What it takes to be the Ultrarunning Grand Slam Winner

The Grand Slam is the ultimate test of strength and endurance for ultrarunners. This includes four of the most classic 100-mile trail running races: The Western States Endurance Run, The Vermont 100, The Leadville Trail 100 Run and The Wasatch Front 100. To put this in perspective, between June 28th and September 7th, athletes race 400 miles with over 77,000 feet of climbing, with most of these being logged at elevations between 5,000 and 12,000 feet.

This year, Strava run Pro Ian Sharman secured the overall title with a mere 20-minute lead on competitor Nick Clark. Ian placed fourth at the first two races and bumped it up for the win at Leadville. In the final race at Wasatch, he took second place, rounding out the Grand Slam with a record-breaking time of 69 hours and 49 minutes.

We caught up with Ian to see what was going through his mind over the past months on the trail. Read what he had to say and get snapshot of what it takes to be the ultrarunning Grand Slam winner. 

Ian Sharman, runner journal: I’ve run Western States 100 the previous 3 years and it always dominates my summer so I wanted to do something different and find a new challenge. I haven’t run that many 100s before so the idea of 4 within 10 weeks was (and still is) intimidating, but ultrarunning is all about getting out of your comfort zone so this sounded appealing.

My main goal was to get to the finish of the final race in one piece, but ideally to also break the Grand Slam record for the combined time from all 4 races (74h 54m).

You and fellow ultrarunner, Nick Clark were both very close to the Grand Slam record this year. Has his competitive presence in the Grand Slam impacted your own training and racing?

Yes, it’s made a huge difference and we’ve pushed each other hard. All of the races have been very tight between us with both leading at various points in each 100. We’re competitive guys and good friends so it’s made the summer so much more memorable to have a rivalry like this.

Nick’s won it previously and was only about 69 mins behind me going in to the last race, which sounds like a lot but one bad section at Wasatch Front 100 could have easily erased that lead.

You currently hold the fastest time ever run on American soil for 100 miles on a much different type of course than any of the races in the Grand Slam. Do you have a certain preference for terrain? Does one cater to your strengths better than the other?

I love to run in really varied places, whether it’s roads, deserts, jungles or mountains. That’s one of the things I find most fun about running – that it has no limits on where you can go. Slightly flatter trail runs seem to suit me best but I’m happy to race in events, which may not be ideal for me just to enjoy some fantastic courses.

How do you recover and continue to train with only a few weeks in between races?

Between each race I do very little training, mainly hiking and active recovery like walking. At most I run every other day to not overstrain myself since the biggest focus is to let my legs and body heal from each 100. Eating the same kind of supplements that body-builders take (the legal ones!) is also good for speeding up muscle rebuilding.

How have you used Strava in your training?

Strava has shown me so many new routes, especially since I only moved to the Bay Area a few months ago. It’s also fun to use the segments for fartlek and speed work so I’m trying to capture all the CRs near where I live – it’s incredibly motivating and helps to vary the routes I use.

What was going through your head during the Leadville 100 when you found out that you were leading? Given the field and your two previous 100’s this year, did you think it was a possibility going into the race?

I knew that if I had a near perfect race I’d be somewhere around the front but the second race in the Slam (Vermont 100) I felt so bad almost the whole time that I mainly hoped Leadville would just feel better and be more enjoyable. Once I got into the lead it was about two thirds of the way through so I was feeling better than I’d expected and knew that if I could keep things together then I could probably hold on to the lead. But Nick Clark wasn’t far behind and he’s such a fierce competitor that I took nothing for granted – he had me running scared!

Your pace on Strava shows that you ran a pretty consistent race. Were there any sections of the course where you really struggled or felt challenged?

Around 85 miles in I got delirious and was stumbling over rocks and slowing down. So I focused on trying to eat more gels and hoped it would turn around if I lowered the intensity, not that I had much choice. A few miles later I was starting to feel a bit more with it, then was told Nick was just 10 minutes behind and the adrenaline kicked in. I was just about able to hold a faster pace to the finish. I had to assume he’d be running hard and fast to the end although he was actually having stomach problems and wasn’t able to keep food down in those last miles.

Learn more about the Leadville 100 race >>

What are your plans after the Grand Slam?

Rest and recuperation! I’ve planned trips up to Sonoma and a couple of breweries so can’t wait to relax and let my legs recover.

Can you picture your life without running?

To be honest, no. But I think I’d do a similar sport if something stopped me running, like an injury. I used to play a lot of team sports so I’d have to remain active as that’s a way of life I couldn’t stop.

Outside of racing you are a running coach. What kind of advice do you give those attempting their first ultramarathon or their first 100 miler?

The main thing is to train for the specifics of the race you’re attempting since each ultra is unique, which is a big difference to road racing and halves or marathons. Experience and tactics make so much difference in the really long events so it helps to be cautious, respect the distance and aim to look after your body to try to head off any problems in training and racing at the first sign of something going wrong.

Connect with Ian and check out his activity from the Grand Slam races: