Camillle Herron is anything but your conventional distance runner. Although she took a rather straightforward approach earlier in her career and ran a 2:37 marathon, she later became a serial marathoner who often raced twice during a weekend and sometimes in a costume. (She’s won 20 marathons in 12 different states!) That eventually led to her dabbling with ultrarunning and now, just two years later, she’s on top of the world after winning the 2015 IAU 100K World Championships in near-record time on Sept. 12 in the Netherlands. She covered the 10 x 10K-lap course in 7 hours, 8 minutes and 35 seconds, the fourth-fastest time in U.S. history, and helped lead her American teammates to the team gold. Other top U.S. women were Sarah Bard (fourth place, 7:29:01), Meghan Arbogast (17th place, 8:02:01) and Justine Morrison (29th place, 8:29:15). The U.S. men placed five runners among the top 35 and finished fourth in the team standings (Joseph Binder, 21st, 6:58:04; Matt Flaherty, 24th, 7:01:08; Chikara Omine, 26th, 7:02:14; Jim Walmsley, 28th, 7:05:19 and Nick Accardo, 34th, 7:13:22).
Herron, 33, a Skechers-sponsored athlete from Warr Acres, Okla., also works full-time as a bone imaging specialist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. We caught up with her today, less than 24 hours after returning from her trip when the idea of being a world champion was just starting to sink in.
Congrats on your victory. How does someone win a world ultrarunning championship with just two ultra finishes under her belt?
I’m still trying to digest it all. It’s pretty crazy. I’ve had so many messages and emails. It was so overwhelming. It’s definitely the highlight of my career so far. Technically it was my fourth ultra and my third finish. To win a world championship with my third ultra finish is pretty amazing, but I think I’ve found my niche!
How and why did you decided to start running ultra-distance races?
I ran the Two Oceans Ultramarahton in South Africa in 2013. The way it happened is that I was trying to get over plantar fasciitis and I wasn’t able to do a whole lot of speed work at the time but I was still putting in pretty good mileage. We kind of thought it would be a good time to play around with racing different distances. I got recruited by the Ned Bank Running Club in Capetown, South Africa, and so I ended up making my ultra debut at the Two Oceans Ultramarathon 56K race. Everyone probably thought that being a marathoner they thought I’d go out really hard and hit the wall, but I actually went out conservative and once I tried to make up ground I couldn’t and ended up finishing 10th there. [She finished 11th place, but the lead woman was busted for doping so Herron was moved up to 10th in the final standings.]
Did your history of running two marathons in a single weekend help you adjust to ultrarunning?
Yes, I think it definitely did. I kind of made my career as being a prolific marathoner for a while. I have been running back-to-back marathons for so long I think that’s actually helped me have a pretty successful entry into the ultra world. I’m used to the intensity of the marathon and then doing that on back-to-back days and that’s really helped me adapt to pushing really as hard as I can in the ultras. I think, because of that, I realized I could race those distances—50K to 100K—like a marathoner and be OK.
At your second ultra-distance race, things didn’t go so well. What happened?
I was planning on doing the 90K Comrades Marathon and was really well trained for that last year, but then I wound up catching a virus and getting a fever a day and a half before the race. I thought I was just really badly jet-lagged. I woke up at night sweating and chilled. I didn’t feel very good in the first 10K but still wound up running pretty strong through about 83K and then just collapsed and wound up in the ER. It was a pretty traumatic first Comrades. I later learned Ann Trason also DNF’ed in her first Comrades, so I don’t feel so bad. But it was definitely a learning experience for me.
You had a 5-minute lead after 20K over Sweden’s Kajsa Berg and led by 10 minutes by 50K. How did your race play out in the Netherlands?
I knew I had a shot to go for the American record at the world championships because it was a flat and fast course, so I spent the summer mentally and physically preparing myself and telling myself I just had to go for it. And I went for it. I did my research on past races and I knew that Ann Trason had gone through halfway at 3:22 so I went into the race and ran fearlessly. Went through halfway at 3:24:40 and felt great and had a good margin over the second-place runner.
But then what happened?
I tried to take a gel at the 65K mark. I had been drinking sports drinks for the first half and was going to switch to Coke and start taking an extra gel every other lap at the 65K mark. But I had an adverse reaction when I took a Coke with a gel and I started puking. I think it was just too much sugar all at once. My body just went into overload and was rejecting what I was trying to put into it. I had never puked in a race before. I didn’t know what was going on. I went from a pretty steady pace to bending over and puking. I thought about Bob Kempainen at the 1996 Olympic Trials Marathon. I kept going and trying to take gels, but I would get nauseated and stop that and just take liquids. I was just trying to tell myself to remain calm and keep my pace. I was just trying to break it down and stay positive, but once I heard our team was winning overall I was more motivated to finish with two laps to go.
I’m probably not going to be racing as crazy as I have been with the marathon, but I’ve developed myself to a point where I can use marathons to train for ultras. I just committed to the U.S. 50K team that is competing in Doha at the IAU 50K World Championship in December. I think it’s going to be a pretty ridiculously good team going to Doha. I’ll probably do 1-2 races in October, then rest up for Doha. After that, I’d like to go for the Olympic “A” standard in the marathon. I’ve run 2:37:14, but I’d have to go under 2:37:00 to get the “A” standard so I might try to get that. I know what I do sounds like more than the average person, but I don’t think I’m the average person. I have a knack of running really far and really fast, so it’s normal for me to do a big race one month and then come back the next month to do another big race. Maybe I’m an exception to the rule.
How do you balance work and training?
I have amazing time management skills. I run twice a day on most days. The hardest thing for me is making sure I’m meeting my energy and hydration demands. There are times when I’m in the lab and standing and doing things and I don’t have time to think about eating, so I’ve had to be more conscious about how I’m feeling and reminding myself to take breaks and have snacks. It’s a whole body awareness to make sure you’re meeting your body’s needs. I sleep really well at night and try to get naps when I can—even 10-minute power naps during the day. I do two speed works during the week, but usually something kind of smaller and at night. I don’t like doing workouts in the morning and being rushed to get to work. I often run late at night. Sometimes this summer I was running 10 to 14 miles between 8 to 10 p.m. I’ve always been a bit of a night owl, so that works for me. I try to find a way to do it all.
What advice can you give to runners going from marathons to ultras?
I really think it’s a mistake to run crazy high mileage just because you’re running ultras. I run pretty high mileage at 120 to 130 miles per week. But when I made my ultra debut in 2013, I was trying to run even more miles and not do as many quality workouts and it actually made me feel flat with dead legs. I realized I just need to train how it’s always worked for me. And for me, that means training like a marathoner with a good mix of miles and faster workouts. That’s what keeps the pep in my legs and I’m able to a good aerobic volume while maintaining good leg speed too. The aerobic capacity is very important, but I wouldn’t overdo it and wind up with dead legs. The other thing is to run on all different distances and all different surfaces. The example that Max King and Ellie Greenwood have set—running 5Ks and 8Ks and cross country races and marathons and ultras—that’s kind of been my approach too and it really works.