Kevin McGinnis

How did Camille Herron manage to set two new ultraruning records? Taco Bell and beer played minor but significant roles. 

By Chris Chavez
December 12, 2018

In 2004, Camille Herron was running 70 miles every week, even though she considered herself a recreational runner—no formal training, workouts or races. But Herron has always pushed herself farther than normal.

Last weekend, Herron—now a professional ultrarunner—pushed herself more than ever at the Desert Solstice Invitational in Phoenix, a 24-hour track race. She ran a stunning 162.9 miles over 24 hours and finished her first 100 miles in 13 hours and 25 minutes, both new world records on a track. 

Herron only started focusing on ultrarunning in 2015 after her successful marathon career, in which she won 21 events and qualified for the trials three times. The Oklahoma City native won the Comrades Marathon, a grueling 89K race in South Africa, in 2017, and she entered the Desert Solstice after scratching from several races due to a femur injury. 

Only 33 runners were invited to compete in the meet, which serves as a qualifier for the 24-hour U.S. national team. (Competitors had to previously run at least 124 miles in 24 hours or 100 miles in less than 17 hours and 30 minutes.) Sports Illustrated caught up with Herron on Tuesday to discuss her training, performance and how Taco Bell and beer helped her run just under 656 laps on the track. 

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. 

Sports Illustrated: When I tuned into the live stream after you were done, you needed help getting warm clothes and pants on. You couldn’t even get out of the chair that they gave you. When were you actually able to walk?

Camille Herron: Yesterday, they had to get me a wheelchair while I was traveling. It’s hard getting out of bed or even trying to walk around the airport after doing something like this.

SI: Did anyone say anything at the airport about why you were in a wheelchair?

CH: Everybody was like, “What’s going on?” and I’d tell them that I ran a race. If they asked, “Well, how far did you go?” I don’t think people could wrap their heads around running for 24 hours on a track. It was 655 loops. It was pretty mind-boggling to share that with others.

SI: Where does your pain tolerance for something like this come from? Were there any signs along the way when you were growing up?

CH: My dad and my grandpa played basketball at Oklahoma State for Henry Iba. I grew up hearing stories from them about how my dad would practice for six hours without taking a drink of water. This was back in the 50s and 60s, where they just gritted it out. I had a “no fear” attitude as a kid. I fell into a swimming pool when I was younger and I almost drowned. I was looking into a pool and was curious about how deep it was but I couldn’t swim. I just fell in. My mom had to dive in to get me. She was a swimmer so I always say that I got my endurance from my mom. She saved me but I just had this innate feeling to not fear anything.

When I was seven years old, I got a basketball hoop for my birthday. I heard those stories from my dad so in my young mind, I thought that’s what I had to do. I would push myself in the middle of July and practice until I started to black out. How many little kids would do something like that? I thought that’s something that I had to do to get better. I hit this point of blacking out, go inside, eat some food, drink some coke and then go back out to keep practicing. It’s ingrained in me and I got it from my parents.

SI: How far did you take your basketball career before deciding to leave it behind?

CH: I remember seeing Lynette Woodard on TV. She was the first female Harlem Globetrotter so I grew up wanting to be a Globetrotter. I was a very good ball handler. Going into junior high,  my basketball team had to go into track for offseason conditioning. From the first day, I found out that I could run and run and run. I just thought of everyone on my team as a bunch of wimps. I did not understand that there was a unique physiology to me. We had to try out for all the events. The farther the distance, the better I did. I ended up going out for cross country in the fall and I think that’s when I really fell in love with running. Cross country was really my first love and I gave up basketball after eighth grade. I realized running was such a natural thing to me. I just needed to focus on that.

SI: Your comment about the unique physiology brings to mind Boston Marathon champion Yuki Kawauchi of Japan, who runs about a dozen marathons each year. A New York Times profile mentioned that he has a gene that may allow him to recover better than other athletes. Have you ever seen a doctor or physiologist who has pointed out any similar factor in you?

CH: I definitely think there is a genetic component. My mom tore her rotator cuff by falling off a ladder. If that happened to a normal person, they would’ve been in pain and they’d see a doctor. My mom brushed it off like it’s no big deal for about two years. She finally saw one and had to have surgery. I definitely think I got some crazy pain tolerance from my mom. I have no idea what it is but I was able to do back-to-back marathons and people thought I was insane. I’ve had a lot of injuries that I’ve pushed through including seven stress fractures when I was a young athlete. It’s like I would break down but didn’t know I was broken down because I can tolerate so much.

SI: You mentioned how you fared well at the marathon distance but what was it that made you jump from 26.2 miles to 100K and beyond? When did that seem like something you could do?

