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Q&A with 2013 Leadville champs Ian Sharman and Ashley Arnold

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Q&A with 2013 Leadville champs Ian Sharman and Ashley Arnold

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Runners near the top of the 12,600-foot Hope Pass, mile 45 and 55 of the Leadville 100. Photo by Yitka Winn.

This past weekend, thousands of runners and their friends, families and crews descended on the town of Leadville, Colorado, for the 31st running of the Leadville Trail 100 Mile (LT100), presented by Life Time Fitness. This year’s race boasted one of the largest fields in trail racing, with 1200 racers admitted—a number that no doubt contributed to the electric energy of this historic race, while also presenting some challenges in terms of course overcrowding, depleted resources at aid stations and traffic jams for crews.

Nevertheless, I was grateful for the opportunity to run this year’s race—my first ultra at altitude since moving to Colorado earlier this year—in anticipation of writing an in-depth feature story in an upcoming issue of Trail Runner. Just as I began the 3400-foot climb up Hope Pass—the “crux” of Leadville for many runners—the leaders came bombing down it in the opposite direction, grinning and whooping as they ran. Though I’m a middle-to-back of the pack runner myself, the out-and-back nature of the LT100 course allowed me to see much of the front-runner action unfold throughout the day.

Brit-turned-Oregonian-turned-Californian Ian Sharman, 32, took the win in 16:30:03, with Colorado’s Nick Clark, 39, snagging second in 17:06:29. Both Sharman and Clark are taking part in this year’s Grand Slam of Ultrarunning—competing in four of the country’s most prestigious 100-milers, Western States, Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch, which occur in the span of 10 weeks.

My predecessor at Trail Runner and fellow Colorado resident, Ashley Arnold, 26, led the women’s race from early on and never let her foot off the gas pedal—taking the win in 20:25:43. She shaved nearly three hours off her own record at Leadville, when she ran it in 2010 and took third. Shaheen Sattar, 29, of Texas, took second in this year’s race with a time of 22:42:41.

Both Sharman and Arnold took the time to chat with me after the race about their experiences. Read on to hear their stories, or …

Q&A with Ian Sharman

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Sharman running into Twin Lakes inbound, mile 60. Photo by jojoreluand on Instagram.

How did you find adjusting to the altitude, coming from much lower elevation?
I live at 100 feet in Walnut Creek, California, so I had two weeks at home then two weeks staying with Sean Meissner in Durango, Colorado, at 6600ft. I was able to get up on the Hardrock 100 course and fit in plenty of hiking up to 14,000 feet, as well as helping out at the Telluride Mountain Run ultra. The altitude didn’t feel too bad although it certainly made it harder to breathe and running was much tougher high up, especially moving uphill. Instead I mainly focused on hiking to help with recovery after Vermont as well as to not overstress my body while it tried to adapt to the altitude.

Did you go into Leadville with hopes/expectations of winning, or has your focus been more on your overall times for the Grand Slam?
The Grand Slam is the focus for this summer but I’ve been hoping I could win one of the four races and was disappointed that Vermont went badly and felt horrible the whole way since it looked like the course that best suited me. Given that I’d not run the Leadville course before, time goals were a little meaningless because a course profile and a few race reports don’t give a full picture. However, I know Nick Clark ran a little over 17 hours last year on a course that was 2.5 miles longer so I guessed 16 hours, 30 minutes would be about the best-case scenario.

After my legs felt so bad at Vermont, plus the fact this race was at altitude, the worst-case scenario was finishing just under the cut-offs and I’m not joking. The Slam takes a big mental commitment so I had to be prepared to slog it out no matter how bad it felt as long as I wasn’t damaging myself severely, but I hoped that even with a fairly bad day, I’d be under 19 hours.

This was your first time racing Leadville, right? What was your racing strategy going into it, and did you stick with it?
Yes, before attempting the Slam I’d only been to Rocky Raccoon and Western States 100s, albeit a few times for each so this was my first Leadville. My racing strategy is generally the same in a 100—keep it easy and comfortable for as long as possible so the bad part is pushed off as near to the end as possible. Typically that means feeling pretty good for 12-13 hours then really digging in and being fairly miserable for a while but aiming to keep up a good pace. I like to practice what I preach with coaching runners—don’t getting into a racing mentality in an ultra until about the last third and just look after yourself until then.

It was difficult to remain disciplined and not try to chase Ryan Sandes or Mike Aish in the first 50 miles but there’s a lot of time to catch people and there’s no prize for being ahead of anyone at any point other than the finish line. So when I moved into second around mile 44, I was happy to run my own race and saw no urgency in trying to catch Mike. When I was about five minutes behind him, I thought to myself that I only had to go 10 seconds a mile faster for 30 miles the end and I’d catch him.

What was the hardest aspect of the race for you?
On the descent from Powerline to May Queen around mile 85 I was bonking, dizzy and stumbling over rocks. My feet hurt and my energy levels were low but I tried to keep eating and that didn’t feel good or have much impact. Negative thoughts creep in and I knew that I couldn’t afford to slow down for long or Nick Clark would catch me—the man is tough as hardrock! So I faked it through May Queen aid station to try to look strong for anyone that might report back to Nick and ate more while there. Luckily it turned around in the next mile, but it didn’t feel much better, I could just keep up a faster pace.

How about the most enjoyable part?
Hope Pass at 12,600 feet was my favorite part in both directions (miles 45 and 55). The weather was great, the views were stunning and I felt no pressure to run uphill because the air was too thin so I was able to settle into a tough but comfortable hike the whole way. Then the run down after the second ascent was so fun with all the runners coming the other way and seeing lots of friends. I love my downhills and that section isn’t too steep so I kind of felt I was playing rather than racing and had to stop myself from hammering down since my legs still needed to feel good for another 40+ miles.

