Sensible Ultrarunning Insights and Tips: An Interview with Ultrarunner Ian Sharman
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
While tapering this summer for the Wildcat 100 mile ultra, I listened to a great BibRave podcast during a 10 mile walk. The hosts interviewed Ian Sharman, head coach of Sharman Ultra. A quick search on UltraSignup shows that Ian is an elite ultrarunner with an impressive track record; 97 ultra events, so far. He has won the Leadville 100 miler three consecutive years.
As I listened to Ian on the podcast, I was impressed by his down-to-earth perspective on ultrarunning and his sensible approach to training for and running an ultra. His view that "ultrarunning is about overcoming challenges" resonates with me. I think this sentiment will also resonate with veteran ultrarunners and those embarking on the arduous journey that is the sport of ultrarunning.
I recently interviewed Ian about his perspective on various aspects of the sport of ultrarunning such as mental and physical strength, attempting an ultra with little or no marathon experience, DNFs, and pacers. Ian also offers a running plan and race day tips for first time ultrarunners. To anyone already running ultras or thinking about running their first ultra, Ian's insights just might get you to the finish line.
Ian Sharman Photo credit: Leadville Race Series
WHAT DOES ULTRARUNNING ENTAIL WHETHER ONE IS RUNNING A 50 MILER, A 100K, A 100 MILER, OR A 24 HOUR EVENT?
I would say that [ultrarunning] has a lot of similarities to other aspects of life. Whenever you have something big whether to become a doctor, to write a book, to get a promotion, what ever it is, there is going to be certain steps to get you there. You look at the overall goal and break it down into parts. I think ultrarunning is exactly the same. Let's say you want to run 50 miles. What is the step below that? What do you need to be able to do in a training run? Maybe to be able to get to a 50K. So how do you get to a 50K? Look at all the parts to get you there. And within the race itself, instead of just thinking - wow , I've got to keep running till l've done 50 miles - it's what are the little parts to make that up - a first climb, the next 3 miles, then the next aid station, the next corner, whatever the next part is. t's all about breaking a big challenge into small manageable parts. I think that applies pretty much to everything. It's a really useful way to look at life. It certainly helps me and pretty much everyone I know who ultraruns.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO STAY MENTALLY STRONG WHILE TRAINING AND DURING AN ULTRA EVENTt?
The main thing is not to allow yourself to focus on negatives. Keep your mind on training. If you have a bad run, it doesn't mean you're not fit. Work out why that happened. Maybe it was windy and cold and it made it a little bit harder. Or maybe you were still tired from the last run. You try to work out why something didn't go right. The same thing in a race. If you're in the middle of an ultra and your stomach is not doing well, and you're maybe feeling a little bit nauseous, and you don't want to eat anything, you think to yourself OK, well I have something to deal with. Or you can feel sorry yourself but that's not very productive. Or you can work out how to get through it. Try to work out why things are happening and how to fix it. It will give you a more positive direction. Turning a negative into a positive is ultimately what keeps you actually strong. Overcome the challenge and deal with it. That is the mental toughness that it takes to do an ultra well. No matter what happens, have a can-do attitude. Find a way through it rather than woe is me.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO STAY PHYSICALLY STRONG?
A strong solid methodical build up is a big part of that. You don't get ultra fitness endurance in a short period of time. It takes months and years to do that. Remaining consistent in your training is a large part of that. Run regularly. If you have an injury, stop for a couple of days. Don't run through it hoping it will go away. Seek medical expert advice at the earliest stages so you don't make it a lot worse. Allow yourself to get better before you start training. Don't run through it. On the racing side, stay physically strong by just trying to look after yourself. Have the mindset the whole way through the race of is this level sustainable? You need to ask yourself - is everything feeling good? Constantly check in with yourself. As a general rule of thumb, in any ultra, if you can get through the first two thirds of a race before you start to have major difficulties especially on a very long day, and before you start suffering, push yourself. To some degree, in any ultra there will be suffering. You can push through that by looking after yourself, adjusting your pace, making sure you're eating enough, making sure you're hot or cold enough, and allowing for weather conditions. If you forget about looking after yourself, then suddenly you'll find yourself a lot worse than if you had dealt with the problem ten minutes ago.
I MEET RUNNERS NEW TO ULTRAS WHO HAVE NOT RUN A MARATHON OR HAVE LITTLE MARATHON EXPERIENCE AND ARE ATTEMPTING THEIR FIRST ULTRA. THAT SURPRISES ME BECAUSE YOU REALLY NEED TO BUILD ENDURANCE AND HAVE EXPERIENCE WITH A LEAST A FEW MARATHONS BEFORE GOING IN FOR A 50 MILER.
I agree. I think a lot of people have read Born to Run and suddenly want to run a 100 miler and so they start doing the long stuff immediately. There's a lot of fun in taking steps to get there. For example, between my first ultra, a 54 miler and my first 100 miler, there's a five year gap. I continued to run other ultras. I did over 100 marathons. Just build up. Your first 50K can be a big deal. That's worth something. Then after your first 50K, your first 50 miler. It's still something you can be proud of. That should be your goal. That will be a more sensible way to do things and will also lower the chance of getting injured and allow you to build experience before doing the longer stuff. And you might find that the 50 miler is what you really love and you don't need to do the longer stuff. It's not like a long race is better necessarily.
There are so many different directions you can go with in ultrarunning. Different types of terrain. Different distance. Trying to get faster. Trying something in a different part of the world, in different conditions. All of that can give you different directions that you can choose from to keep you motivated, excited, and fresh. There's no rush to go into the biggest, hardest thing immediately. There's a lot of satisfaction building up to that and you're more likely to have a longer, more satisfying running career. You build up the experience and give your body a chance to adapt.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON DNFs?
Funny you ask that because I just wrote an article for Ultrarunning Magazine in December about DNFs. It's something that, generally speaking, you have to do. You fall over, break your leg. You have to stop. It's the only sensible thing to do. [Ultrarunning] is a sport, a hobby. Your'e not trying to completely destroy your body. But I would say that many times why people don't finish, it's often their choice. It might be that they have a goal of a certain time, or a certain place. If it doesn't look possible, they don't find the motivation to keep going or rely on the clock to time out. Or they find the excuse to drop out. Maybe things are worse than they hoped. If they really, really wanted, they could but it's going to be more suffering than they are willing to take on. I don't think you should finish at all costs. But I also think people will go into a race and not be prepared for the challenge and suffering that might be involved, and that's especially the case with 100 milers. People will go into them thinking this is an easy 100 miler. There is no such thing as an easy 100 miler.
I would say there are two sides to the [DNF]. Medically, there is something wrong and you really should stop. It can cause some serious damage or you'll need to be airlifted off the course or something like that. Then there's the one where something starts going wrong. It's just much worse than the person is prepared to deal with. And when it gets a bit worse and difficult to deal with, it's important to ask - why did I enter this race in the first place. If they are not willing to go through the tough elements of an ultra, then maybe that style of race is not the right one for them. Maybe the ultra is too long. Maybe it's too rugged. But ultimately there should be something to learn from that so it doesn't happen again. I think there are definitely times when you should DNF but I would say that a large portion of DNFs are because people are effectively choosing to stop because things aren't going as well as they wanted.
IN GENERAL, WHAT TIPS, RUNNING PLAN WOULD YOU OFFER A FIRST TIME ULTRARUNNER?
In general, make sure you don't build up too quickly. I wouldn't be strict about increasing your mileage by ten percent a week. Make sure, especially at first, to allow your body enough recovery time and not to rapidly build up mileage. If you were a collegiate athlete and you did loads of mileage and sports, you're going to be quicker going into running than someone who has been sedentary their whole life. Don't rush things. It will take a long time to build up endurance. You want to allow months and years to build up before rushing into it. There is so much fun you can have along the way. Take on your first half-marathon. Take on your first marathon. Those are big steps and they should be enjoyed along the way.
RACE DAY TIPS DOs AND DONTs?
Make sure you are aware of what the race will involve. Be as prepared as you can be. Have an idea of where the aid stations are and what the aid stations will have. Know what drop bag options you have. If you have a pacer or crew, make sure you have discussed the details. There is a lot of stuff you can plan in advance. There is no excuse for having to drop out of a race because it got cold and you had inadequate clothing. Always have extra clothing you may not plan to use, just in case. Make sure you plan for stuff quite fastidiously. One of the biggest problems runners have is starting off a little too fast. You don't want to go off too fast and then pay for it later. One of the things I reiterate every single day to the runners I'm coaching is - Don't get caught up in what other people are doing. Stick to your own race plan. Don't react to other people. You got many, many miles.
Runners at Western States 100 camp coached by Ian Sharman
DO YOU RECOMMEND A PACER?
It's an individual thing. Whether they are or not, you still have to move your legs. It could be more of a mental crutch or mental help to some degree. I personally don't mind if I have a pacer or not. The first time it could be helpful, especially if the pacer has run that race before. They can help you deal with the issue that could happen later in the race. They can keep you more positive. I don’t think pacers are essential. They’re helpful for some but not to everyone. Be clear what you want a pacer to do and not do. For example, do you want them to be constantly telling you how good you look and keeping you positive, or would you rather they just shut up and just have someone there to keep you company. You have to be clear on that in advance. Know the personality of the pacer to make sure that it’s going to work for you and that they are not going to annoy you. I don’ t need a pacer but it can be helpful especially if the pacer has knowledge.
IS ULTRARUNNING A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE FOR YOU?
I don't meditate or anything, like that. I get a lot of pleasure from being in the mountains, being on my own, and just taking it all in and enjoying being one with nature. Some people will treat it as almost transcendental. For me, it is more just very enjoyable and relaxing. At a certain time in the middle of a race you could be feeling good and running well and it's that kind of Zen where everything is clicking. It's a really nice feeling. And it doesn't happen often. When it does happen, it's a great feeling. I wouldn't say it's spiritual for me. But I think people have different definitions to explain the same thing.
ANY FINAL WORDS OF WISDOM FOR ULTRARUNNERS OR THOSE WHO HAVE JUST STARTED ULTRARUNNING?
The main thing is to make sure you enjoy it. Pick races that are going to be motivating and exciting for you. Don't just do a race because you're famous or something like that unless that makes it interesting to you. The longer or tougher the race is you really gotta be so excited about the event that it means a lot to you. Otherwise, if you’re three quarters of the way through your race and you’re feeling crappy, you’re asking yourself - why am I doing this? Do I really care about this race? If you don’t have some good answers, it's going to be very difficult to keep yourself moving well.
Whether you're already running ultras, or thinking about running your first ultra, stay motivated, train well, and stay physically and mentally strong. There is no need to rush into your first ultra event. Build endurance, Enjoy the process. Ultrarunning is not unlike life. Both provide obstacles and challenges to be overcome and to be managed in small parts. And as Ian advices, "Certainly be sensible. [Ultrarunning] requires a lot of discipline."
You can contact Ian at Sharman Ultra Endurance Coaching.