A Conversation with Ian Sharman
In early December, coach, ultrarunner, and former economist Ian Sharman (The North Face) sat down for a long and casual conversation with iRunFar. In this 55-minute video, Ian talks about his long-distance-love-turned-marriage, the couples’ “kids,” his self-titled “rum-bum” lifestyle, how he’ll be looking to better his American trail 100-mile record next year, his prolific racing approach, where else you’ll see him in 2013, his thoughts on doping, if he’ll ever grow a big beard, how an adventure run almost turned tragic last summer, and much more.
[Editor's Note: With this video, we're testing a new, long-form format that's different from what you've seen in iRunFar's pre- and post-race interviews. Please let us know what you think about this longer and conversation-style video.]
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A Conversation with Ian Sharman Transcript
iRunFar: I’m Meghan from iRunFar, and I’m here with Ian Sharman. How’s it going, buddy?
Ian Sharman: Very good to meet you.
iRF: Well, hello! We’re here in Mill Valley, CA. It’s a couple days before The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championship. That’s in a couple of days, but you probably won’t see this video until after this race is said and done and Ian is tucked back home in Bend. We’re here inside, but outside it’s blowing hard and they say the “Pineapple Express” is moving fast off the coast. Not that I’m a California-ite, but welcome to California.
Sharman: Thank you. I was for a year, but now it’s not for me. It’s like this—look how bad the weather is!
iRF: Some may argue that you’re a Brit and you bring the weather wherever you go.
Sharman: Some might argue that. I’ve done it at Rocky Raccoon—really bad weather, Zegama Marathon—horrific weather, Western States… several races this year that I’ve turned up at have tended to be quite bad, yeah.
iRF: You were just at JFK a couple weekends ago and it was fair skies all day.
Sharman: Pretty much perfect conditions there, yeah. It was not really windy, just a bit cold but that’s fine for running.
iRF: Are you sure you were actually there?
Sharman: Pretty sure, yeah.
iRF: Congratulations on JFK a couple weeks ago. How does your body feel? Are you bouncing back?
Sharman: Thank you. Two weeks is kind of a short amount of time for a 50-miler. I’m sure people are giggling when they listen to that because it sounds even more obscene than it is, but I think it’s possible to run well with two-week gaps. I find that if I do back-to-back weekends, that’s what really wears me down. I think two 50-milers with two to three weeks is just about long enough for me to perform well.
iRF: It sounds like a sweet little package like, “My two 50-milers with a couple weeks in between.” What’s that actually mean for you? You do this race—how do you recover your body?
Sharman: The first couple of days—not a whole lot. It’s judging from that how much I can do in those two weeks. After JFK, because it’s flatter, it doesn’t really hammer the legs as much as this race will because it’s going to have 10,000 feet or whatever of ascent; so I guarantee I’ll have more soreness after this race. But if it’s flatter, it doesn’t cause as much damage and I recover a little quicker. By doing a lot of races—and I’ve done years and years now of lots of races fairly close together—that tends to mean your recovery is a little bit quicker. So I didn’t feel too bad a couple of days later; so I’ve been able to get in a few hard training runs since then. Now it’s taper already because it’s so short.
iRF: So we’re trying a little bit different format with this interview. This isn’t a pre-race interview, though we’ve talked a little bit about racing. This isn’t a post-race interview. It’s kind of a sit-down, profile Ian Sharman, “get to know you” kind of interview. I have to be honest with you. The reason why I picked you was because you’re from the UK and you have a brilliant British accent. So if you could just talk, that would be great.
Sharman: I sometimes am asked to do this although some people think I’m Australian. My coaching client who had just signed up… at the end of the first call we had said, “So what part of Australia are you from?” To any Australians listening to this, there is no way they could think that I’m Aussie. But Americans do.
iRF: I apologize on behalf of all of us geographically and linguistically-challenged folks. You have an interesting geographic history. You began life on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. You moved your way around the US before you ended up where you are now in Bend, OR. Tell us about it.
Sharman: I lived in the UK for my first 29 years. I was in London for quite a lot of that, and that’s where I started running about seven years ago. Then I fell in love with an American girl on the West Coast, so I kept doing trips over to Oregon to see her in Bend. In 2009, I moved over. Then when I got transferred through the same company I was working for, we moved down to San Francisco and that area. Then after a year I got my green card and I didn’t like that job, so we moved back to Bend. So I lived in the Bay area which is just perfect for trail running. There’s pretty much an ultra every weekend which is a little too tempting for me because it means I probably will do an ultra every weekend.
iRF: That will affect your running.
iRF: Now about this girl you met in the US—her first name is Amy. Tell us about her and life in Bend with her.
Sharman: Amy is not a runner—that’s always the first question I’m asked. In fact, she hates running.
iRF: She hates running? She does not run?
Sharman: She’ll run a little bit, but she gets no enjoyment out of it. She kind of enjoys it if I have a Western States type of day—that might be kind of fun for her.
iRF: So spectating is okay?
Sharman: Can be. I have to be careful with that. I can’t make too many trips be spectating marathons or ultras or she gets annoyed.
iRF: It doesn’t become a “vacation” anymore.
Sharman: It is for me, but somehow not for her.
iRF: How does that work?
Sharman: Rome Marathon, New York Marathon, Paris Marathon, Honolulu Marathon—and yet she still complains.
iRF: Amy… Amy… No, we’re just teasing. You’re DINK’s, the two of you—double income, no kids.
Sharman: Yeah, that’s a phrase I’ve never heard before, but yes.
iRF: But you do have “kids?”
Sharman: Well, Amy sure thinks of it as we do have kids—we have two Chihuahuas.
iRF: Chihuahuas—which are like little footballs that squirm?
Sharman: They’re about this size and they bark at everyone apart from us. They jump on my face to wake me up, that kind of thing. Whenever our parents ask if we’re going to have grandkids, Amy always says, “We do have kids. What are you talking about?” So there’s nothing on that in the near future. And for the foreseeable future, it will be the same. There won’t be any kids.
iRF: Tell us a little more about these dogs. Their names are? Because if you follow Ian on Twitter or are friends with him on Facebook, you see the dogs. They are cute.
Sharman: They are cute. There’s no doubt about it. There’s one Amy named and one I named. Let’s see if you can guess which. There’s Poco Loco and Comrades.
iRF: Comrades? I’m going to go with you named Comrades.
Sharman: Named one after my favorite race and she named one “little crazy.”
iRF: That’s great. So they’ve been a part of your life for how long?
Sharman: Four years now, I think. It’s actually three, but it’s about four.
iRF: Have you had them since they were little? Are they brother and sister?
Sharman: Yes. Brother and brother.
iRF: Do they ever go out running with you?
Sharman: No, not even slightly. They run circles around me. They’re good at that. And they can corner ridiculously well. We live on a hill that’s a mile to the top and a mile to the bottom. We occasionally walk them up that, but we carry them for most of it. They’re not running dogs.
iRF: They walk for a little while and then they start petering out?
iRF: I think your dogs should meet Justin Mock’s dogs. I don’t know if you know him.
Sharman: I’ve heard the name. What type of dogs does he have?
iRF: He has two small (Justin, you’re going to kill me.), lovely, puntable dogs.
Sharman: Puntable? That doesn’t sound like you.
iRF: Little furry footballs. They’re puntable. I think they’re Terrier-based.
Sharman: Well then my dogs and his dogs would definitely have a good fight because that’s all they’d want to do. They wouldn’t get on at all.
iRF: These dogs ran a pretty fast turkey trot. They actually came in 2nd in the race.
Sharman: That’s not bad. I actually went running on the weekend with Steph[anie] Howe, one of The North Face runners who lives in Bend. She’s got a dog who is 2.5 years old, I think. That dog is the fittest dog in the world. They go on runs that are 40 miles long; the dog goes with them. We’ll go out and do a 20-mile run and that dog will do 40 miles of sprinting—the dog zooms off and returns, zooms off and returns. We’ll be going up a nice long hill, and we’ll be crawling. The dog will zoom off up in the distance and run back. It’s nonstop full effort. So they’ve got a fit dog. They should enter it in races because it would win.
iRF: I’ve been learning about Joss Naylor lately.
Sharman: The fell runner.
iRF: The fell-running fellow from your original neck of the woods. He always takes Border Collies, and took Border Collies with him on his adventures—huge, epic 60-milers.
Sharman: It’s amazing the dogs can go that far. They’re obviously very fit. I know Huskies, for example, do very long runs, but our dogs don’t. Nope, not at all.
iRF: So your dogs don’t run much. Your wife doesn’t run much. But you run much.
Sharman: I do. It’s good for me because Bend is a great place for that; there are many fast runners. It’s kind of annoying because even when I go to other parts of the country, like the East Coast, I still can’t even beat the first guy from Bend because Max King wins.
iRF: That’s what happened a couple weeks ago at JFK.
Sharman: And a month before that at UROC.
iRF: At UROC, yeah. You were the 2nd Bend-ite.
Sharman: Yes, 2nd Bend-ite in both of those.
iRF: What are the chances of you being the first Bend-ite at the race this weekend?
Sharman: Well, we have a few… Kami Semick, she’s living in Hong Kong now, but she’s from Bend. Steph Howe is going to be there. Her boyfriend, Zach Violett, is also going to be there. He’s beaten me a couple of times in short distance races. It’s not easy. No matter what race you go to in the whole world pretty much, there’s going to be someone fast from Bend there.
iRF: Well, let’s talk a little bit more about your running. You left what I understand was a fairly lucrative career in finance?
Sharman: Yeah, it was called “economic consulting,” which was basically economics with some accounting and corporate finance and stuff. It was fairly interesting but not as interesting as running. So I stopped doing it.
iRF: In what year did you start making your hobby of running your business full-time?
Sharman: Last year. For one thing, I had to get my green card, and they don’t give that to run-bums. You have to have a proper job for that. I waited until I had the green card and thought, “I’m not enjoying this job enough. At some point I’m going to have to switch over to something I really am passionate about.” I was having people ask me about coaching. So I started doing that not really for money or anything but just trying to get the hang of it because people were asking. Then I realized it seemed to go really well and that all the different types of races I’ve done all over the world—the road stuff, the mountain stuff, the deserts, the jungles, all of that—had given me a really good understanding of what it takes to train for those sorts of things and what things to avoid in particular through trial-and-error as well as stuff that I’ve read learning how to kind of optimize the training for different sorts of things.
iRF: There are a lot of people right now who either have fascination with or who are trying to pursue making a life from running. How do you pay your bills? What’s life for you?
Sharman: The first rule is you can’t have kids, and you probably can’t have a mortgage. You’ve got to have some savings because you’re taking a risk. The thing is, there’s not much prize money in ultrarunning. This [TNFEC 50] is an exception, but still from the men’s side, there is $14,000 walking away for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. That’s not exactly a huge payday across three people, and no one else gets anything. So there are 50 odd guys who could be called semi-professional top level fast guys. So they don’t think they’re going to make much money from this in general. I saw the coaching as a potential way to make money there and to do something I love. I love talking to runners about running and about training and races and… it just happened to be something that I think I can do really well and that I’ve got a little bit of experience for. It’s a lot more interesting from my point of view, and the coaching clients seem to like me. I’m actually getting a little bit swamped almost by how many there are now.
iRF: Too many?
Sharman: Not quite too many, but it’s gotten to the point where I’m really busy with it.
iRF: So lay out a typical day for us because your running is still top priority. So on a given day, what does running and coaching and life look for you?
Sharman: Well, the good thing is I’m working for myself so I have flexibility. So rather than “I have to be in the office from certain time to certain time,” I can fit in the Skype calls I do, the phone calls I do, replying to emails whenever I want. I’ll know in advance what time I have particular calls, but emails can always wait until after a run. That’s not as urgent. So I can schedule runs whenever it’s suitable. It’s nice that I can often pick, particularly winter, a sunny time of day rather than fitting it in in the dark. That’s certainly nice. I do use the treadmill a lot more in the winter anyway, but… I’ve got enough flexibility that I can do as little or as much as I want. But I quickly learned that having all this extra time, there’s only so much my body will let me do anyway, and it’s less than I thought.
iRF: So having more time to focus on your own running, are you spending more time on recovery then or are you on the Internet?
Sharman: Probably a little bit more, yeah. Well, the Internet and Twitter and Facebook is kind of marketing, so… for most people it’s just playing around, but it is technically business work. I can justify it more, yeah. So I do spend a fair amount of time doing that, but I can fit in running whenever I want. I started probably doing too much when I first had the time. At the beginning of 2011 I think I started running too much and racing too much, and that kind of destroyed the second half of the 2011 season for me. It’s a case of trying to find that good balance. I think I’m not the only one who has switched to a full-time or part-time running career and then done too much and not immediately had the success they had when they had a full-time job.
iRF: I actually was just sitting with another “running bum” who was talking about the same thing—the challenges of how much is too much and when you need to pull back. There are only so many hours per day that a person can run.
Sharman: Exactly. Recovery is at least as important as the actual running. There’s no benefit to doing so much that your body isn’t able to withstand that amount of training. So fitting in the recovery and making sure I rest enough and that I get things like massage, and I foam roll, and I do other gym work as well for the core and strength and that type of thing. So that is a priority and I’m much better at doing that sort of thing than when I first stopped doing the office job.
iRF: And first started being a “full-time” runner. Now let me ask you: your wife has a real job, real employment; what does she think about you being a run-bum?
Sharman: She liked the money I was making before. I think that’s the nice way of putting it. But she’s also very supportive and she realizes there’s no point in doing a job you don’t enjoy. So she’s very supportive of me and without that I wouldn’t have been able to do it. She would rather, I think, that I had an office job, the pension, the security, but that I enjoyed. That would be her preference, but that doesn’t seem to exist perfectly.
iRF: Does she also prefer the fact that you’re still pretty clean cut and groomed? We’re seeing lots of beards and long hair.
Sharman: She complains that I don’t shave enough because I don’t have to go into an office every day.
iRF: This looks perfectly shaven right now.
Sharman: I can’t even grow a proper beard anyway, so there’s no chance of me trying to become the proper mountain man with the grizzly look.
iRF: Big long hair, long beard…
Sharman: I don’t think it would suit me. It would be kind of patchy, 12-year-old type beard.
iRF: Did you think about a Movember mustache?
Sharman: I did think about that, but again she would have shot that one down fairly quickly even if it was only a one-month thing.
iRF: Let’s talk a little bit more about your approach to running and racing. Externally, when I look at you, you’re among the more prolific racers.
Sharman: I do more races than most I think, and maybe more than I should as well. It’s difficult to say though because it’s enjoyable, and that’s the whole point of me doing this. If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t do it. So it’s very difficult to turn things down like JFK. I was just talking to local people who were entered in JFK and who had won it before and stuff like that when I was doing a run around Mt. Hood in Oregon in October. They just got me thinking, “Well, I can just go and do JFK if the race director will let me in.” So I sent him an email and that was my criteria: if he lets me in I’ll do it, and if he doesn’t I won’t. That’s two weeks before The North Face race, but that I deemed to be enough of a gap to be able to run them both well. And it was the 50th year of the race which only happens once, and that’s kind of an iconic thing. I thought I had to do that.
iRF: So JFK was an October add-in for you?
Sharman: Yes, I signed up about three weeks before.
iRF: Well, it all turned out okay.
Sharman: It did. Well, I’d been doing a bit more speed work partly for this and partly because I felt like I hadn’t done enough speed work last year. So I felt like I had a bit more road speed. It felt like the perfect type of race to slot into anyway.
iRF: So you’re a person who seems to get away with racing pretty frequently body-wise, time-wise. You’re enjoying it and you don’t seem to be experiencing burnout.
Sharman: But I have. Like last year I definitely had some of that. Even this year, where I had a few weekends in a row of racing and at Waldo 100k I had to drop out because I just had nothing in my legs. So it’s always a fine line but I’d rather turn up at something like Waldo 100k in hopes that something would feel a bit better than to not enter it and go, “Well, I’ll just play it safe,” because it’s such a beautiful course. For anyone who doesn’t know it, it’s a beautiful Oregonian course with spectacularly beautiful lakes and mountains just 1.5 hours from home. So to not do it seemed kind of like a shame.
iRF: For other people who are watching this, from the experience of going to that line of how much racing is too much, what’s some advice for somebody else who’s going through that?
Sharman: I think it depends on whether you’re aiming to win stuff or whether you’re aiming to have fun. I just saw that a guy did 26 100 milers this year and he did his last one last weekend. You’re not going to win many of those if you do 26 no matter how good you are. Karl Meltzer is not winning 26 100 milers in one year.
iRF: Karl, is that a challenge?
Sharman: It’s a challenge; yeah, let’s see if he can do that. There’s definitely a fine line between… and it will be different for every individual. If I were to get my absolute optimum at every race, I’d probably need to do a little bit less but not too much because it is what motivates me. Most of my long runs I’d rather do as a race than as a training run on my own.
iRF: So the “Michael Wardian phenomenon” is something that is referred to as a habitual racer or super-prolific racer …
Sharman: I look up to that. What he can do is amazing—way more than I can do. He’ll knock out two marathons faster than I can do one and he’ll do it in the same weekend. That just blows my mind and how quickly he can recover from stuff. He’ll do that week after week after week. That injury he’s just recovering from at the moment is only slightly related to that because he does have super-human recovery compared to other people. But I look at him and I think, “Yeah, there’s no reason to set limits on yourself about how much you can race or what types of things that you can do.” I love the fact that Michael will do Badwater which is hot and long and roads and he’ll try Western States. He was meant to do UTMB this year if he hadn’t been injured plus road marathons and 5k’s and any kind of trail race. He’ll do anything. Most of the ultrarunners won’t try everything. I really admire that fact that if it’s a race, he wants to be there.
iRF: He stays the course.
Sharman: I like it because I like running not just mountain running or road running—I like having different styles of things. If I had to cut one of them out I wouldn’t necessarily get bored with the other type but I’d miss what I wasn’t doing. The second half of last year and the first half of this year I didn’t do many road marathons because I’d done lots of them in recent years, but I was missing them. So I wanted to do a few more of them.
iRF: So you went back.
iRF: It feels like you have a pretty analytical approach to your running.
Sharman: Definitely. That would be the economist in me—spreadsheets and that kind of thing.
iRF: So are you a mileage tracker?
Sharman: I do track it, but I don’t focus on making it as big as possible. That would be a difference. Some of the guys—the miles they do would break me in about two weeks. I mean that; there’s no way I could do it.
iRF: Are you a pace tracker?
Sharman:I do use my watch to track pace and the amount of climb I’m doing and I put that in a spreadsheet. I do look through that to give myself an idea of how it’s going.
iRF: Do you know how many races you’ve run?
Sharman: Not off the top of my head really. If I looked at the spreadsheet I could.
iRF: Do you have all of your finishing times documented?
Sharman: At marathon and above. I don’t care as much about the ones below that because I’m not really competitive at that. It’s just speed work for the long stuff.
iRF: Can you fire off all your PR’s if you needed to?
Sharman: Yeah, I think I could do my PR’s for every distance. It’s only about 10 things to remember.
iRF: Do you remember all your routes that you do regularly?
Sharman: Yes, when you’ve seen it a million times on the Garmin you get to learn it exactly how far it is. I know most of the routes around me because it’s about two or three that I’ll do a lot. Then other stuff that’s newer, particularly if I go into the mountains more, I’ve not been in Oregon that long so it’s kind of all new to me which is fun.
iRF: So what about the numbers… you said certain things don’t appeal to you… but what about looking at running through those numbers. What does appeal?
Sharman: I like the idea of getting faster in the marathon because I think it really helps in the longer distances as well. I know that will be the opposite of what some of the pure mountain guys would say: “You don’t need to do tempo; you don’t need to do speed work; you don’t need to do roads at all.” But most of the mountain runs we do like Western States, which here the majority of the runners are going to think that’s a mountain run—I think of it as a mountain run, but there’s a lot of fast running as well. So if you can get comfortable with fast cruising, I think the marathon is just a fast tempo endurance run. If you can get your body used to doing lots of those at almost 100%, I think that’s really helpful. I do them because I like them and because I think it helps the longer stuff.
iRF: So if someone called up and said, “Ian, I want to be coached by you for my ultramarathons.” Is the expectation that you’re going to make them run a 10k or a half marathon as training?
Sharman: No, it depends on what they like. I like doing that, so I’ll incorporate that. If they hate roads which many people do, or they hate trails (There’s even people like that out there.), then I’ll not force them to do things they don’t like. So I’ll fit the training around their lifestyle. If they live in the middle of the city, I’m not going to be giving them a trail run every day. But it also depends on what races they want to do.
iRF: “Go find a trail!”
Sharman: Exactly, but if they’ve entered something like Hardrock, they’re going to have to find a trail; they’ll need to get that type of thing in there. From my point of view, it’s trying to get the most out of their runs and trying to get the most benefit out of it and the most enjoyment.
iRF: So you can train with Ian and not necessarily have to run roads.
Sharman: You don’t have to run marathons. Most of them don’t.
iRF: And you don’t have to run one in a costume even?
Sharman: Let’s see, has anyone done that? Someone might have.
iRF: Let’s talk about what might happen down in Texas at the beginning of next year. You’re the holder of the fastest trail 100-miler on American soil. You ran 12:44?
Sharman: Yeah, I can even tell you the seconds. I can remember that PR.
iRF: How many seconds?
iRF: 12:44:33. This is now two years ago at Rocky Raccoon. Now there’s chatter about a number of people going down there to push each other and chase after fast times and possibly your record.
Sharman: Good. It’s more exciting when people are going for records and trying to see what’s possible. People went for the 13:16, which was the old record, for a long time and no one got it. Then just this year you had Mike Morton and Jon Olsen go under 13:16 on different courses plus my run from the year before. So it’s showing that people are getting quicker. I think part of it is the mental side as well like Roger Bannister when he broke the 4:00 mile. It was a very small amount of time before someone else did it because that mental barrier had gone. The people thought it was possible so their mind didn’t hold them back. I think that’s the same way with the 13-hour trail 100. People are not thinking it’s some impossible target. There are plenty of guys thinking, “I’m quick enough. I can do that.”
iRF: Last year it rained bucket loads at Rocky.
