Hiking To The Top: A Profile Of Ian Sharman
Ian Sharman is anything but unfamiliar to the ultrarunning community. He is involved in ultrarunning across the board: as an online running coach with his own business, Sharman Ultra; Director of the U.S. Skyrunner Series; journalist (for iRunFar and UltraRunning magazine, most frequently); blogger; and runner for Scott Running–one of his many sponsors.
Ian is no stranger to social media either: he has over 8,000 followers on Twitter where he has tweeted some 3,750 times since 2009; on Strava, where he has logged over 6,800 miles to date, his athlete profile, which is given ‘professional’ status by the site, is followed by over 1,500 people; his bounty of scenic photos on Instagram are seen by his over 1,500 followers and his posts on Facebook are ‘liked’ widely and commented on extensively.
“I put quite a lot out there,” quipped Ian.
But Ian’s ubiquitous notoriety and following within ultrarunning circles are not surprising because his results have more than merited his recognition: in 2011 he set the still-standing North American 100-mile trail record of 12:44:33 at the Rocky Raccoon 100 before returning to Rocky Raccoon this year to place a strong second in 13:38:03 behind Matt Laye; he has finished top 10 at the storied Western States 100 the last four consecutive years; last summer he smashed the record for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning by more than five hours, which was previously held by Neal Gorman, when he finished fourth at Western States, fourth at the Vermont 100, first at the Leadville Trail 100, and second at the Wasatch Front 100–all in just 10 weeks time.
In short, it’s more than reasonable to extoll Ian’s accomplishments. He has proven to be one of the most consistently successful and impressive runners at top-level 100-mile races in recent years.
His success has not been limited to 100-mile efforts either.
Ian has a laundry list of races, including 96 road marathons to date and dozens of ultra finishes, and stellar performances to his name over the years, including 23rd at the ultra competitive Comrades Marathon in 2010, fourth at the 2011 American River 50 Mile, fourth at the 2011 Ultra Race of Champions 100k, and fourth at the 2012 JFK 50 Mile in 5:50:46–those aside from numerous 50k victories and course records.
But for Ian it isn’t always about winning races. He also has his fun with running, choosing race destinations that allow him to travel and see the world, and he challenges himself in ways beyond his finishing place or time. He has frequently showed up to races in a proper Halloween costume, running road marathons around the globe in costumes such as Elvis and Spiderman.
“I really had the desire to see the world [when I was younger]. So that fits in perfectly with the running because races are usually in really cool places. I love the fact that the two things I am most passionate about—travel and running—can be combined quite easily.”
Between his serial racing, his first-class performances, and his transparency on social media, Ian has become a well-known staple in the U.S. ultrarunning community. But that certainly hasn’t always been the case. How did Ian become the ultrarunning icon that he is today?
The 33-year-old Walnut Creek, California resident, hailing from Northampton, United Kingdom originally, was a sporting lad, participating in football (well, soccer, as Americans call it), rugby, cricket, and tennis, among others. Although he did not pursue running for its own sake early on, he believes that his background in these various endurance-type sports ultimately served as a good foundation for his ultrarunning career.
“I thought running was very boring; I didn’t get the point of it. But looking back all of the sports I played involved a large amount of endurance and I was usually the one running around the most late in the game,” Ian explained.
No one may have known it then, but Ian’s ability to endure longest during a match as a youngster was indicative of what was to come. But, when he first began running ultras, neither Ian nor anyone else could have forecasted that the sporting bloke from Northampton would become the ultrarunner that he is today. Unlike other top-level ultrarunners who have burst onto the scene in their debuts, Ian’s road to elite-level ultrarunning took many years, even more races, and plenty of hard work.
After completing his high-school years at Wellingborough and acquiring both his undergraduate and post-graduate degrees from Cambridge University in economics, Ian began working at Deloitte—an accounting firm in London. Beginning in 2003, he spent three years on the accounting side and then was an economic consultant for another four years. He described his job as “basically using economics, a hell of a lot of spreadsheets, doing any kind of economic analysis you can imagine: cost-benefit analysis, creating financial models, business planning, that kind of thing. It was really quite broad and very analytical.”
During his time in London, he admits to acquiring a “city lifestyle” where he partied a bit too much and exercised too little. His generally sedentary lifestyle is what led him to pursue the sport that previously bored him.
The road (or trail) to ‘Ian Sharman the ultrarunner’ may have been written in the stars, but it really started in 2005. As Ian explains: “I had been in London for a few years and I wasn’t playing as much sport as I had always been used to. So I wanted to get back into feeling fitter and healthier as I always had. I saw a television show about the Marathon des Sables (MdS), and how it would be a great adventure, [so I signed up] and it forced me to do some training. I found I really, really enjoyed [the training].”
The 2006 edition of MdS was not as enjoyable for Ian as his training that led up to it. After following the principle that “the more you drink, the better” during the first stage of the multi-stage event, Ian fainted twice before the second stage and was forced to drop due to hyponatremia at the end of the stage. Like so many other successful ultrarunners, though, Ian’s lack of success merely ignited his desire to succeed.
As Ian explained, “I’m a super-competitive person, whether it was my academics or the sports I played, etceteras. I always wanted to do the best I possibly could and always had to beat people.”
Ian was far from doing the best that he could in ultrarunning. “Elements of ultrarunning appeal to certain personality traits. We like a bit of adventure, we like to push ourselves, [and] we aren’t satisfied with taking it easy,” Ian rightfully pointed out. Clearly, he is one of those people with the personality traits that drive him to push further. He was determined to improve.
There may be no better teacher than experience. If that is true, then Ian learned from the best teacher around very quickly and very often following the 2006 MdS. He began racing serially around the globe, running as many as 30 road marathons a year, along with some ultras, including a return to MdS in 2008 where he placed 13th, and saw vast improvements in his finishing times.
During his bout of serial racing, Ian also began teaching himself about the keys to success in endurance sports. The same skills that allowed him to make a living—economic analysis—were now allowing him to significantly improve as an ultrarunner. Ian read books and pamphlets rigorously and took coaching classes online. He started to develop his own training methods using available resources, his own experience, and his economist tools.
“The point is that there is no book. There’s marathon training, but [ultrarunners] aren’t doing a marathon. Even training for, say, Comrades compared to Western States or Western States compared to Leadville. There are different things you need to do. I can learn something from one type of race and then apply [it] in a slightly different way to another race,” Ian aptly noted.
As an example: Ian hikes larger portions of 100-mile races than probably any other elite. Yet, as he showed at Leadville last year, hiking can be as fast—and indeed faster—than running when the grade is steep enough. In other words, Ian used cost-benefit analysis to determine that hiking can be preferable: when you spend less energy hiking to go about the same speed as you would running, you should hike. As such, and unlike many elite-level ultrarunners, Ian spends lots of time improving his already extremely competitive hiking ability.
And so, after about four years of constant training and racing, along with critical analysis and evaluation of his training regime and race performances, the Ian Sharman we know today was finally revealed.
Placing 23rd typically won’t gain you much recognition. And even when it does, placing 23rd rarely turns heads or makes news headlines. That is just how it was in 2010 when Ian bested fellow American, the ever-talented Michael Wardian, at the Comrades Marathon in a time of 6:01:13, an effort that Ian still calls “his most impressive.” He became a recognized top-level ultrarunner to some that day, Wardian foremost among them, but he remained a relative unknown to most in the ultrarunning world. His eighth-place finish at Western States the same year gained him more recognition, but he had yet to truly burst onto the scene. That changed in early 2011.
On February 5th, 2011, Ian turned heads with his—in the words of iRunFar’s Meghan Hicks—“superhuman” performance at the previously mentioned Rocky Raccoon where he obliterated a 15-year-old course record and set a North American record for the distance by over 30 minutes. He hasn’t looked back since.
Just a few years before his breakout races in 2010 and 2011, Ian met his now wife, a Washington State native, Amy. In 2009, not long after Amy and Ian began a relationship, he relocated to San Jose, California. The two married soon thereafter in 2010 and have bounced around from San Jose to Bend, Oregon to, at present, Walnut Creek. Meanwhile, as Ian found happiness in his personal life, he began to loathe his work life more than ever.
“The fact that I hated my job so much meant that I had to find something else [for work],” Ian said bluntly.
