When thinking about A list races you probably have a few notable ones that come to mind, one of those top tier renowned races in the ultrarunning community is Leadville. Part of the grand slam of Ultrarunning, the Leadville 100 takes place across the high-altitude, extreme terrain of the Colorado Rockies. The course itself is a 100 mile out and back with a low point of 9,200 feet and high point of 12,424 feet. One ultrarunner who has tied himself to the history of the race is Ian Sharman. Since 2013 Ian has won the race 4 times with 3 of those being consecutive wins. With Leadville right around the corner we wanted to get with Ian and talk about his experience with the race throughout his running career and provide a few veteran tips directly from Ian for those who might be considering running the race in the future.
Taking it back to your first Leadville, can you describe your experience?
Ian: Of course, that was back in 2013 and I had only did it because it was part of the grand slam which is four of the original 100 mile races in the same summer, Western States, Vermont, Leadville, then Wasatch Front. At that point I had already put in 200 miles so my thoughts were to just try a few things out and see what it was like to run at that high altitude for 100 miles. I was also racing against Nick Clark for most of the races and we were very close throughout the entire grand slam. I finished ahead of him in Western States, he finished ahead of me at Vermont so I wanted to just be somewhere around where he would be you know? We had a very close race up until the last 13 miles or so where I pulled ahead but I thought it was so cool that these 2 guys who had put some miles on their legs throughout the summer were the 2 who finished first and second. It was just a no expectations year, just wanting to do a good race and there were tons of fast people there so I had assumed they would be ahead and I would just be doing what I could to keep up, that really took the pressure off that first year.
How has your experience changed from your first time at Leadville until now?
Ian: The race has definitely become more familiar, but in a good way. It’s not a comfort zone by any means but it feels good to go back once a year. I feel that same way about Western States, I’ve been there 9 times and I get more and more excited every year. Every time I go back to a race I have more memories attached to it, and a bigger body of experience with it. There are less new things to go through, but there is still always the challenge of trying to get everything perfect during the race and no matter how many times you run a race or how much experience you have, that is really really hard to do and that’s what keeps me going back. I think if I had a completely perfect race, there would be less incentive for me to continue to do so, but it’s almost impossible to have a completely perfect day in a 100 miler. Ultimately I want to try and have that really great race and fix all the little things to be able to walk away saying “yeah, I nailed that”. And the thing is with a new race you have the excitement of the unknown and a new experience, but if it’s a race you are familiar with, and this is the thing I think people have with running marathons, doesn’t have to be the same marathon because they are more uniform in concept you can run a similar time in most marathons so with that it’s not “oh well I’ve run a couple marathons so I don’t ever have to do it again” it’s about the improvement, it’s the same mentality of going back to a trail race you’ve done before.
What is the most memorable Leadville race you’ve ever had?
Ian: That would have to be my second time. It was a much closer race and the only time I’ve run it and not won. I had a back and forth battle with Mike Aish, and we had several races that were like that in the past. We were just battling it out, I think we passed each other like 6 or 7 times and I hadn’t seen that type of thing happen before. We were both running fast, giving it everything we could and you know he’s an Olympian so to be running at that level I was very pleased. When he passed me again at mile 97, it was a gradual uphill for the last few miles and he ran a 7 minute and 30 second mile at mile 97 on an uphill.. it was crazy. But when he passed me I knew I had to back off because I couldn’t run that speed to the finish, he ended up beating me by 3 minutes. But it was that battle that was pretty exciting and it’s more those kind of experiences that stick with me. It’s more of a “what did you have to go through to get to the end” type of thing that ends up being the most memorable for me. Mike and I battled, and when you thought you had the other guy beaten he came out of nowhere and it was just the essence of sport.
For someone new running Leadville, what advice would you give?
Ian: Definitely pay attention to the altitude because that’s the big leveler here. Try to be in higher altitude as long as you can be and not just Denver level but at Leadville altitude which is 2 miles high. The altitude can have a cumulative effect, in the early miles you might be thinking that you feel fantastic and everything is fine but you want to maintain that and keep everything a little easier than you usually would. When you have less oxygen that you can get in each breath, when you keep your intensity lower then you have a lower oxygen requirement. The harder you push, the harder your body has to fight to get more oxygen which is less up there to begin with which could result in a form of altitude sickness. The first time I went to the Himalayas for the first time and the guide told us we weren’t going to have issues because you are out of shape or less fit than someone, you are going to get it because you push your body too hard. The penalty for something going wrong in a 100 miler can be big so you want to pay attention to those things.
What are your plans for future Leadville races and your next endeavor in your running career?
Ian: You know one of the reasons I also like going back to a race is the aspect of being associated with it and being part of its history. It’s the same with Western States; I’ve got a decade of experience with that race that will be sort of locked in time. It’s a good feeling to be a part of something that means so much to many of us. Me being injured this year and not being able to run Leadville is definitely not what I wanted to happen, but it will make for a good story because I will be back next year. Sometimes it takes adversity to make the story that much sweeter and that truly is what ultrarunning is all about. So my unfortunate injured year this year means there is more excitement for me next year and it will mean a lot more to me, especially because I am missing Leadville this year not through choice. My last few years have gone very well so it was like, of course I am going to be there and run, but not everything in ultrarunning or life is guaranteed and it’s not fun to be reminded of that but it is a good reminder.
We wish Ian a speedy recovery on his injured shoulder and look forward to seeing him tearing up the trails again very soon. What is your favorite race to run and why? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments down below.