Sharman: Yeah, that definitely slowed it down. Hal [Koerner]’s time was only a few minutes off the old course record and that was fast definitely in those conditions.
iRF: So environmental conditions have to allow…
Sharman: Even if it rains a bit, it’s not usually as muddy as it was at 2012’s Rocky Raccoon because it drains very well, so it’s easy terrain still. It’s just this time literally on the start line there’s thunder and lightning and it’s pouring down. It had been doing that for a day or two. So the whole course was a mud bath and because it’s loops it gets churned up as well.
iRF: You’re not planning to go back?
Sharman: No, I’m not going to go back.
iRF: In conversations with you before, you’ve talked about for you to achieve equal to your record or better to you almost seems insurmountable?
Sharman: It does sometimes. At the time it felt easy—“I’ll break that out again next week.” Now, I can appreciate more that it was a good day and a lot of things came together. But I think I can replicate those things. I’d say that I’m in a similar type of shape right now to what I was when I ran that. So I’m not going to do Rocky Raccoon, but I am going to do the Indiana Trail 100 where they put up a $25,000 prize to break either my record or if one of those guys goes quicker, it will be trying to break their record.
iRF: The Indiana race is in…?
iRF: You are pretty diverse in your race selection—road races, short distances, long…
Sharman: Pretty well everything short of pure Arctic conditions. I’ve done races that are on snow—entire races that are on snow—but I’ve never done one that’s Arctic and completely below freezing the whole time type of race.
iRF: Like the Last Desert Race.
Sharman: Yes, I’ve never gone to another continent for that. It half appeals if you could take about two zeros off the price tag.
iRF: All this racing you’ve done and all the racing that’s out there, is there a particular style or distance or course or terrain… like what if Ian Sharman had to make up his own best race? What would it be?
Sharman: There would be two answers. One would be in what I would do best; one would be what I would enjoy most. I think that the kind of flatter 100 is what suits me best because I don’t have the pace of Max King or Trent Briney, two guys who completely smoked it at JFK and had so much pace. By 50 miles that evened out a bit, but they still are… Max is 18 minutes faster than me in a marathon and Trent’s 20 minutes quicker than me in a marathon. That’s quite a lot of speed to try to catch up on. But 100 miles, I feel that’s kind of my… I’ve got the efficiency to run that kind of well. That would be my optimum—a Rocky Raccoon kind of course. Hopefully this Indiana Trail is that kind of course. In terms of the most fun, I’d say the more exotic the better, and probably the more mountainous the better. The two most fun races I’ve ever done are the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa and on the other end of the spectrum the TransAlpine Stage Race across the Alps from Germany to Italy which is just beautiful and spectacular, and a partner race. Completely different types of races, but they’re fun, really fun.
iRF: You seem to have a special relationship with Comrades. You named your dog after it.
Sharman: So has one of the Russian twins that keep winning it all the time. Their dog is called Comrades in Russian.
iRF: Really? What kind of dog is it?
Sharman: I have no idea. I just heard that somewhere.
iRF: For Americans who don’t know too much about this race, what is the appeal? Why do you like it?
Sharman: I like the fact that it’s an ultra but it has the elements of the marathon but I think better. It’s the same kind of signs but with much more friendly atmosphere. At a typical road race, you go there and you don’t talk to anyone unless you know someone; and even they might not talk to you. I’ve had that happen with teammates of mine who just won’t talk to me if it’s in the race. But with Comrades, everyone’s talking. I make friends during the race where I was running next to them for a few hours and stayed in touch years later. The whole atmosphere is spectacular. Everyone gets really into it—the spectators, the atmosphere in the days before, the days after. It’s everything I absolutely love. It’s on a much bigger scale than any other ultra you can think of because there’s 20-odd-thousand people running plus I think they estimate maybe a million people watching you. I think that’s just a number they’ve made up, but it’s a lot of people watching you along the way.
iRF: Is it on a future race plan for you?
Sharman: Oh yeah. I’ve done five of them, and I’d like to do as many as I can. I didn’t do it this year because I wanted to give Western States more focus. Western States I can drive to; while Comrades is 47 hours of travel. It’s easier from the UK than it is from the West Coast. I thought that was one reason to skip it this year. Next year I’m doing the Grand Slam, so that kind of takes up my whole summer. I won’t be doing it then either, but after that as much as I can.
iRF: You pretty much answered my question of what’s on your 2013 race agenda.
Sharman: That’s my race plan.
iRF: Indiana 100 and the Grand Slam.
Sharman: Yes, although there are a couple other things actually.
iRF: Of course you do, you’re Ian Sharman.
Sharman: Well, I love road marathons obviously as training.
iRF: As training—you’re not doing them in costume anymore?
Sharman: I’ll probably do two of them in costume actually. I did one this year in costume. I did Elvis at the Napa Valley Marathon.
iRF: Did you know Elvis appeared at one of the local Park City races—the Jupiter Peak Steeplechase?
Sharman: Oh really. Short distance ones are not easy. Oh, it was in my costume; he bought it off me for charity.
iRF: Oh, that’s right.
Sharman: He bought that costume from me because that was the World Record-holding costume.
iRF: That was a very special costume out on the course then. Tell us about your 2013 race plan.
Sharman: There’s also the Fuego y Agua 100k in Nicaragua in February. There are going to be a few other guys—Jorge Maravilla, Dave James, Anna Frost, and maybe a couple of others.
iRF: On Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.
Sharman: If you say so. I know that it’s on an island and it’s on a volcano; that’s all I know.
iRF: It’s a beautiful spot.
Sharman: It looks it. That’s what the race director has shown me with photos and stuff. Then in May I’m doing the Jungle Ultra which is a Marathon Des Sables-style ultra in Peru. It’s a stage race, seven days, carrying stuff in your backpack, but through the jungle. I thought I’d tag on the Inca Trail just before that because it’s close by.
iRF: That will be in May with a month to recover.
Sharman: That’s one month before Western States. It’s a good training week—150-mile training week before Western States. Yeah, double my normal week.
iRF: And then ramp up for the Grand Slam.
Sharman: Yes. Ramp down probably from that point. Taper through the Grand Slam. I think for three months I run 100 miles, sit around for a few weeks, run 100 miles… well, training whatever I can, but probably not a whole lot in between.
iRF: It sounds like there are a couple other guys who are going to be Grand Slamming it in hopes of working on the record.
Sharman: I hope so. It makes it more exciting when there’s the race within the race—not just who’s winning this one, but there’s the overall time. Nick Clark is a maybe at the moment. He should know fairly soon I think. Then Karl Meltzer has entered Western States, so it’s just whether he’s going to do the other three or not.
iRF: Karl, what are you doing to do?
Sharman: On top of the 26 he’s doing that year.
iRF: Well then he only needs to do 22 if he can pull off the Grand Slam win.
Sharman: He’d need to win the whole Grand Slam then. That would probably give him the record.
iRF: Probably. Let’s talk about a more serious question in running. People have been talking about… what reminds me about this is Comrades and doping. There were a couple…
Sharman: The male winner from 2012 was caught doping. And there have been a couple in the past who have been caught doping as well.
iRF: So we’re seeing conversations about doping happening in ultrarunning right now. We’re seeing a couple examples in the periphery of our sport—at Comrades and a couple in European mountain running.
Sharman: Where the money is basically.
iRF: Then we’re seeing this huge fallout happening in professional road cycling right now. The talk is how are we going to keep it out of our sport?
Sharman: I think the problem is that you can’t.
iRF: You don’t think it’s possible.
Sharman: No, because the guys who are working out how to dope are always one step ahead. Cycling showed that. The attitude they had was “You only get caught if you’re stupid.” It’s more of an intelligence test than a doping test. I think that’s always going to be the case. Prohibition doesn’t generally work. It didn’t work with alcohol; it doesn’t really work with drugs at all. I think in sport, if people want to cheat, they’re going to cheat. There will be ways they can get away with it. Things like EPO, I gather there is only a short time of hours that you can be caught with that. So as long as you can stay away from the authorities, you can get away with it generally. I think as much as it is cheating, I’m sure there are going to be people who will do it and when there’s the money incentive more so. I don’t have the exact answer, but I think unless you have a way to allow it in the sport in some way, it’s probably not going to be a level playing field. I don’t think it’s a good thing. Let me be clear. I just think in terms of making a level playing field, there’s always going to be people who can get away with cheating.
iRF: There’s talk in cycling right now that 10 years ago, five years ago, it was an acceptable part of the culture. It was like you have to conform; you have to do this in order to compete. Now, the cycling culture is evolving to “We don’t want this a part of our sport.” That’s sort of mainstream cycling’s opinion.
Sharman: But also they have the team aspect much more than runners do. If you have one guy on the team, like Lance [Armstrong], he was trying to make the other guys on the team do it as well so they’re good enough to support him. Running’s much more solo, so you can have one guy cheat and he doesn’t need to get others to do it. So I think the culture is a bit different there.
iRF: So you don’t think there’s any hope of community policing?
Sharman: I think there will be less of it, less scope for it to happen just because there’s less money, and I think that’s always going to be the case. I don’t think there’s ever going to be as much money as there is in cycling. There will be more than there is now, but there’s never going to be cycling’s millions and millions. So that’s the part where there’s not the incentive. I just think the culture is very different in cycling to ultrarunning. I think most people in ultrarunning would never dream of cheating in that way. So that will make it less, but I still think there’s going to be some people who will.
iRF: Such is the future of sport.
Sharman: Yeah, and it happens in Comrades. It happens supposedly there are some question marks over the Kenyans at the moment.
iRF: Kenyan marathon runners.
Sharman: So if that comes out to be a big scandal, it would be a shadow over the whole sport and also open up maybe people thinking about different things for ultrarunning. If all these fast guys were doing it anyway, it might make them think twice on whether they want to… it might make people actually want to do it in ultrarunning.
iRF: Here’s what I have to say. Police each other. I wish it would work.
Sharman: That’s probably the best we can do. I just think the cheats will probably be able to get around it unfortunately.
iRF: We’re watching. We’re watching. Just kidding. Kind of.
Sharman: You just have to make sure you’re not a cheat and beat other people whether they cheat or not.
iRF: There you go. Let’s turn the tide to some lighthearted topics to conclude our interview. You’re a UK import. You’ve been in our country for a couple of years now. What is something that is really weird that Americans do that you still don’t understand?
Sharman: Ahh, well there’s got to be quite a long list. Off the top of my head… as you say that, there’s your iRunFar compatriot standing behind the camera dancing like a monkey. So there’s one thing.
iRF: I will never understand Bryon Powell either.
Sharman: I don’t know. Black Friday—I experienced that for the first time this year because I kind of avoided it before.
iRF: Did you go out shopping?