Finally, by 2011, Ian had quit his job as an economist. He was encouraged by his successes with running and knew that he would be most happy working in the industry. So he figured something out.
“Once I left [Deloitte], because I couldn’t stand it any more, I thought, Okay, well, I have to find a way to make a living now, and coaching was the one that fit the best as being something that interested me, you get to talk about running the whole time. So I basically started that off gradually and that was from late 2010 onwards that I was doing some degree of coaching.”
Ian’s father had been self-employed and Ian had long liked the idea of working for himself. He found a way to do so upon leaving his desk job.
Sharman Ultra, his coaching business, began slowly and steadily and today Ian coaches 40 clients around the world. That business continues to grow. As of last week, the resilient Ellie Greenwood, recent Comrades Marathon winner who received training guidance from Ian in her preparation for the race, has agreed to begin coaching for Sharman Ultra.
The successful and well-known Ian now spends his days emailing, Skyping, and phoning his clients; watching Netflix and almost any sporting event that is on television, especially the Olympics and the World Cup; enjoying time with Amy and his pups, named Comrades and Poco Loco; reading a variety of books, an interest he developed long ago in academics; satiating his eclectic taste in foods, including his favorites, Italian and Mexican; and sneaking in runs between it all—which isn’t always easy with his hectic schedule.
In his words, “There is still a boss telling me what to do, it’s just that I’m the boss. I just have to tell myself what I’m going to do. It’s harder than it sounds!”
Ian isn’t afraid to let loose and enjoy himself either. When he arrived in Durango, Colorado to train ahead of the 2013 Leadville Trail 100, he spent one night and part of the next morning drinking in order to get his mind off of the immense challenge that still lay ahead—two more grueling 100-mile races.
“There was one pretty insane night, the first night I was there. It took me about three days to recover from that. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because I had just arrived at altitude and it forced me to take it easy for a few days,” joked Ian, before returning to his analytical side and saying more seriously, “I’m not sure I’d recommend that as the optimal way to start altitude training.”
What can we expect from the stalwart ultrarunner next?
Beyond the growth of his business, he has two things immediately on his mind: one starts in Squaw Valley, the other is run in the clouds. You guessed it, Western States and Leadville are next for Ian—and his aspirations at those races reflect his current stature. He is looking to win both.
His training for the first of those races, Western States, seems to have gone as well as ever for a race where he has finished as high as fourth. “I’ve done more vertical than I ever have before, and more heat training. This year has been a more solid build up, more mileage in total for the six months before, and having races that went well, and more races that were done at a comfortable effort,” said Ian of his recent training ahead of Western States.
Ian states his expectations for the race in fairly plain terms: “I would say best-case scenario is a win and something around 15 hours. I would hope that even if I have a bad day I would break 17 [hours].”
Still, Ian recognizes that things need to go perfectly, and he needs to nail the day, in order to gain a coveted podium place. As Ian put it, “I think a large number of those guys [on iRunFar’s Western States Preview] have more talent than me. They have more room for mistakes than I do, basically.”
“At least Timmy [Olson] not being there will give someone an opportunity to win,” Ian said, half jokingly, half seriously.
At Leadville, Ian will have his chance to repeat as champion. His Grand Slam experience last year taught him the importance of strong hiking, and he has been focusing on that in preparation for the race this year.
We all know the story of the American dream. Here is one version, about the hard-working middle-class businessman. This man puts his head down and works devotedly and intelligently day after day, year after year. After many trials and tribulations, failures and successes, this man builds his business from a small corner store to a large grocery chain. He worked toward a larger goal with great vigor and, although success was slow and it took time to grow, ultimately triumphed. This man earned every ounce of his success. He took nothing for granted, he worked tirelessly, and he innovated, finding ways to improve that others never found.
Ian Sharman is the hard-working middle-class businessman of the ultrarunning world. He is, in my mind, the embodiment of the American dream for ultrarunners. His march to the top is filled with sweat, sweltering heat, and endless pain. He is not bestowed with gifts and he did not win the lottery. He earned his success with intelligence, dedication, and hard work. Ian hiked to the top of ultrarunning stardom, one step at a time.
His next high point? The finish line of Western States in just a couple days it seems.