(Ian Sharman with his Western States buckles, as of the 2018 race. Photo credit: Amy Sharman)
To put Ian Sharman’s nine consecutive top 10 finishes at the Western States Endurance Run into context, consider this: During that time frame only Aliza Lapierre has as many as five top 10 finishes in the coveted 100-mile race.
On the men’s side, well behind Sharman, only Jesse Haynes and Nick Clark have each been able to amass four top 10 finishes in that time frame.
Sharman, 38, is a model of consistency, for sure. Recently we talked about consistency, training tips, masters athletes and more. Here are excerpts of our conversation in a question-and-answer format.
Question: Let’s talk about your streak of nine top 10 finishes at Western States. Tell me about how you’ve developed that consistency both in training and on race day.
Answer: The simplest thing is I tried is to make sure that I react to whatever my body's telling me so when I need to have a bit of down time, I have down time. I try to make sure that if I'm getting close to race day and something isn't quite right, I just try to fix it rather than saying, ‘OK, my competitor is doing X number of miles per week, so I should do it.’ Sometimes that's meant that I turned up at Western States with less training than I wanted. I've had times when I was a bit ill beforehand. I had an injury a couple of years ago, Morton's neuroma. That basically meant that I couldn't go on anything remotely uneven so I only got to start trail running one week before the race. There was a lot of road running and I was in good shape, but I didn’t do nearly as much climbing and didn't do anything even remotely technical because even a pebble could be a problem there. (Photo credit: Drymax Socks)
Question: Was there a time earlier in your career when you might have pushed it too hard and then kind of learned that lesson, listening to your body, and decided to train with what your body could do at the time?
Answer: The most important thing is how hard I trained previously. This is going to be more about the longer-term adaptations from endurance training over six months, a year or the last few years. It’s more relevant. Once I saw that was more important than just really pushing it at the last second, it made it much easier to buy into that and to know that ultimately the longer the race is, the less it comes down to just how sharp you are. Pure fitness being the main thing in a 5K — if you get fit, you're going to run faster. It's not as simple as that in a 100-miler. If I compare the nine Western States, I wouldn't say that my fastest times on my best races were necessarily the days that I was fittest. I had to have a decent enough level for all of them. Sometimes I was a bit less fit, but I just executed better or had other elements that would work better, like better heat training.
Question: Let's talk about the mental aspect as well. How do you balance respecting the course and a long distance, especially in some of these races that you run every year, while also knowing that you've had consistent success at those races?
(Photo credit: Derrick Lytle)
Answer: I try not to measure myself by how well someone else does. If I nail it and I do a really good race, I can hold my head up high. If a guy does something obscene like break the course record, it doesn't belittle my achievement. I heard something similar to this from Rafael Nadal after he got his 12th French Open recently. He was asked, ‘You've got 18 Grand Slams and Federer's on 20. Are you thinking about catching him?’ He said, ‘Look, I never think about it because you can't always be thinking about the guy next door with the bigger house. You've got to be just doing your own thing and getting satisfaction from that.’
I thought that was such a good sign of why he's so good. He's not constantly comparing himself. He's instead focused on doing his thing as well as possible. And when someone else does something good or better, he’s not thinking that his achievement is lessened. That's very much how I try to think about these 100-milers. I'm there to do my best race.
Question: Let’s talk about everyday runners — people who are not at the elite level. How should they approach running and racing to develop a consistency, while they battle increasing age and the challenges that that life brings on.
Answer: I think part of it is just taking that ego out of it. Like with Rafael Nadal, it's about the challenge to keep seeing improvements. Even if you're getting older and maybe your top speed is going down doesn't necessarily mean that in ultras. You learn elements of training to be more specific and will pay off more. Ask yourself, ‘What did I do well? What did I not do as well last time?’ Trying to have a continuous learning process, which is what makes it enjoyable and motivating and therefore last for years to come rather than frustrating because you no longer can set a PR. Focus on the process rather than the outcome.
Question: Some runners might think that also means running literally every day or doing every run hard. What's your advice to these runners who have big goals, but need to understand that it's a process?
(Photo credit: Derrick Lytle)
Answer: The single biggest change that I make to people when they come and work with me is making their easy days easier, making sure they're really focused on recovery and how important that is because you can't do hard sessions every day. I had a friend who every run she did was always as hard as possible and she wondered why she was getting slow. That's because she wasn't allowing time for the body to actually recover and adapt for the muscles to rebuild. It’s knowing how sometimes actually doing less training or doing easier elements will make you fitter.
Having easy runs genuinely be easy gives your body a chance to recover from the harder stuff. It means you get more benefit from those hard runs and long runs, but also they'll be a higher quality next time because you'll be in better shape for the next one, which means that you're just going to get a higher quality training overall. I'm sure a lot of people have heard of the 80/20 rule, the idea that about 80 percent of your running should be very easy and the other 20 percent is the hardest stuff whether you're doing a 5K run or an ultra.
Question: You talked about not running every day. How do you define rest days — is that a day completely off or is that where you would want someone to do biking or other cross-training?
Answer: Ideally just do whatever is very, very low intensity and low impact because then you won't get as much muscle damage. It’s not that you're trying to fit in more training. You are just trying to help with active recovery. A walk is really good for that. Maybe a light bike ride. Not a hard one. Maybe an easy swim not a hard swim. You don’t want to get your heart rate up really high. You are just getting the blood flowing round.
Question: I've interviewed some other elite runners who are in their late 30s or maybe a little bit older and they've expressed a sense of urgency. They feel like they need to perform well now because they understand their own clock is ticking and they won't be at that level forever. Do you feel a sense of urgency as well?
Answer: I know that there's going to be some. One of my good friends, Jeff Browning, is 47 and he's at his best years of racing in the last few years and he's been doing it for 15 plus years as well. He’s made some changes to his lifestyle and his diet where he's been a little bit strict. So that's compensated to some degree. Plus he's got more experience.
(Photo credit: Drymax Socks)
The way I look at this is I assume that I may not be able to keep getting sponsored into my 40s. I'm 38 now. But realistically I see no reason why I can't keep doing this really well for quite a while.
When it comes to 100-milers, I'm gaining more experience. "Last year’s Western States wasn’t the quickest that I've ever run but was above average and with the preparation this year it’s still realistic that I can run much faster and better than any of the other nine years.”
Question: Tell me a little bit about nutrition. Have you changed your nutrition as you've gotten older or have you kind of stuck to what's worked for you in the past?
Answer: I keep it fairly simple, which is just trying to have a varied diet and not have too much processed food but having various colors of vegetables. So using that as a principle to make sure I'm getting different nutrients and not with any fad diet. I'm not keto. I'm not low-carb this or that. I just try to eat a balanced diet. I think the only thing that I've become more aware about is that fat is not as bad as it was demonized. Healthy natural fats, as opposed to, trans fats and fake things that your body can't really process.
I just try to have a fairly balanced diet. I know that aiming for perfection is pretty much impossible. Plus there's so much effort that goes into training and so it's disciplined that I don't want my eating to be something that is causing me stress and taking away from the fun of life.
Question: I know there can be a lot of ways to approach training specificity, depending on the athlete and his or her circumstances in the race they're looking at. But I'll give you an example of a masters athlete who wants to do races with elevation, mountain races, but they really doesn't have access to elevation change. What are some of the tricks that you would order for that athlete?
(Photo credit: Derrick Lytle)
Answer: Having to prepare an athlete for changes in elevation is one of those common things I deal with. I have a lot of people in cities who don't have ideal access to trails and certainly not mountains, but they're willing to train for mountainous ultras. Sometimes the only way you're going to get sustained climbs is using the treadmill stairstep or using tall buildings to go up and down stairs.
For the downhill side of things, using a weight vest to help with strength and using that for hiking and particularly doing some hills with the weight vest is very useful. But ultimately one of the things I tell people is if you're training for something that is very different conditions to where you live, then it's going to be more awkward and is probably going to be more repetition involved. But if the race means enough, then you'll be able to do them. It is just acknowledging they'll be probably harder training. And by hard, I mean mentally harder training, if you're going to be doing races that are very different from where you live.
Question: Like you, I’m an ambassador for UltrAspire. I really love their gear. You've run quite a bit more than I have and have lots of experience with different types of vests and headlamps.
So what makes UltrAspire gear so valuable to you as an ultra Runner?
Answer: UltrAspire refines every little thing that doesn't work perfectly for the next version. They have a very complete set of gear now. I love the latest version of the Zygos 4.0 vest in particular. It is probably what I'll use for UTMB, along with the handheld. What makes them special is the constant feedback from runners. UltrAspire listens to its users say what is working and what isn't working. It's tried and tested in 100 miles of mountain racing and that's going to be a really deep test of whether it is reliable enough. And is it comfortable? Is it working the way you want it to?
The Lumen waist lamps are just a really excellent way to light up the trails — so much better than headlamps. They are more comfortable; I have the latest couple of versions. The 300r is a little bit lighter as well as their most powerful one, the 800. They have great products that are going to be suitable for going all night long or just short amounts of racing or training in the dark. I'm amazed.
Waist lamps to me are such an obvious idea. They light up the trail in a way that allows you to see it better than having a halo effect. These products are made for runners and bikers by people who are living that lifestyle themselves.
Question: Ian, is there anything we haven't talked about that you want to mention?
Answer: No, I just want to hit it home to people that you can really train for whatever you want, no matter where you live, whether that is mountains or in a city. There's always ways to mimic the elements that are going to matter. One of the best things about ultras is they are so varied, while every road marathon is relatively similar. You might have a mountain race or jungle race or a desert race or multi stage versus single day. There's just so many new and exciting things to keep it fresh.
For road runners, trail running can open the door to keeping it exciting and interesting for years to come so that they can not only enjoy their training and racing but always have new goals. Maybe you can't beat your marathon PR, but maybe you can see if you can go a longer distance or in totally different terrain to what you've what you've done before. That is certainly one of the things that really motivates me to keep going and keep improving.
Name: Ian Sharman
Hometown: Bend, Ore. (Originally from England.)
Number of years running: 15
How many miles a week do you typically run: 75
Point of pride: Still getting faster at age 38
Favorite race distance: 100 miles.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Carrot Cake Clif Bar.
Favorite piece of gear: UltrAspire Lumen 600 - it’s a waist light instead of a headlamp and is more powerful than most options, both of which make seeing the trail at night much easier.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Beastie Boys, Sabotage.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Be all you can be.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Website: www.sharmanultra.com
• Sharmanian on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.