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Damian Hall Interviews Ian Sharman

11/01/17

The professional ultramarathon runner and online coach talks holidays, trail running and rattle snakes

US-based Brit Ian Sharman loves running long distances on trails. The professional runner from Northampton has won Leadville Trail 100 three times, finished in the top 10 of the prestigious Western States 100-miler seven consecutive times and has the record for the fastest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (Western States 100, Vermont 100, Leadville 100 and Wasatch 100 – all inside 10 weeks).

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Hello Ian. What does running mean to you?

It’s really a fitness thing firstly. I like to feel active and I like to feel healthy. I also enjoy being competitive, so running has that too. But two more things I love about running are places and people. I love the travel aspect of running, going to new places, often exotic ones. And running has led me to meet some great people too.

Describe your perfect running holiday.

 

It would be somewhere I’ve not been before, ideally with good weather, hot and sunny but not humid. There would be epic views, so I would force myself to get up for the sunrises – I’m not a morning person. So it would be somewhere new and exotic. That’s part of the travel aspect of running that I love. It's a brilliant way to explore new places. Running has the ability to help us see different parts of world – and when we’re there we often see more than the average tourist. I’ve been visiting some national parks in the US recently and seen tourists drive along, stop the car, get out, take a photo and get back in their car. But if you’re a runner, you follow the trail for a few miles; you get away from crowds, taking in a much fuller and better experience, seeing much more of an area, probably seeing more wildlife and so on.

How did you first get into running?

Growing up in Northampton, I was really sporty; playing football, rugby, cricket and tennis. I always thought running was pretty boring in comparison. But those sports involve plenty of endurance – I was usually the one running around the most later in the game. After graduating from Cambridge University, I worked as an economist in London, enjoying the city lifestyle, exercising less and partying more. After a while though, I wanted to feel fitter and healthier. I saw a TV programme about the Marathon des Sables (MdS; a multi-stage ultramarathon in the Moroccan desert) and signed up. I found I really, really enjoyed the training.

How did you go from there to being a competitive, then a professional, ultra-runner?

My first MdS in 2006 didn’t go well. I was forced to drop out with hyponatremia. But that failure gave me a huge appetite to learn all I could about ultra-running. I went back in 2008 and placed 13th overall; a huge improvement.

Have you had any interesting wildlife encounters in the US?

I’ve seen bears. I’ve not seen a cougar, but I’ve seen a fresh cougar kill, which was a bit unnerving, knowing a hungry cougar had very recently been just here. I’ve seen snakes – I had to jump over a rattle snake in a race! I was about 99.5km into a 100k race, just sort of relaxing, knowing the hard work was almost done. Then I almost landed on a rattle snake – I jumped 5ft in the air! I was fully charged with adrenaline again.

What are the keys to your improvement as a runner?

Two things really: years of consistency has led to long-term gains, but also being smart enough to back off, to keep things sustainable. The other thing is adequate recovery. That means making adjustments if I feel crappy. And every time I start a run, I know the aim. I’ve learned what works and been flexible enough to keep building. Genetically I must have some benefits, too – but very few runners get close to their full potential.

Which run are you most proud of?

The Grand Slam record; it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was 10 weeks of being very focused. I couldn’t afford to back off at all, in 70 hours of fairly intense effort. By the last couple of races, I was dreading the pain and suffering. You normally forget after a 100 miler, because it’s a while until the next one. However, when it’s only three weeks since, you remember. It was stressful, but worth it to get the record.

What are the biggest challenges about coaching?

Holding people back. Runners tend to be very committed, especially if they’re after a coach. But they usually need to learn that less is more, especially when they see friends on Facebook doing long runs and big weeks. Another challenge is getting to know people; what is it that drives them? My mind-set is competitive, but some just love getting out in the wild. I have to make sure I can empathise with them, to make their running more enjoyable.

What are the easier ways that trail-runners and ultra-runners can improve their performances?

It comes from both consistency in training, and allowing adequate recovery. When you get closer to a race, it’s about doing specific stuff for that race, like heat training for example.

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What are the biggest satisfactions about coaching?

When someone does really well, especially if they out-perform what they think they can do. At the beginner end of the spectrum, runners come on in leaps and bounds. You see their eyes opening, the horizon shifting for them, as they contemplate even more impressive things. That’s very gratifying.

What are the most common mistakes new trail-runners and ultra-runners make?

Feeling like walking is giving up or cheating, especially if they’re from a road-running background. People try and run everything. But it’s okay to hike. You should practise it. Also not having an appreciation for looking after yourself, eating well, and monitoring yourself. In road marathons runners tend to stick to pace and knuckle down. But to race well on trails you need more self-awareness and a tactical mind-set.

What tips can you give for staying injury-free?

Being flexible; at the first hint of any problems, back off. It’s also about maintaining your body – foam rolling, massages, regular core exercises, to maintain things and get a sense of how you’re feeling. Don’t feel bad about having a day, or even a week, off.

Which runner inspires you the most?

I’d have to say Haile Gebrselassie. As well as all his achievements, he wanted to do well for his country, to make people proud.

And lastly, how did you end up in America?

My wife is American. I met her on MySpace in 2006 and we started Skyping – on dial up, so nowhere near as good as it is now. I had some spare holiday time and I said, “How about I come and visit?” I came over two months after first speaking and we dated for three years between Bend, Oregon, and London, and I finally moved over in 2009. Bend just so happens to be a big outdoors place with lots of runners and some great mountains for training in nearby.


Ian Sharman is a USATF-certified online coach and owner of www.SharmanUltra.com.

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Images by Matt Trapp and Altra Running





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