Q&A with Grand Slammers, Ian Sharman and Nick Clark

Clearly you were both aiming for the Grand Slam record of 74:54 (held by Neal Gorman, 2010).  Did you have specific goals per “slam” event to break that goal time?

Ian Sharman

Ian Sharman

Sharman: We both discussed the possibility of going under 70 hrs in total (compared to Neal’s 74:54) if things went to plan. Really it was a case of taking each race at a time and trying to run based purely off perceived exertion rather than aiming to hit splits along the way. I knew that would get me the fastest time I could achieve and just hoped things would hold together to be under the old record…and quicker than Nick.

Clark: From the get go, it was definitely about breaking Neal’s time, but the deeper we got into the series, the more obvious it became that the new record holder would be the guy who posted the fastest overall time this year, really emphasizing the head-to-head nature of mine and Ian’s summer.

How did the existence of the other play a role in shattering the record?  The notion that, “If I finish in front of him, I’ll get the record”? 

Sharman: I think we both assumed that one of us would run consistently and fast enough to break the record so what concerned both of us (I believe) was the gap between us rather than the record splits.

Clark: By Leadville it was clear that the Grand Slam record was about which one of us would post the fastest time, so it became imperative during Leadville and Wasatch to know where the other guy was at all times. Without a doubt we both ran faster than we otherwise would have if we’d been doing it as a solo effort to beat the existing record. 

What sorts of feedback did you guys get from fans about competing against one another in the Grand Slam, and how did that affect your motivation and excitement for it?

Nick Clark (photo by Bob McGillivray, DryMax Sports)

Nick Clark (photo by Bob McGillivray, DryMax Sports)

Sharman: I don’t think the Grand Slam head-to-head became widely known until after our Leadville battle for the overall win. But from that point the majority of comments I saw or was told in person were about how people were enjoying the battle between us and just hoped we could both keep things close and interesting. Close friends and family obviously were partisan but the majority just thought it was a very cool competition but wanted Nick to catch me enough that the final race would be the decider.

Clark: Our battle seemed to spark a few people’s imaginations this summer, which has been great. A lot of the ultrarunning spectator energy these days seems to be directed towards the big races with prize money and deep fields, so it was nice to be able to drag peoples’ attentions back to the grass roots of the sport: racing for the sake of racing on some of the more storied ultra courses across the country.

With regards to personal feedback, it’s been nothing but positive from the people I’ve chatted with both during and after the Slam, with lots of people commenting on how inspired they’ve been to see a good old fashioned 15-round slug fest with nothing but pride on the line. It was just so fun to have the series play out the way it did.

How much cooperation was there in those four races, and how did your relationship – on and off the course – evolve as you guys got closer to the end of the “Slam”?

Sharman: Nick and I ran together for many miles in the first three races, while he pushed harder to try to catch up time at Wasatch he was running solo after three miles. We’re good friends and have already had a lot of very close races together in the past so there was a healthy respect for each other’s running abilities. So we chatted along the way and at Leadville I asked what the next sections of course would be like, since he’d run it before.

I looked forward to the competitive side of each race with Nick but wanted him to nail the runs too. That was why the final race finished in a good compromise where he won Wasatch but I got the overall Slam record. Obviously I wanted to beat him that day but it was good we both finished on a high.

Clark: With the exception of Wasatch, Ian and I spent at least a few miles of each race running together; ostensibly to chat but really to get a stocktaking of where the other guy was mentally and physically. Leadville was the course where we spent most time together and perhaps not coincidentally, it was probably our best race of the series in terms of times posted. Running together through the first half, we were able to stay relaxed and let the race take shape before finishing up with strong back halves. I learned a lot that day about being patient. Off the course, Ian and I have nothing but respect for each other, and the competition has definitely been a positive force in cementing our friendship.

Having completed the Slam and battled one another across four major races,  it would seem that “every minute counts”: do you think it’s made you more aware or focused on others’ performances, versus being more internally focused? How has the experience impacted your own competitiveness?

Sharman: I’m always aware of how other guys are doing when racing them, trying to get information about splits from aid stations once it gets late into the race. However, this summer just reinforced my belief in running my own race and not reacting to other people until near the end of the race. I think each of the races would have been much worse for me if I’d started pushing things earlier on and worrying about my place. The ability to push hard later in the race is what makes the difference and it’s not how fast you start but how slow you can avoid running at the end.

