The name Camille Herron wasn’t all that well known in South African Comrades Marathon or road running circles before Comrades 2017 but it certainly is now. Comrades day 2017 and the American runner led the women’s race from start to finish to come home in 6:27 and to become only the third American winner of Comrades in the history of the race.
It’s not only her performance on Comrades day that has brought her to the attention of South African runners but also what she has done since then with many shaking their heads in disbelief that anyone can do what she has done in so short a period.
No sooner had she won Comrades and she was back in action again when most Comrades runners were still in recovery time but let’s hear it from the lady herself. I contacted her and she was more than happy to “chat” about her remarkable achievements in just seven months.
DJ: 2017 has been an amazing year for you with a couple of world records, a couple of US records and of course the Comrades Marathon title under your belt and I don’t think there can be too many people who can claim to have done that in the same year – in fact in the second half of the same year but what for you has been the highlight of your year?
CH: Nothing I have done so far or could do in the future can top the thrill and honour of winning Comrades! It’s the ultimate race to win- to become only the 3rd American win it makes me feel very grateful and humbled by what my body can do! I actually had a hard time getting motivated to train again after Comrades—what do you do after reaching your #1 life goal?! I had to start writing down the rest of my goals. What’s followed since then is the realization that there is more to achieve beyond winning Comrades, although nothing can quite match it.
DJ: Comrades has been a long term plan for you and in you said somewhere that started thinking about Comrades as long ago as 1995. Tell me how that all started for you and how sitting far away in the United States you came to learn about this race over almost 90km in South Africa?
CH: Yes, I’m very fortunate that my first running book my Dad got me in Jr. High (1995) was Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes. My young brain couldn’t fully comprehend all the science in the book, but I loved reading the stories about the Comrades Marathon and the heroes of the race like Bruce Fordyce and Arthur Newton. It was hard for me to wrap my head around running that far. It was the only ultra I had heard of until recently. I knew I wanted to run it some day, but I couldn’t have imagined I’d have the talent to win it!
DJ: The Two Oceans also featured somewhere in your introduction to South Africa. Was that before your first visit to Comrades and how did that come about and has that been successful?
CH: I first heard about Two Oceans from the elite coordinator for the NYC Marathon, David Monti, back in 2011. I had been racing back-to-back marathons with short recovery time between the races. He planted the seed for me to consider stepping up to ultras and look at Two Oceans. It ended up being my first ultra in 2013. I under-performed a bit by finishing 10th (moved up in place because of a Russian caught doping). I didn’t know how hard to push myself stepping up in distance. Everyone was talking about Comrades while I was over there, so I first tried it in 2014.
DJ: You had a couple of visits to Comrades before it eventually all came together for you with the 2017 race and without any competition to worry about you seemed to have a fairly comfortable race from start to finish. Was it a comfortable race or did it just look that way?
CH: When I stepped it up to 100K in 2015, I was in a league of my own when I won the World title in 7:08 and came back 6 weeks later to break Ann Trason’s World Record for 50 miles on a hilly course in the rain/wind (5:38). I wanted to come back to Comrades and give the Course Records a shot. However, since then I’ve had some freak accidents tearing both hammies. Then in mid-March I accidentally tore my MCL at a trail race. I thought my dream was dashed once again! I had to take 2 weeks off and then had 8 weeks to train for Comrades- we made every day count.
I got back to 80% health and fitness. Judging by the heart-rate based pace (80% of HR max) I was going at 2 weeks before the race I knew I had a shot to contend for the win. I was very confident I could focus on this effort, run my own race, and be up front. I ran within myself on the first major climb and was anticipating trying to drop the pace once the course flattened after 40K. Between the exceptional heat and my hammy getting tight it made it tough to increase the pace to go after the course record. Having a large gap, I knew I could take my time at the aid stations to rehydrate (including enjoying some beer!). I continued to focus on pushing at 80% effort. I never felt exceptionally fatigued- it was mainly my tight hammy that weighed on my mind. Once I crested the Polly Shortt’s Hill, I knew I was going to win! It was exciting!!!
Crossing the line to win Comrades 2017
DJ: Getting back to what you’ve done since Comrades. What you have done is something that is pretty much unknown to the average Comrades or South African runner.
Four weeks after Comrades it was the Western States 100 and whilst that didn’t go according to plan you were still there. Then a few months later and you were back and you broke the Women’s world 100 mile record at the Tunnel Hill 100 miler finishing ahead of all the men in that race and you took over an hour off the previous women’s world record.
Then another month later we find you in Arizona for Desert Solstice at the beginning of December and there on a 400 metre track you broke the US 50 mile record, the world 12 hour track record and the US 100km track record at the same event.
That is an amazing performance. How much did that take out of you?
CH: For me and probably most South Africans the year sort of revolves around Comrades as the ultimate goal! However, there are more races and goals to go after the rest of the year! I have to credit Ann Trason and many others who showed the way and pushed the limits of how quickly we can recover and how far and fast we can go. She won Comrade and Western States twice in the same yr. I had already pushed my own limits this way as a marathoner. To be doing it now in ultras is a fun test! Comrades is still a far ways off right now, so I still have a lot of time to re-focus on building towards it again. I’m well-trained and I don’t think the longer races take as much out of me as the shorter, faster races that ~tear up your muscles. It also gets easier to recover the more you race. I haven’t felt as beat up after Desert Solstice as I felt after the Tunnel Hill 100. I certainly won’t race this much or as extreme leading up to Comrades! I think the longer races and trail races build physical and mental strength. I can progress towards speed and being more recovered leading up to June.
DJ: As you know I follow you on Twitter and after the Desert Solstice was all over you tweeted that after you broke the 100km record you felt a “bear on your back” and had to force yourself to go on for the 12 hour world record but you did. Where did that strength come from?
CH: For Desert Solstice I have to credit my husband for giving me a pep talk to get back out there! I have a strong mental will to reach my goals—getting that long-standing 12 hr World Record held by Ann Trason was something I felt I had to do. Once I got going again I was on a mission! I get mental strength from my training and thinking about all the things I’ve overcome as a runner and in life. Even watching the TV coverage of Comrades and hearing the commentators doubt that I could keep it up leading from the start, there was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to win. I was very confident in the effort I was giving and knowing what I’m capable of—this self belief holds true for any race. Being able to persevere and push through the low points has always been something I’m good at. Both of my parents were great athletes. I believe I got it from them to stay calm and composed under pressure, being both a basketball player and stage performance (dance, piano, band). I used to push myself at basketball in extreme heat until I’d black out- hearing stories from Dad this is what I thought I had to do to get better! I’d eat something and then come back out to play. It’s the culmination of these life experiences that helps me mentally and physically break through, stay positive, and continue to find mental inspiration.
DJ: Are you not concerned that you are perhaps doing too much and that you are asking too much of your body and yourself?
CH: I’ve had enough serious injuries to know that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed! I have to make it happen now while I still have my health and speed to do it. I’ve had a very long career already as a prolific marathoner and racer to know my limits and also how to recover quickly. I’m healthier when I’m training and racing consistently. I’m 35 now and I only have a small window to continue to chase the ultra speed records. I’m actually not racing as much as I used to (even if it appears I am racing a lot!). I’m focusing now on being at my best and more rested for the bigger and brighter goals like winning Comrades and continuing to break World Records. People like Ann Trason show us you can pursue even more epic feats, like winning Comrades and Western States in the same year.
DJ: We know you’re coming back to Comrades 2018 and you’ve hinted that you are looking at the record and if that happens you would be only the fourth woman to go under 6 hours on the Down Run. What are your plans between now and the 10th of June 2018 – Comrades day?
Will you be doing any more racing before then or will you be concentrating on building up to Comrades and at the same time recovering from a very tough second half of 2017?
CH: I’m really feeling great right now and want to continue to keep the momentum going. Staying healthy is our #1 priority, so I work diligently with my healthcare team! I’d love to give the 24 hr World Record a shot this winter. I also need to qualify for Western States at a trail race. Otherwise in April-June I will be focused on preparing for Comrades and being sharp and rested to go after the win and course record. Ann Trason is one of the few women to have broken 6 hrs, so to be surpassing her records from 50-100 miles gives me the confidence I can do it!
DJ: Finally. Tell me about the beer. Everybody asks about the beer you drink whilst you are running and I think you had two during Comrades and I have had people saying to me that perhaps they should try it. Does it help you or is it just a refreshing drink on the road because you enjoy it?
CH: When you’re running a gruelling, long race like Comrades I think it helps to have something you enjoy eating or drinking at some point later in the race! I figured out the beer thing by accident at a trail race over a yr ago—it helped me overcome a bonking point in the race. We now have incorporated it into part of my race plan—at least for me it helps settle my stomach and give some mental clarity (in moderation of course!). I look forward to it every time. I enjoyed Jack Black’s Brewers Lager at Comrades.
Perhaps you now know a little more about the lady who won Comrades 2017 and since she and I had this little “chat” she has made her intentions for 2018 clear and over the first weekend of the year she won the Bandera 100km and Trail Run in Texas, one of the toughest trail runs and one of the oldest.
Camille we look forward to seeing you back in June!