How did Leadville compare to Western States and Vermont?
Each of the Grand Slam races has a very distinct feel to it and I like that variety. Western States has plenty of pomp and circumstance with such a deep field and storied course. I love it and am so glad I’ve been able to run it several times already, but the overwhelming factors to deal with in training are the heat and the amount of downhilling. I live about two hours from the finish line so it feels more local and I get to catch up with so many friends from all over the world when I go there.

Vermont is much lower key and the humidity is something the other three races don’t really have. It reminds me of races back in the UK with rolling hills and similar views, but it’s deceptively tough with continuous ups or downs that really add up. The fact there’s a horse race at the same time also gives it a different vibe, although that doesn’t really affect the faster runners much as the horses don’t catch the first few men.

Leadville feels a lot more corporate and more similar to a city marathon with less of a focus on a race for runners by runners, although it was still incredibly enjoyable and I’ll be back to run it again. There are so many more people there, with something like 900 starters compared to under 400 at WS and VT. Even though it’s all at high altitude, it doesn’t quite feel like a pure mountain race—WS feels more like that. You see mountains the whole time but I was amazed at how flat long sections are, punctuated by climbs.

What do you do to recover in just a few weeks between 100s … any particular tricks or advice to share?
Given the short time frame between each Grand Slam race (three to four weeks) I basically trained hard for the first race, then in-between just try to hike and do occasional gentle runs with maybe two to three miles hard within the whole period between races. So I feel like I’m slacking off while also knowing that there’s no benefit in training hard when active recovery will be much more beneficial. I’ll be using an ElliptiGO before Wasatch to get exercise similar to running but without the impact.

Anything else you want to share about your race this past weekend?
Leadville was a fantastic experience for me and I loved the chance to see friends and new places in Colorado. I think the way to approach Leadville is to treat it as a two to three week commitment so you can acclimatize in the mountains, but also to enjoy being up in beautiful places. So many races are all about one day and that’s it, while Leadville makes more sense as a vacation for a little longer.

Also, I always advocate training for hiking for coaching clients who run mountain and trail races but at elevation that becomes even more important. I’d estimate I hiked 10-15 miles of Leadville in total so it was important to train for that and it allowed me to enjoy the views a little more too.

Read on for a Q&A with women’s champion Ashley Arnold …

Q&A with Ashley Arnold

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Photo by Austin Lottimer

So, you left your job at Trail Runner at the beginning of this year to focus more on your training … and it seems like you’ve been pretty much on fire all summer long with your wins at Desert Rats, White River and now Leadville. How are you feeling about your training overall this year in comparison to past years?
I think my training hasn’t been very targeted, but overall, it’s been more relaxing and more stress free. At the same time, I’ve been sick on and off a lot of the year, so I am pretty surprised that I’ve had such a good season. Definitely makes me feel like I have a lot of room for growth and improvement.

 

In 2010 at Leadville, you struggled a lot with sleep deprivation going up Powerlines (which seemed to be my downfall at this year’s race!) How did your experience this year compare?
Well, to be honest, I have had a lot of sleep deprivation over the past year. I’ve grown pretty good at going to sleep super late and waking up super early and functioning. While I’ve worked hard to get my biorhythms back to normal over the past month or so, my ability to function on less sleep now, really paid off at Leadville. I didn’t get sleepy at all. Of course, I’m sure getting up to the top of Powerlines before needing a headlamp was helpful.

 

What else did you learn from your experience in 2010 that helped you train for this year’s race?
Consistency and being conservative. Hiking up Hope Pass.

 

What was the hardest aspect of the race for you this year?
The rocks. In the dark, on tired legs. Coming back around Turquoise Lake after spraining my ankle back in December I am really, really cautious about rocky terrain—really to a fault. I got scared during that section, and I was tired. It was hard to really push myself there when I had a big lead. I also was pretty sick for the first 39 miles so I had a hard time taking in calories until I got to Twin Lakes the first time.

How about the most enjoyable part?
My crew and pacers were incredible. NO WAY could I have completed the race without them. They lifted my spirits every time I saw them.

It was awesome seeing you near the top of Hope Pass, as you were on your way down and me on my way up. You looked really strong … is it nerve-wracking leading a race and wondering whether anyone will catch up to you, or did you enjoy leading?
It was a little nerve-wracking heading out of Hope and seeing other women coming into Winfield. But as the race continued and the gap widened, I felt a little better, though, still a little paranoid at the idea of just leading all day and then maybe losing in the last few hours. At the top of Hope, though, I was feeling really good. I felt good all the way into Twin Lakes really. Zach [Woodward] was a great pacer in that section. I had been a little behind on my water and salt intake, so we worked pretty hard on that on the way up Hope. It was so great to see so many familiar faces (like you!) on the way back!

What’s next for you? Will you keep focusing on the ultra distance?
Definitely I’ll keep running ultras, but I’ll do some shorter stuff also to mix it up. I might be running UROC, but my dance company, Co-Motion, has a performance in late September in Carbondale [Colorado], and the dates are similar. So, my fall schedule is a little up in the air. I need to finish choreographing this dance and give my body a week to recover before I start running again. I will definitely run TNF50 in San Fran, though. I am already ready to run Leadville again. Surprisingly, the next day I was ready to run it again.

Anything else to share about your Leadville experience?
I feel so fortunate to have my legs, to have the ability to see so many amazing places by foot. To be able to run a race like Leadville and to have my closest friends and family there, supporting me. I am so, so, so thankful.