Clark: The Slam has definitely taught me to be more patient with my hundred-mile racing. When racing hundreds back to back like that, you have to take your time easing into the races, figuring out what you’re going to be working with that day and not worrying too much about the competition. Invariably the competition comes back to you if you start conservatively. I’ve always known that, but this summer has allowed me to trust the conservative start and it will definitely be the one race strategy that I carry into future hundred-milers.

What do you think about the emergence of new racing Series’ (e.g. Skyrunning, UTWT), and do you think those are effective ways to enhance competitiveness – amongst racers  and within the sport? 

Sharman: I love the fact the sport is growing and that faster runners are being attracted to it, creating memorable performances and head-to-heads. That’s one of the reasons I’m organizing the US Skyrunning Series which we’re aiming to start in 2014. Seeing what Skyrunning has done in Europe is very inspiring as it’s given a venue for top level runners to compete in the mountains as well as promoting the sport to a larger audience. That’s especially important given how little exercise most adults in the western world get.

Clark: I have mixed feelings on the current arms race to create the next big championship series or race. At the end of the day, ultrarunning remains a very niche sport – no matter how frequently we repeat the mantra that it’s growing at an exponential rate – so guys getting ‘big’ contracts worries me a bit, although I definitely can’t fault them for going after it while the money and interest is there. It’s not a huge motivator for me, but clearly it is for others. That said, I really enjoy running against competition, so applaud the many opportunities to do so these days, but I truly hope that people continue to focus their efforts on the grass roots too. Seeing guys like Scott Jaime, Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe go after big FKT adventures is way more motivating for me than ‘watching’ another ‘year’s deepest field’ go after it. There is a time and a place for racing hard, but just so long as we maintain a focus on the community and adventure aspects of the sport, I think we’ll be fine moving forward.

Based on your Grand Slam experience, how would you like to see the competitiveness of ultra races change in the future (if at all)?

Sharman: I certainly learned the value of having someone to push me at the Slam and both Nick and I ran faster than if we’d not had the other to race against. I’m an ultra geek and love watching the fast guys race each other, with too many super quick guys new to the sport to mention all by name. ‘Watching’ races via iRunFar.com is unbelievably entertaining and it makes me want to rain harder and more intelligently to be able to compete, so I’m a big advocate for races attracting faster and more international fields. The sport’s at an exciting stage right now, but I can still go and run a low-key, local trail race whenever I want (one of the benefits of living near San Francisco).

I see that there are two key elements to making the sport more exciting and they are, one: head-to-head rivalries between astounding athletes (anyone imagine how good Ellie Greenwood v Ann Trason at her prime would be?); and two: team rivalries that people can support as we see in other sports (not just shoe company versus shoe company) with points scored for teams across multiple races.

Clark: I think we’re in a decent spot right now, with lots of competitive race opportunities to choose from. If anything, though, I think there are too many races trying to attract talent and quite honestly not enough talent or spectator interest to feed the race promoters’ aspirations, especially on the women’s side of the equation. I love that Western States continues to attract a field on the strength of its history alone and I applaud the fact that we have opportunities like that in addition to some of the more contrived, cash-oriented attempts at bringing together a field. That said, I would like to see races like Western States acknowledge the fact that the competition that lines up on their start lines bring eyeballs and sponsorship revenue to their bottom line. That doesn’t have to mean a big prize purse necessarily, but a free – as opposed to ‘guaranteed’ – entry for returning top 10 runners would at least be a nice gesture. It’s a fine line for Western States as they have a legacy to protect, but the new generation of racers will care less and less about that legacy and history, attracted as they are by the increased financial and recognition opportunities versus road running.

It’s a tough balancing act though, because in addition to attracting fields, these older races have a duty  to stay true to the roots of the sport in promoting outdoor volunteerism, community and the old-fashioned challenge of runner versus the course.

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Joe Uhan

Joe Uhan is a physical therapist, coach and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 18 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50/50 in October 2010, was the bronze medalist at the 2012 USATF 100K Trail Championships, and finished 9th overall at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe works at Tensegrity Physical Therapy in Eugene, Oregon.