where I tend to do better.

You’ve written on your blog about shooting for Neal Gorman’s times in the Grand Slam. Have you mapped out what you want to run in each race to try to stay under his times?

Kind of, yes. It’s all theoretical, because I’m not going to change the pacing I’m doing on the day based on his times. But at Western States I was hoping for something around 16 hours. Then when I saw the weather was going to be really tough, I was thinking, well, even more so I’ll just go with how I feel. It could cost me a lot of time if things go wrong. I wanted to be a couple of hours under [Gorman’s times] after Western States.

At Vermont I think he did 16:33, and to be honest, I think it’s a course that suits me well, and as long as my legs are under me I’d really like to shoot for the course record, which is a bit under 15 hours. I think that would set me up nicely to have a good margin of error for the last two races.

At Western States, I don’t think there’s much benefit to holding back, and from speaking to other people who have done the Grand Slam, they say they just went for it each time and they actually found they got fitter and stronger through the Grand Slam. I’m hoping I get some kind of effect like that, so that by the last one I actually feel like I’ve done enough mountain climbing that it helps with the extreme climbing you get at Wasatch.

Right. In 2010, Neal Gorman obviously did really well at all of the races, but he really seemed to crush it at Wasatch, running it in 21:19. Since you tend to do well on the fast courses, it sounds like you’re trying to have a bit of a cushion by the time you get to Wasatch.

That’s exactly what I’m hoping. And not just a cushion on the record, but a cushion on Nick Clark as well. Because I think both he and I are likely to go under the record, so you don’t get any kudos for breaking the record but coming in second.

I wanted to ask you about that: at the same time that you’re looking at Gorman’s times you have to stay ahead of Nick Clark, which adds an extra challenge.

It makes it a race within a race, and I like that. It’s one thing to go after times, but it’s more fun to actually have someone to race. There’s Nick Pedatella as well. He didn’t have the greatest race at Western States, but he’s a very solid runner, and I expect him to do all four races really well, so I think he could still go under that record for the four of them combined. But really it comes down to Wasatch, that’s the way I look at it. I know that when Scott Jurek did the Slam, he started with a course record at Western States. He did pretty good times at the next two, but then he had a really bad Wasatch. I think about 27 hours there, which included him sleeping and that kind of thing. So it’s nice to have a cushion going into that last one, but really it’s just going to come down to who can race Wasatch the best, because even a cushion of a couple of hours on Nick Clark or Nick Pedatella may not be enough.

I really think of it as an ultra of ultras. It’s like I’m at mile 25, because I’ve done a quarter of it. At mile 25, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s how you’re doing in that final 25 miles that will make the difference, and that’s Wasatch.

You’re originally from the U.K. and have lived on the West Coast since 2009. Have you spent any time in New England before?

No, I’ve only been to the East Coast a few times, mostly to New York and Boston. I did the JFK 50-miler last year in Maryland. But I’ve never been to Vermont before, never been to New England.

You have a pretty analytical approach to running, so I imagine you do quite a bit of research on a course before running a race.

I do. I like to have a good idea in particular of what the difficulties are likely to be, and I find it helps me to know how big the biggest climbs are and where they are. Looking at the Vermont course, it looks like the biggest single climb is only about 850 feet, so at least I know that there’s nothing that’s going to last too long, and if I’m struggling up a hill, it won’t be too long before I’m going down again.

Is there anything that concerns you in particular about Vermont?

The humidity, I think, is going to be the most difficult thing, if it’s close to 100 percent. The mud doesn’t worry me too much. I think the course, especially with gravel roads, it’s not too much of an issue if it’s wet. But I think the humidity could slow things down a lot. But I’ve done plenty of heat training. I’ll be coming from Badwater so I’ll just have been in some extreme heat. I did plenty of heat training for Western States, plus the race itself was a pretty hard-core heat-training day.

Right, after Badwater probably nothing will seem that bad.

I hope so, but then again if it’s 120 degrees and zero percent humidity at Badwater, that’s a lot easier to deal with than 80 degrees and 100 percent humidity where the body just can’t cool itself down.

You also coach runners now. Have you found that your approach to your own running has changed at all since you started coaching runners.

Mostly just that I try and listen to my own advice more. For example, there have been a lot of hot and humid races already this summer. I’ve had clients running things like the San Diego 100, where it was a really hot year. So at Western States I tried to do myself all the things that I tell my runners to do. It’s easy to get caught up in the time you want to finish or the position you want to finish, but in 100-milers, it really comes down to managing yourself well, and you have to throw those goals out the window. Maybe have them in the back of your mind, but you have to think that you’re going to do the best run you can on that day. Whatever the time is, that’s the best you could’ve done.

In recent years, people have been running some pretty incredible times in ultras, including your run at Rocky Raccoon in 2011. Do you have any thoughts on how fast people can go in a trail 100-miler? Do you think that on the right day you could go faster than you did at Rocky Raccoon?

It’s a good question. I think times are going to keep coming down. I think the Western States course record will probably need some good conditions to do it. But they were only half an hour off this year and they had about the worst conditions you can have in terms of difficulty. It shows that when you get a bunch of fast guys, the times will just keep coming down, particularly with the injection of speed that we’re seeing from people who have some really fast road times and track times.

Who knows how low it can get? The fastest time for a 100-miler on any surface is, I think, 11:28 or 11:29, so I can’t see the trail times coming down to that. But I think they will keep coming down. I’m surprised that no one else has gone under 13 hours yet. Mike Morton has come very close. Jon Olsen has come very close. And I think it’s just a matter of time before more people do that.

But there’s also a slight bias in that a lot of the fast guys don’t necessarily want to do the easy 100-milers. They want to do the scenic mountain stuff. I think that will limit the improvements in the fastest times, but I think it will also mean that the mountain races will keep seeing course records coming down and getting quicker. Although it sounds like Hardrock may be a little bit of an exception because it seems like such a tough record.

You also asked whether I think I can go quicker. I’m going to try to do that at Rocky Raccoon next year. I definitely felt like I could have gone quicker that day. I was being a little bit conservative toward the end to make sure that I finished in one piece. I think we’ll see people going under twelve and half hours on the trail hundreds, and hopefully that will include me.

So even with the Grand Slam you’re already thinking about what’s next?

I actually just entered Rocky Raccoon yesterday.

That’s great. You’ve been a full-time runner and running coach for a couple of years now. How is it going? How does it compare to your previous work?

It’s really good. I used to work in a typical kind of office job. Needed to be in a big city, corporate type of job, as an economist and before that as an accountant. And it just didn’t really fit me. But now I’ve got my own business, which is something I always wanted to do anyway, I just didn’t know what it would be. It’s fun developing the business. I think more so than a lot of the other ultra running coaches, I really do think of it as something I want to excel in and do the best coaching I possibly can. Not that they want to do a bad job of coaching obviously. But it’s something I want to make as successful as possible rather than just something to pay the bills. And it’s a lot of fun. It’s so rewarding for me to see a client win a race or complete a distance they didn’t think they could do or knock their marathon time below what they ever thought was possible. That’s so much more rewarding for me than the lack of recognition you get in a corporate job, where you do things well and they just give you more work.

Do most of your clients tend to be people going for marathons and longer races?

It’s typically marathons and beyond. I’ve got a few people for shorter distances, but it’s typically people either moving up in distance or wanting to get better at a particular distance.

How much time will you be spending in Vermont?

I’m going to arrive on Thursday, leave on Monday, I think it is. Just flying in and out. It’s partly that I have to be a bit careful of how much time I’m spending away from home. My wife is not too happy with me having so many trips abroad and so many trips for these races. I’ve already had quite a few weeks away from home this year, so Vermont I have to make quite quick. Plus I’m already going away for Badwater immediately before.

I’m really looking forward to the Vermont 100. It’s one of those races, especially because it’s part of the Grand Slam, that’s been on my radar for a while. Ideally I’d like to have a really good run so that I feel like I’ve kind of nailed it. I imagine that if I don’t have a good run then I’ll either end up doing the Grand Slam again or at least coming back for that race to get a really good time.