CH: I went to run the New York City Marathon in 2011 and David Monti (a professional athletes coordinator for the New York Road Runners) planted the seed for me to run Two Oceans, which is a 56-kilometer race in South Africa. That ended up being my first ultra. My first couple ultras did not go so well or as well as I hoped that they would. I ended up running the Mad City 100K (in 2015), which is a U.S. Championship. It was really scary. Running a marathon times two and a little further is a scary thing. It takes a lot of courage to go run into the unknown. You go from your comfort zone to something that you have no idea whether you’ll sink or swim. I ran my first 100K and I was basically driving to work on a Monday when the race director called to inform me that I broke all these records, including one by Ann Trason. I vaguely heard about her but had to Google who she was. I realized that she’s pretty much the greatest ultra runner of all-time. It dawned on me that maybe I could actually do this ultrarunning thing.

SI: 24 hours is another jump. It’s just bananas.

CH: I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve achieved almost everything that I’ve wanted to achieve as a road ultrarunner. I’m inspired by Yiannis Kouros. He’s probably the greatest male ultrarunner of all-time and had some amazing feats for 24 hours and beyond. It’s scary going from marathon to 100K to 100 miles and then 24 hours. I was probably the least experienced person running my first full 24-hour event. At the same time, a lot of it is believing in yourself and believing that I have this innate ability that is extraordinary. You don’t know what’s possible until you try. I just went into it with that “no fear” attitude that I was going to do it. I committed to it and I was going after that world record.

SI: There was a lot of attention on that record because Courtney Dauwalter was very open about her own goal of breaking the record in a New York Times profile. To see her not perform as well as she hoped and then you stole the show, when did you tell yourself that you were going for it and had a legit shot?

CH: I don’t sell myself short. I’ve done some amazing things up through 100 miles—I think I was 9.7% off the men’s world record. 9.7% off the men’s world record for the 24-hour run is about 170 miles. I wasn’t just aiming for the women’s world record. I wasn’t just aiming to beat Courtney. I was aiming to raise the bar like I did for my 100-mile record. I think I’m born with a very special gift and I’m blessed for that I really just got to make the most of it.

Chris Worden/Courtesy Camille Herron

SI: The gap between men’s and women’s records on the track are pretty big. Once you get to these longer distances, it’s much smaller and sometimes the women dominate the men.

CH: I think in ultrarunning, we’re just at the precipice of what women can do for 24 hours and beyond. We’re closing the gap on men—maybe under 10% is possible, like I did for the 100 miles. I kind of equate it to the women’s marathon in the ’70s. First we got under 2:40 and then we got under 2:30 and now we’re under 2:20. I’m happy with what I’ve done so far (in ultrarunning), but I’m pretty motivated to continue chasing that 170-mile mark and get within 10% of Yiannis Kouros.

SI: Where does someone start in trying to prepare themselves in trying to handle a 24-hour run?

CH:  I found that it just came back to training like a marathoner. Having a background in the marathon and having been a competitive road racer is an advantage. I know how to structure my training and have decent speed work. There isn’t a whole lot that’s changed when it comes to ultra running. There’s a lot of thoughts on ultrarunning with extreme long runs or back-to-back long runs. I found that when I tried to push the limits on my training like that, it just broke me down. It made me feel more tired. When I went back to traditional marathon training, I found that I felt better. When I went into my 100-mile world record, my longest training run was only 20.5 miles.

SI: Wow.

CH: I was running about 120 miles per week on a pretty regular basis. I run twice a day, every day. That’s been key from a health standpoint. I ran twice a day in this buildup but I keep my long runs pretty short.

SI: The sleep component is interesting. You have to stay up for 24 hours. Did you toy with it ahead of time?

CH: It’s one of those things where you don’t know what you’re going to go through until you actually do it. I just made sure that I was very well-rested. One of my secret components to me is that I’m a night owl. I’ve actually been going on late night runs ever since grad school. I’ll go for 10- or 20-mile runs after 10:00 at night. Most marathoners have a typical schedule where they go to bed early, get up early and go for their run. I’m different. My husband doesn’t understand how I could go for a 20-mile run at midnight but I just think it’s part of my weird psyche.I wasn’t very afraid of running through the night.

I hit a wall at about 2 or 3 a.m. They had some Taco Bell and Rogue Dead Guy Ale, which is appropriately named, that they gave me. I had to walk a couple laps while eating a taco and drinking a beer. After that, I started to feel like I could get going again. My legs felt like rocks. It got cold and I was a little bit hypothermic. I just basically had to use my mind to will my legs to keep turning over. Nothing can prepare you for what that’s going to feel like and trying to continue pushing on. That’s where your mind takes over your body and legs. It was incredible. I loved it.

SI: Logistically, who ordered the Taco Bell and was there a plan for this beforehand?