Sharman: I went out shopping at midnight and went to Walmart, Target…
iRF: So you had your Thanksgiving dinner, laid on the couch for a couple of hours, and then went shopping? What did you see out there?
Sharman: Yes. Well, Bend is kind of a friendlier town, so there were no stabbings or threatenings or anything like that. But that whole idea that you have this big family holiday and it’s all about being nice and happy and family friendly and everything’s for the kids, and then a couple hours later people go out with knives and try to jam into a big ruck to get $5 off a DVD.
iRF: Okay, you don’t understand our Black Friday.
Sharman: No, and I can see why people would want to get a big savings, but that’s too much effort. When I was there, I’d see a big queue of people and think, “That deal’s not worth it. I’ll get this one instead.”
iRF: If you could be any ultrarunner, who would you be?
Sharman: I could be anyone else… hmmm… I’d say Kilian [Jornet]. Being able to do the stuff that he does and the lifestyle of just going around to all the mountain races in the world would be very fun, but I would miss the road stuff. Then maybe Mike Wardian—an uninjured Mike Wardian—because he does all the races I love and the philosophy of just going out and competing at everything and really enjoying that and not thinking, “I’m a road runner so I can’t compete there; so I’m not going to turn up because I might not win.” He’ll just go anyway.
iRF: Would you rock the long hair?
Sharman: I don’t think I could do the long hair. It might get a little bit longer, but that’s about it… maybe a mullet.
iRF: Party in the back, business in the front.
Sharman: A mullet with a bad mustache—that’s what I’ll go for.
iRF: Amy, watch out.
Sharman: She would stop me. She’s my mirror to stop me from doing anything like that.
iRF: “Oh, honey what are you doing?”
iRF: If money and time and travel difficulty did not exist—dream race—what would you do?
Sharman: I’d love to do stuff in the Himalayas. I’ve been there once before, and it makes other mountains just look pathetic. I did love being there, but the one thing it taught me was the single hardest fact to overcome in a race is altitude. When you’re up at those really high altitudes, I felt like I was a 90-year-old man. Running on the flat, running at a 10:00 minute/mile pace on the flat, I was heart bursting out of my chest. It’s a challenge. More I think I’d like to go hiking there, not race there, maybe just hike there. Trekking is more fun there. But if you could do that scenery without it making my heart explode, that would be ideal.
iRF: Matt Carpenter’s world record for altitude marathons would not be in danger with you trekking through the Himalayas?
Sharman: It’s insane. Also, it takes so long to adapt to that kind of thing even to some degree genetic adaptation that your parents need to have been Sherpas living at altitude as well. The more I’ve been to things like that the more impressive Matt Carpenter’s records are.
iRF: Post-race indulgence: what do you indulge in after a 50-mile or 100-mile race?
Sharman: I spend half the race at least thinking about food. Then towards the end of it, I’m not hungry at all because you don’t want to eat anything. That’s when your stomach’s not feeling good; even a couple hours afterwards I don’t want any food. Amy will always bring my favorite chocolate bar or something to the finish line. “Give it to me later. It’s pointless me having that now. I just had 50 gels; I don’t want more sugar.”
iRF: “There’s a chance I could barf it up.”
Sharman: I don’t know—maybe pizza or something that’s a bit creamier and fancier than I’d normally have. The benefit of running is I don’t have to hold back too much with my diet. I can allow myself to have a nice variety of naughtier foods as well.
iRF: Do you have any pre-race rituals?
Sharman: Not really because I’m not superstitious. The one thing I do like is to have the week before go reasonably well. But I’ve learned from experience that even when I’ve had runs where the week before went horrible and my legs felt like crap, I’ve had a great race. So I don’t let that get me down too much. The only thing I won’t have is a big breakfast. I’ll have things like Clif Shot Blocks or little race-type food that’s easy to digest. If I have a proper meal, I feel like I’m going there with a load of food jumbling around in my stomach.
iRF: Favorite adventure run you’ve done this year so far?
Sharman: Ooh, I’ve had some good ones this year actually.
iRF: You ran away from fire.
Sharman: I almost got burned to death. Just being next to the Oregon Cascades, I try to do several of the peaks and circumnavigations and stuff like that. Rod Bien, a runner from Patagonia, I went on a run with him up to the top of Middle Sister which is about 10,000 feet. From the top of Middle Sister we could see a little smoke plume, and we thought, “There’s a controlled burn over there,” and we didn’t really think about it. As we’re running down we’re, “Well, the smoke plume is getting bigger. We’re kind of heading back that way.” When we got within about a mile of it, we could see quite clearly that the smoke was around where the car was parked at the trailhead. We were parked at the Pole Creek Trailhead. The name of the fire, which was 26,000 acres, was the Pole Creek Fire. That was the center.
It hadn’t started when we started running at 8 am. It was cold. It wasn’t sunny or lightning that morning. Someone must have had a morning campfire or cigarette. We got back to the car and got in the car and there’s a wall of smoke across the only road going back. So foolishly we tried to go into that smoke for a few feet. I was screaming at Rob, “Reverse! Reverse!” because there was a car completely on fire just on the edge of the parking lot which we couldn’t see until we got up into that smoke. So we reversed and went up some little fire road things that according to our map were dead ends. We thought we might have to dump the car and then hike out which would have been okay, but if we had have done that, that whole area was burnt to a crisp so the car would have been destroyed. All the other cars in the parking lot were destroyed. That was probably the biggest adventure. It involved one of the most fun runs I’ve done, then running down a glacier, then running into a fire, then several hours of trying to escape the fire.
iRF: So conclude the story for us. You got out…
Sharman: We got out and the car got out, but it’s not a four-wheel-drive car.
iRF: The road did not end.
