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With 14 American and 10 world records, Camille Herron, 40, is considered one of the best ultramarathoners of all time. But it has taken her decades to fully pursue what she says she was put on earth to do.
“I thought I would work in research the rest of my life. I had no clue that I would find out in my mid 30s that I am supposed to run ultras,” said Herron, who most recently broke her own 100-mile world record.
The masters runner won the Jackpot 100 in Nevada outright and shattered her previous best set in 2017. Herron only stopped once during the race—for 15 seconds to shotgun a non-alcoholic beer—before finishing in 12:41:11, which equates to a blazing 7:37 pace per mile.
Her performance not only snagged the world record, but she said she also set 10 additional preliminary world and American records in the process. Because records are distinguished by distance, time and age, it is possible like in Herron’s case, that one race can result in numerous records.
Ever since her first 100K in 2015, Herron has made a habit of breaking ultramarathon records. After that race, the race director called and told her she’d broken Ann Trason’s record. “I had to google Ann Trason, and I realized she held all these American and world records. So that was where the seed was planted in my head. That ‘Oh wow, maybe I should go after these records,’” Herron says.
That has been her quest ever since, and she doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“I just turned 40 in December, and I realized there are all of these masters records, too,” says Herron, who thinks the next 10 to 20 years will be her best yet. She created a spreadsheet to track all the records up for grabs and plans to break each and every one.
I figured out I set 10 different World/American records at the Jackpot 100 (pending ratification). I bet Andy Carr @xcmilton is having fun keeping track! @usatf @iaunews @d9monti pic.twitter.com/3MrREwVmGH
— Camille Herron (@runcamille) February 24, 2022
Connecting to Legacy and Destiny
Her mission might seem extreme. But Herron says she is simply living out what she was born to do. Growing up in Norman, Oklahoma, Herron heard military stories from her grandfather, who was a sharpshooter in the Marines and fought in World War II.
“As a kid, we’d walk into my grandparents’ house and his [two] Purple Hearts were right there on the wall in the entry,” says Herron, who recalls seeing her grandpa’s battle scars, too. “They say that I’m the most like my grandpa; I even look like my grandpa. I kind of got his spirit, and I had that mentality that I want to be like my grandpa.”
It wasn’t just the military accolades she revered. Both her grandpa and dad played college basketball at Oklahoma State University for Henry Iba, three-time Olympic team coach.
Herron’s father relayed tales of practicing without water for up to six hours. When Herron was only 7 years old, she took it upon herself to do the same. “I was definitely an extraordinary kid athletically and mentally and doing things to the extreme just on my own,” says Herron, who remembers blacking out from her stints of water deprivation.
Although this foundation for her successful ultramarathon career was apparent at young age, it took several disastrous life events to solidify her destiny.
In 1999, while a junior in high school, her family lost their home to a tornado. It was after that overwhelming loss that Herron said she turned to long distance running.
“When that happened, it made me reflect on my life and celebrate. I’m grateful for my life, I need to celebrate that. I started to run long on Sundays,” Herron says.
She credits those Sunday long runs, often the day after Saturday high school races, for catapulting her running to the next level. Herron was a three-time cross-country All-State recipient and three-time track and field State Champion. Herron obtained athletic and academic scholarships to attend the University of Tulsa. While there, she adopted one of her signature styles: running with her hair down.
“It was my freshman year of college, and I just randomly did it. I realized, woo, I feel liberated,” says Herron, who hasn’t pulled her hair back on a run since. “When I run and it flies free, I just don’t worry about it.”
But as a collegiate athlete, she was riddled with injuries and forced to stop competing, so she became a “recreational runner.”
In 2004, Herron went for a run with her now husband Conor Holt, who was a six-time All-American collegiate runner. Although they started together, Herron didn’t return until after him. Holt probed, asking questions about her training, and realized Herron was running 70 miles a week. He encouraged her to add in workouts and let him coach her, which he still does to this day.
The approach worked, and Herron competed in road races during her fifth year of college and in marathons for 10 years. With a personal best of 2:37:14, Herron qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials three times, has won more than 20 marathons, and even holds the Guinness World Record for fastest marathon in a Superhero costume–she dressed as Spiderwoman.
In 2015, everyone was pushing her to get into trail running, so she traded the roads for the trails.
“When I tried ultrarunning, it was extremely hard, and I loved it. It was a grueling, Type-A fun. But I had the personality for it. I’m not the type of person to make excuses. I naturally worked through the challenges and kept going,” says Herron, who lost eight toenails in her first 100K.
Although this switch was met with success, including numerous World Championship titles, the universe had different plans. During a muddy trail race in the spring of 2017, she tore her medial collateral ligament (MCL).
“It was like my leg was dangling. I knew I did something really, really bad to it. But I was so stubborn. I hobbled for 11 miles to the finish line,” she says. Even though she could barely stand on her leg, Herron finish fourth.
Herron recovered enough to run (and win) the Comrades Marathon, just 10 weeks after her injury. That win prompted Herron to recommit to her ultramarathon record pursuit. “I felt like it was a sign from above,” she says.
But it was challenging for Herron to fully pursue her ambitious goals while also juggling her career in research. A life-altering roll-over car crash shifted her life’s course. “I was trapped upside down, and I couldn’t breathe,” Herron says. “I realized that I could die. I could suffocate. That was another spiritual moment.”
After the accident, Herron took a break from her job to recover. She eventually made the decision to stop working and become a full-time runner.
“I don’t think I could have done it if the car accident hadn’t happened. I knew I had this body and this talent and that I could finally feel at peace knowing I’m doing the right thing,” says Herron.
And now that she has made her debut as a masters runner, she is seeking to be more in tune with her body: “I’m trying to focus on those little things that are the glue to keep my body together.”
Ten years ago, Herron could do a long run every Sunday. But as the years have passed, she has ditched the weekly long runs in favor of one or two a month, peaking at 18–22 miles. Her training is still high volume, with 12–13 runs each week and most days including two runs, but lower intensity. “I have had to evolve with age. I’m only doing one speed session a week, and if I’m feeling tired, I give myself more recovery and rest,” says Herron.
This approach is a product of her own research: In graduate school at Oregon State University, Herron wrote her thesis on how to enhance bone recovery and optimize mechanical stress for bone health. She developed her training philosophy based on her understanding of both. Herron found that bones of bipedal animals, like humans and turkeys, thrive with short, frequent bouts of stress instead of long, single occurrences.
“I have thought through everything I do,” Herron says. “I can run every day thinking I am doing what I am supposed to do today, and I’m listening to my body and working with my body.”
Following her Jackpot 100 victory, Herron is giving her body exactly what it needs now: two weeks of rest and lots of tacos. Then her focus will be on the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run this June.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to get to the finish line healthy. Even if they have to wrap me in bubble wrap,” Herron says. As she prepares for Western States, she is on track to accomplish her ultimate lifetime goal of running 100,000 miles.
“I’m excited. I feel like I can retire now,” she jokes. She’s not done yet. Not while there’s still records unchecked in her spreadsheet.