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After years of successful marathon running (PB: 2:37:14), Camille Herron committed to ultra distances four years ago and has lit up the ultrarunning scene ever since. The 37-year-old American holds multiple world speed records, including the 100 mile record, 50-mile record and the greatest distance covered in 12-hours and 24-hours (162.9 miles for the latter). And she’s not done yet.
In this chat Camille tells me what fuelled her fire for the speed records, why she’ll never run long, back-to-back runs in training, and how she’s hoping to stay injury-free for Comrades (87km) and Western States (100 miles), which are her main bucket list races this year.
**Check back on Friday to read our chat about doping in mountain and ultra trail**
Last year you broke the 24-hour distance record, you already hold the 100 mile and 12-hour records – are you on a mission to collect all the speed records?
What triggered me going for these records was that I had one thing after another [happen] on the trails. I would have a great trail race, then I would go and injure some sort of body part. Two years ago, I tore my MCL (knee ligament) ten weeks before Comrades and it was one of those moments during a race where I knew I had badly injured myself, and I had this sunken feeling in my gut thinking it could be permanent.
The mountain ultra trail mentality is ‘death before DNF’ so I was hobbling to the finish with this really bad injury thinking, ‘I’ve only got 11 miles go but I think I’ve seriously just tore up my knee.’ I felt sad thinking what a loss to the sport it would be if I never got to go after my goals and these speed records just because of some silly injury and this whole mentality of pushing through everything to finish. I finished the race; I didn’t know what was wrong with my knee, I didn’t know whether I’d be able to run again. Sure enough I did, I was able to rehab my knee, and I won Comrades [ten weeks later].
Then I ran a couple more trail races and I had more accidents and injuries, and the steam was building up inside of me, like: I’m tired of all this crap, I’m tired of dealing with all these injuries! So I thought: I’m going for it, I’m going to start hitting all these world records. That’s what kind of set me up to go after them – this feeling that I’ve got to make this happen because I could have some sort of career-ending injury.
So you took this feeling into your 100-mile record attempt?
When I went for the 100 mile world record at Tunnel Hill, it was kind of this moment of, ‘I gotta make this happen’. I ended up breaking the world record by over an hour. I had so much adrenaline going into that race that I felt I was going to achieve my goal no matter what; I was going to absolutely crush it and obliterate it. And sure enough I did! [Laughs].
You rolled your car at the beginning of the year too – did that put things further in perspective?
It was horrible, absolutely horrible. You could make a movie of my life because it’s unbelievable some of the things that I’ve had to overcome to do what I‘ve done. I’ve had all these turning points in my life and my career that have fuelled me for the next great feat that I go after. So yeah, I’ve just been going after these world records thinking tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, something could happen to me.
I feel like I’m at a point in my life that I have a sense of peace that I was able to get these world records. I go out every day with a big smile on my face and that satisfaction that I’ve achieved my goals and knocked off all these things that I have on my bucket list. I felt the same way with Comrades, it was my number one lifetime goal and I did that 10 weeks after tearing my MCL and thinking my career was over!
What goes into a performance isn’t a straight line, it’s not just running with my legs – there’s a lot of heart and emotion behind a performance. Every amazing thing I’ve done in my life and career was fuelled by a lot of emotion and a lot of work. I just put my heart into it.
Do you draw on the things that have happened in the past when it gets tough in a race?
Oh, absolutely. When I set the 24-hour record back in December 2018, I had been injured all year. I’d had a stress reaction in my femur and it was the first major break for me as an adult – I hadn’t taken that much time off [running] since I was in college! It was such a rough year, so when I committed to go for this 24-hour record it was back in July  when I was recovering from my leg injury.
I had a four-month build up to that race where I just trained like a mad woman and got myself back in shape. When I did the race, I was a woman on a mission that day, like: I have to make this happen no matter what. My husband and I had talked about the fact that I would have so many road blocks in that race that I’d have to work through and jump over to keep going, and at about 2am, around 18 hours into the race, I started getting hypothermia and sleep deprivation. It was like my brain was starting to shut down. One of my friends got me a taco from Taco Bell [laughs] and I had a beer, and that helped pep me up. I kept going for another six hours.
You’re running loops on a track for 24 hours. I can’t begin to imagine how monotonous that is!
[Laughs] Everybody probably thinks how the heck did I stay mentally engaged during that? Doing a track ultra is surprisingly social because you’re on a track with 30 other people and they’ve got music playing, you’re running past your crew. It’s not like you’re out on a trail running for hours by yourself – there’s a lot of stimulus going on when you’re on the track; passing people, cheering for each other, so I actually had to prepare for this race to stay mentally focused and not get distracted by all that external stimuli around me.
And then it was all about how I dealt with all the roadblocks, even things like my shoes. I had 3 pairs of shoes that I went through. I was trying to read my body the whole time: how am I feeling with my energy? My hydration? My feet? I think the hardest part was working through the night portion and the sleep deprivation and just trying to keep that light on in your head. You’re wanting to go to sleep but you have to keep running! [Laughs] It was definitely one of the hardest things I had to do just to keep my legs moving and keep my mind awake.
Let’s talk about training – you’re unusual in that you don’t advocate very long runs or long back-to-back runs. Can you explain?
When I first got into ultras, reading up on these training methods, I started trying to alter my training to fit the ‘ultra training’ philosophy, extending the length of my long runs and more mileage, and I personally found I felt more tired. I’ve had a long career, I know how to read my body, and I found that with these changes I started to lose the pep in my step. I felt just really tired.
So when I went into 2015 and running my first 100K, I basically said I’m going back to marathon training because I know it works and I know I perform well that way. So it was kind of an experimentation, and when I went back to shortening my long runs and training more like a marathoner with speed work, that’s when I had my breakthrough. I broke one of Ann Trason’s (legendary ultrarunner) records in my very first 100K, so I knew after that it was important for me to continue to stick to what works.
What does your run training typically look like?
We pretty much operate off a two-week cycle and try to hit doing short intervals, long intervals, a hills session and a long progression run. So I have four main hard workouts that I’ll do, usually during a two-week period, and then the rest of it is easy jogging. I try to get on the trails once or twice a week, and if I’m leading up to a trail race I try to do more trail running. So there is some specificity to whatever is my upcoming race. I’m currently getting ready to run Comrades and it’s a climbing course so I need to make sure I’m doing a regular hill session every two weeks. For me, it’s just more about the consistency; just trying to put in good volume in the final 8 weeks leading up to a race.
There’s nothing crazy about my workouts or long runs – I’m not going out for some crazy 40-mile training run. A lot of people in ultrarunning think you have to do these crazy long runs and back-to-back long runs and crazy workouts, but we keep my training pretty modest. I’m not training very differently to what I did as a marathoner and really it’s more about feeling good most of the time, and being able to feel good when I toe the line so my legs feel fresh and strong and prepared. We’re got our formula pretty mastered from having a long running career!
Do you maintain a pretty consistent weekly mileage?
Anywhere between 100 and 130 miles a week is kind of my sweet spot. I would say for the final 8 weeks leading up to a big race like Comrades or leading up to a world record, I usually get in about 900 to 1000 miles within the 8 weeks. Everyone probably looks at that like, ‘That’s running 16 miles a day!’ but I’m running twice a day unless I’m tired; I’m splitting up the training so I’m not running super-far. Most of my runs are between 10-14 miles and then I come back in the evening for a shake-out of about 5-6 miles. I’m splitting up the training to 12-13 times a week with a single long run every week. The body just gets used to that routine of eat, sleep, run, repeat [laughs].
How is your coaching business going – are you enjoying it?
Yeah, it’s been really cool. I’ve had so many requests over the years that when I finally said, ‘OK Conor (Camille’s husband), we’re going to have to pull the trigger here,’ I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t realise it would be so popular! I kind of thought it would be us starting to coach a couple of athletes. I’ve got to give credit to Conor for helping me manage it all.
The coolest thing is to be able to give back all our knowledge and experience. The feedback we’ve gotten is so incredibly positive. I wasn’t surprised – I know the training works and what we do works, but to hear from athletes saying that they feel better training with our approach is so incredible; that they’re running PRs and talking about how good they feel. A lot of it is how it fits together. We don’t overstress any single run or workout, it’s just the totality of the training that works.
In your experience what’s the most common mistake the everyday runner makes?
My husband and I talk about this a lot! I would say just running their easy runs too fast. There are so many people who are running close to their marathon pace every day, and I’m just like, how is that possible?! I guess if you’re running 20-30 miles every week maybe you could go out every day running close to your marathon pace but yeah, we’ve just had to educate people on the purpose of a run and to slow down their paces. I think Conor has a formula to figure out what someone’s marathon pace is, and slowing down maybe a minute, two minutes per mile for their easy runs.
A lot of people training for ultras are shocked that we don’t do the back-to-back long runs, because I guess everyone else in ultra running does that. But here I am, I’m the example of someone doing something a different way, and I definitely feel that what we’re doing is right; I’m breaking all these records that have stood for twenty-five years and I’m doing it a way that keeps me and other athletes fresher and stronger, being able to toe the line feeling good and not beat up.
Are you finding your athletes have more energy now?
Yes, that’s exactly it. We have so many athletes who are talking about how they feel so much more energised training with us. We have to tell them don’t use it up, save that energy for race day!
You missed out on Comrades and Western States last year – are you lining up for both this year?
My biggest lifetime goal would be to win Comrades and Western States in one year, but yeah being an athlete is very tricky. If I get injured it tends to be from something random, like tripping up something in my house [laughs]. Last year, I tried to do a strength training exercise I saw on YouTube and I ended up straining my quad. It was so silly reflecting back on it; I can’t believe it literally cost me the two biggest races of my year. And I was so fit too, my training had been great… So Conor and I joke we should just wrap me in bubble wrap for the next few months [laughs]. I’m like my own worst enemy – something stupid will happen to me!
So how long until your next race?
I have a few weeks to go to Comrades [on 9 June]. I strained my hamstring a little bit during a race a few weeks ago, so I’ve been trying to bounce back from that. I’m feeling better – I’ve rested it and have been working with my medical care people. Hopefully I can do both Comrades and Western States. We’ll see what happens – never count me out. With all of the crazy stuff I’ve been through, to come back from a really bad knee to win Comrades, anything is possible!
You can follow Camille via her social channels: www.instagram.com/runcamille, www.facebook.com/runcamille and www.twitter.com/runcamille and find out more about her coaching business at www.runwithcamille.com.