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Meet the Elite: Our Q&A with Camille Herron

This ultrarunner shattered the 100-mile world record last year by over an hour, and she wants to continue setting records in the future.

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Tackling World Records

Ultrarunner Camille Herron has been running competitively since high school, though her interest was really piqued while running the mile for the Presidential Physical Fitness exam during elementary school. Though injuries ended her collegiate running career and threatened to take the sport away from her entirely, Herron was nevertheless able to start logging 70-mile weeks again in her early 20s—and that’s when her running really started to take off. More than a decade later, Herron is now running marathons, ultras and anything else that poses challenges, all while eyeing world records that are serious (like the 100-mile record she set last November at the Tunnel Hill 100 in Illinois) and fun (the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes her as the fastest person to complete a marathon while wearing a superhero costume). Friendly and quick with a laugh, Herron makes it easy to understand how those particularly at-odds records were set by the same person.

How did you first get into running?

I grew up as a basketball player; my dad played basketball at Oklahoma State. I ran a little bit, like for the Presidential Physical Fitness mile in elementary school, so I always knew I had some running talent. When I was in junior high, we had to go out for track for off-season conditioning. Literally from the first day, I could just go and go. We had a tryout for all the different events, and the longer the distance got, the better I did. My fate was pretty much sealed: I was going to be a distance runner. In the fall of eighth grade, I had to choose between doing softball and cross country, and I was probably the only girl on the basketball team who chose cross country. It’s really cross country that made me fall in love with running.

You had a difficult injury while in college that could have been career-ending. How did that come about?

I’m pretty tall, about 5’9”. I grew about nine inches when I was in high school. I’m built just like my dad: really long legs and long arms. I went through some growing pains when I was in high school, just trying to grow into my body. That’s pretty common for women runners: We grow and our bodies change. I started getting stress fractures when I was in high school. I didn’t have the female athlete triad or anything like that; I was healthy, I ate really well and grew up on a wholesome diet, and my bone mass was really good. They just attributed it to all the growing I was going through.

I got athletic and academic scholarships to the University of Tulsa, but I continued to have stress fractures, so I ended up initially getting a medical hardship [a waiver granted to injured collegiate athletes] and became a recreational runner. There were a couple of turning points when I was 21 or 22. I’d met my husband, who was a serious, professional athlete—he’d made the Olympic Marathon Trials. I was helping him with his running career. One day in 2004, we went out running and I was out longer than he was. He was like, “How much are you running?” I said, “Oh, I’m just running 70 miles per week.” He was like, “Whoa—that’s quite a bit for a recreational runner.” That was the turning point; he started coaching me and basically resurrected my running career.

Did you imagine while you were growing up that you would become a professional runner?

It’s so funny; when I was in high school, we had to write this letter to ourselves our senior year. I found it on my computer a while back. It was so funny to read, because I wrote down all my goals and dreams. Everybody dreams growing up that they want to go to the Olympics; I hear high school girls say that all the time. I was one of those girls. But ultrarunning? That was something that I had no idea existed.

When I was in college, I met a guy who ran for Oklahoma who’d run Western States and Leadville and had done 24-hour races. I was pretty fascinated by meeting him and hearing his story. It’s pretty mind-boggling to imagine running that far, when the furthest I’d raced at the time was a 5K.

It’s funny to look back now at all the turning points and the people I’ve met at different times, and how that led me to where I am now.

I had a training partner about 10 years ago when I was training in Colorado. I remember distinctly telling her, “I’m never going to run an ultra; that’s bad for your body.” I’m eating my words now.

What strategies do you use to maintain heavy mileage?

I’m really fortunate in that I went to Oregon State for grad school, and I ended up being a guinea pig for all these nutrition studies. I learned a lot about myself. I was running twice a day, starting to train for a marathon, and they told me that I actually had a good energy balance, as far as meeting my energy needs for all the running I was doing. They told me to make sure I was getting enough protein and eating frequently throughout the day and that I had snacks in between my main meals. Now I’m making sure I have snacks and a water bottle with me and that I’m being consciously aware of my energy needs. That’s been really important for me as my running career has taken off.

I’ve gone 11.5 years of averaging more than 100 miles per week. As a woman, I still get regular periods. I learned in grad school that your energy balance is critical to your hormonal balance, so I learned about making sure I’m feeling well, sleeping well and recovering between runs. Having done my master’s in sport science, I did my thesis on how that can affect muscle recovery. I learned how to strike a balance between my exercise and nutrition and stress levels. I think it helps that I have a strong educational background; I understand what my body’s going through. The only times I ever get injured now are when there’s some freak accident. I’ve had a couple of accidents on the trails: I’ve hit trees and had random mistakes like that. But I’ve been able to put my knowledge to the test. I’ve had to recover from injuries and bounce back quickly.

It’s pretty much a dream come true. When I was in grad school, I read Ron Daws’ The
Self-made Olympian
. He talks about his methodical approach to running and how shaving down his shoes could take an ounce or two off and make him go faster. I was really fascinated by going to grad school and seeing all of these other knowledgeable people who were learning what I was learning.

What is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned throughout your time as an ultrarunner?

With age, I’ve learned that it’s better to not rush things. It was easier when I was in my 20s! I’m 36 now and I’ve gotten better about recognizing when my body’s in pain and needs to take a couple of days off. Sometimes you can nip things in the bud if you take two or three days off to get something to calm down. That’s something I’ve gotten better with: Being able to read my body and recover better. I’m still running PRs, I’m still improving. It’s really exciting. I think a lot of it comes down to that recovery factor and being more self-aware.

You currently hold the world record for the fastest marathon run while wearing a superhero costume. How did that come about?

That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I was actually bouncing back that fall, because I’d had a foot injury and I was maybe six weeks back at running. It was around Halloween, and I’d seen a couple of my friends run marathons in costumes. I was fascinated by that. As a kid, I was always into Halloween. I didn’t think it fit my personality, but even though I’m a serious runner, I do still like to have fun with it.

I had to submit an application to [the Guinness Book of World Records] to get it approved; there’s a lot of things you have to go through with paperwork and stuff to make sure it’s legit. But yeah, I just did it. I’ve never seen the spectators so excited. The kids were going wild.

What does a perfect run look like for you?

The best place I’ve ever run was on the west coast of Ireland. My husband’s from Ireland, so we’ve gone out there a couple of times to visit his family. It is the number one place I’ve run at, and I’ve been all over the world these past few years. It just melts my heart every single time. The scenery is just unbelievable.

There’s a trail maybe 7 or 8 miles long, and a lot of people walk it, but you can run it. It’s not that bad; it’s pretty flat, but it can get kind of muddy, especially in the winter. It will just blow your mind. People die there, too; you’re on the edge of these big cliffs. I’ve had moments where I’ve slipped, and I’ve been like, “Oh my gosh—I almost just died.” It makes your heart pound.

What’s next for you?

Last year, I said I wanted to replace all of the world records on the road. I got the 100-mile world record and the 12-hour world record, so I just have to play it out each year. It’s fun for me to set a couple of strong goals every year and go after a couple of road records.

Comrades is the top ultra in the world, over in South Africa. I want to bring more people over with me, because I seriously think that it’s one of those things you have to see in your lifetime, kind of like the Boston Marathon. If people want to run an ultra, the Comrades Marathon is the one to do. It just blows my mind. I want more people to experience the magic of how cool it is.