CH: Going back to high school, I used to run like three to four track events. We always used to go to Taco Bell for lunch. It just agreed with me. I would get like two or three double-decker tacos and I’d bounce back in the afternoon to run the mile. I’d run great. I always knew that Taco Bell was my go-to because it just sits very well with my gut. I’ve kept eating Taco Bell. I ate it before all of my marathons and just ran really well off it. For this race, we knew that if I needed a solid food then Taco Bell was going to be my go-to. My friend Gretchen, who flew in from New York City, went out for a late night Taco Bell run for me. That’s what brought me back from the dead—the Taco Bell and beer.

SI: I feel like I’d be a zombie way before that point in the race. How well could you still communicate and can people still understand you at this point?

CH: I really did feel like I was a zombie. It was this very strange feeling. You’re trying to push through sleep deprivation. Your legs feel like rocks because you’re hypothermic. Nothing can prepare you for what that’s like.

SI: When the race starts on Saturday morning, what are you telling yourself for those first few laps?

CH: Coming from the shorter distances, it’s hard to wrap your head around running two-minute 400-meter splits, but I’m going 655 laps. You just zone out and go into a zen moment of clicking off loops. You just mentally break it down and don’t think of it as 160+ miles. One lap at a time. One mile at a time. It’s a cool experience because you’re sharing 24 hours on a track with about 30 athletes. You see the highs and lows that everyone goes through. It’s a very intimate and personal experience. It kept me going.

Chris Worden/Courtesy Camille Herron

SI: I saw someone ran in sandals. Another person ran their entire race barefoot. There were some gnarly performances.

CH: It was cool how we all approached it differently. I saw it more like Yiannis Kouros did. He would basically bank miles and then push through the night. He’d run a fast 100 miles and just hold on through the night. That was my strategy. I had my friend Bob Hearn, who is like 53 years old and a machine. He went out slower by walking and jogging. It was strange because we had completely opposite strategies. Through the night, he was lapping me and I was cheering him on. That was the neat part—we could cheer each other on. I saw people puking, going to the restroom, stopping and changing their shoes. For the people who haven’t done it, ultrarunning is just this really cool experience.

SI: How much did you eat and drink on the run?

CH: Whatever I did during the race, I fueled and hydrated enough to maintain my weight. My husband told me that I consumed about 40+ gels. I was drinking soda and sports drinks. I had a couple beers and those tacos. With ultrarunners, you have to have a gut of steel. The fact that I could eat Taco Bell and keep running is mind-blowing but could be one of the talents that I have.

SI: Another strategic move was that you changed shoes at various points during the race. What was the reasoning behind that?

CH: I had three pairs of shoes. Nike sent me two pairs of Vaporflys and then a pair of Pegasus Turbos. I hit a point where I felt like a rock in my shoe. I tried to stop and adjust it but it felt like the material was bunching up or something. After those loops, weird things start to go wrong. I tried to adjust my shoe and realized that I could change them. I went a couple more hours in my second pair of Vaporflys but then felt like I needed a softer shoe. I wore the Pegasus Turbo through the night.

SI: Can you describe what it was like when the clock hit 24:00:00?

CH: I knew I was going to hit the world record with about 15 to 20 minutes to spare and people started gathering around the track. Once I hit the world record, I knew I had to keep going. You have to put it a little bit higher than what it was so I just kept it going for another 15 minutes. I was so happy to be done. It was incredible think that I had run for 24 hours. For me, the coolest part was sunset because it was really hot during the afternoon and we had been waiting for a reprieve from the sun. And then when the sun came up, it was the sign that we were about to finish.

SI: To a general sports fan, 162 miles in 24 hours is totally remarkable. Within the ultra community, what’s the perception about this record?

CH: Twenty-four hours is contested at the world championships, so it’s definitely a highly-contested event. A lot of the top women are running the Comrades Marathon or doing trail running or Western States or UTMB. It’s really cool that me and Courtney are doing the 24-hour event. Now we’re starting to peak the interest for other people to try it. To put it in perspective, I ran 9.7% off the men’s world record for 100 miles. Stepping up to 24 hours, what I’m doing and what Courtney’s doing, we’re going to usher a chance for more women to creep up to 160, 165 or 170 miles. We’re just at this moment when women are doing amazing things and we’re going to keep going higher.

SI: 655.48 laps. What’s it like to hear that number now?

CH: It was really hard to wrap my head around that. They were counting down when I had 50 laps to go. That was hard to digest, because I had run 600-something laps and I’ve still got 50 more to go. It’s mind-boggling to think that you’re running a full day on the track. It’s just the ultrarunner mindset of your mind taking over at some point and then trying to will your legs.

SI: The 24-hour world championships are next October in France. A normal person who experienced this may be like, ‘Once is enough for me.’ You seem to want to do this again.

CH: Absolutely. I’m really looking forward to going to the world championships and having that competitive spirit to push me to get to 170. Right now, I physically can’t run, but give me a few more weeks and I’ll be back at it.

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