Sharman: It seemed to kind of just luckily get where we needed to be. We were kind of guessing. We were trying to take turns that would take us away from the fire but that we hoped would take us back onto the road. After about two hours of that and battering the car up a bit we managed to get away.
iRF: There are a couple of scenarios that I fear; I spend a lot of time out in the woods also running and hiking and backpacking.
Sharman: Cougars? I’ve not seen one.
iRF: You know, I’ve had my face-to-face encounter with cougars and I made it free. I had a couple years of fearing them a lot more, but now I feel like I can conquer the cougar. One of my fears is getting trapped in the wilderness by a wildfire. Your story is really compelling to me.
Sharman: It maybe sounding like I’m being a bit silly about it, but we were running with the wind—I know that can change—but we were hoping to get back to the car quickly enough assuming we could outrun it along some roads at least. The fire was always being blown away from us. Otherwise that would have been a very stupid thing to do. If the wind was moving towards us the fire can move a lot more quickly than we can. But there was definitely more risk than we probably realized at the time particularly when we tried to go into the smoke. If we would have tried to drive along that road, and that was the only main road out—the only not-paved but vaguely flattish road out—then that would have been three or four miles of fire. If we would have hit one fallen log or something, we would have been dead. I’m fully aware of that. At least we were able to get out and get the car out. I think the worst case would have been we would have seen the edge of the fire and would have had to run and hike away from it with the wind saving us from it.
iRF: Was that your best adventure run?
Sharman: It was actually one of the best runs I’ve ever done. It’s a spectacular area. It’s a real shame now that so much of it has been destroyed by the fire because it will take maybe 50 years to look like it did before. That was probably my biggest adventure, and it was a great run before that weird finish to it. But I had a few others around there as well—things like going around Mt. Hood with a big group of really fast people actually, people like Max [King] and Ellie [Greenwood], for example.
iRF: It was a race around Mt. Hood?
Sharman: It wasn’t really a race, but when you’ve got that many fast people you’re kind of thinking, “Wow, if we made this into a race, iRunFar would be covering it.” That was my exact thought. Live tweet: “Max is in the lead ahead of Ellie.”
iRF: “Max has stopped to dip his bottle in water and Ellie jumped ahead.”
Sharman: “Max took a photo. What’s going on?”
iRF: Do you have any interest in the whole adventure run FKT stuff that’s going on?
Sharman: Not really. I’d rather just do it for fun than go for the FKT. To me, there’s a race and then there’s a fun run. An FKT is somewhere in between but it’s not really something that massively impresses me.
iRF: If you’re out in a wild place on a run, you’d rather just be able to absorb it?
Sharman: I’d rather just enjoy it and take photos rather than thinking of it as being a race without it actually being a race. I would like to do the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon, but not necessarily as a time trial, more just to fit it into one day and be able to stop and take photos and enjoy it.
iRF: You’ve done some wacky stuff with your running over the years. You have a very interesting story with how you started with running. You basically started your running career with the Marathon Des Sables. That’s pretty wacky.
Sharman: That was the first big thing I entered. I had a couple of races before that to prepare.
iRF: You race in costume.
Sharman: Yes, there’s a good reason for that though. London Marathon, the first year I got into it through the lottery, they offered 1,000 pounds for the first Elvis and I thought, “I’m just doing this as a training run.” So for the price of buying a costume, no one serious is going to do this, so I’ll probably win 1,000 pounds and that’s what happened. The Batman did a 5.5-hour time. So I thought, “A superhero got 5.5 hours, I can get another World Record if I just turn up to a race.” It kind of started like that.
iRF: Are there any other wacky skeletons in your closet?
Sharman: Running-related? I don’t think so.
iRF: How about life-related?
Sharman: I’m sure there probably are. How long do we have? I’ve done four different costumes in races: Elvis, Spiderman, Santa, and Maximus from Gladiator. I did that one in Rome as well.
iRF: How appropriate.
Sharman: Yes, it’s quite fun running through streets with a plastic sword shaking it at people. Italians do not get that. They just think you’re a weirdo more so than other people. In something like the London Marathon, half the people are in costume. It’s a normal accepted thing. If you say to someone, “I’m running the London Marathon,” the first two questions would be: “1) Which charity are you running for? And 2) What are you dressed as?” Rather than, “How fast are you going?” They don’t even realize it’s a race for most people. But in Italy, it’s a serious race.
iRF: Don’t wear your gladiator costume and don’t wield swords.
Sharman: Well, some people like it. In London you get cheers, “Yeah! Whoo, That’s great!” but in Italy they’re cheering for everyone else and then they stop, “What is he doing? Is he in the race?”
iRF: Thanks for sitting down to chat with us this evening.
Sharman: Thank you, it’s been fun.
iRF: Good luck out there in the tempest this weekend.
Sharman: Yeah, I’m hoping it will be okay. Looks like the course might change, but we’ll see what happens in the next couple of days anyway.
iRF: I think you might have to go back into your hotel room and start building extra lugs on whatever shoes you’re going to wear.
Sharman: I’ll definitely need some lugs for the pure mud bath type of course, yes.
iRF: So I’m expecting the photos that might come out of this weekend instead of the Mike Wolfe blood photo from last year…
Sharman: It’s going to be a mud photo.
iRF: It’s going to be a mud photo.
Sharman: I think you’re going to have to hose down the winner to find out who it is. “Is that a man or woman? It’s a woman!”
iRF: Oh, that’s good, I like that. Well, good luck to you and thanks for sitting down to chat with us.
Sharman: It’s a pleasure.