Back when social distancing and travel restrictions were unheard of, Lindie Naughton braved a chilly morning travelling to Dublin’s Phoenix Park as west Dublin schools assembled for their annual cross-country under the giant Papal Cross at the 15 acres. Her visit had a dual purpose, as she availed of a unique opportunity to chat to the quintessential hero of ultrarunning, Camille Herron
eeping a close eye on the talent on show that morning in the Phoenix Park are Stephen and Mary Holt, whose involvement in Dublin athletics goes back many decades. With them is their son Conor, a former Irish international athlete who went on scholarship to the US and settled there. He’s on a visit home. Somewhere else in the park is Conor’s American wife, Camille Herron, the current 24-hour world champion and Comrades Marathon winner. She’s doing what she does every single day of her life: putting in the miles. Since 2006, Herron has averaged at least a hundred miles of running every week.
Holt and Herron met in 2002. Herron was a student of sports science and Holt was an athlete and college coach with a 2:18.17 marathon to his credit. While at school in her native Oklahoma, Herron had loved cross-country running but had suffered a series of stress fractures. When Holt met her, she was running 70-miles a week, with little reason or rhyme to it. Holt began supervising her training and soon was observing that the longer she ran, the better she got. Their first objective was the marathon and Herron began compiling an impressive record at that distance.
“I ran 36 marathons and won 21 of them. I qualified for three US Olympic marathon trials with a best time of 2:37:14 and I made the American team for the Pan American Games. At the Pan Americans, I finished ninth. It was OK, but I realised that was as far as I could go,” says Herron.
Part of the reason was her unusual biomechanics. With a right femur that twisted inwards, she had evolved her own style of running, lifting her feet off the ground, rather than pushing; perfect for longer distances where stamina was more important than power. “I’m tall but light at 120lb, and I always had a good engine. Both my father and grandfather were basketball players, and my mother was a swimmer. I like to think of myself as a light bird. I’m like Paula Radcliffe – she also has long legs and an unusual gait.”
After making the decision to go longer and winning both the World 100km Championships and the World 50km in 2015, Herron realised she had found her niche. She resisted appeals to take on trail running and found herself a sponsor in Nike. “It’s strange, but in the US, all the media exposure and sponsorship go into trail running. It’s as if road running is for wimps. But that’s what I wanted to do.”
Her single-mindedness paid off and in 2017 she not only won the 55-mile (89 km) Comrades Marathon in South Africa but also set a world record for 100 miles. “At the Comrades, I went out hard leading from start to finish and won by four minutes, despite stopping at the wrong timing mat which lost me two minutes. I crushed it that year,” she says.
She started 2018 with good wins over 50km and 100km early in the year and ended it with victory at the annual Desert Solstice Ultra Track Invitational in Arizona, where she set an American record of 162.919 miles (262.19km) in the 24-hour race, also improving the 100 mile record along the way.
Then, early in 2019, disaster struck. Herron was driving to her job at the University of Oklahoma when she was rammed by a rogue driver. She found herself upside down, trapped inside the car, and sprinkled with shattered glass.
“I couldn’t breathe and I could smell burning, so I thought the car might go on fire. Someone then came and opened the passenger door and it was like they were opening the gate to heaven,” says Herron. After she slid out of the car, she realised that it could have been far worse – the vehicle had landed smack between a concrete pillar and an oil pump, narrowly missing both.
“Although I had instinctively leaned to one side – which probably saved my life – my back went out of alignment, which meant I began to have hamstring issues.” Still in shock, she travelled to New Zealand for the Tarawera 102-Miler and won it for a second time in a new course record. But in the Western States endurance run and back at the Comrades, she was forced to drop out. “Death before DNF – that’s what a lot of ultra-runners think, but what is the point if you’re going to cause yourself damage? You’ve got to look forward to the next race.”
“It’s strange, but in the US, all the media exposure and sponsorship go into trail running. It’s as if road running is for wimps. But that’s what I wanted to do”
In her case, that was the looming IAU 24-Hour World Championships scheduled for Albi, France, in October. With time running out, Herron tried a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection in a last-ditch effort to sort out her troublesome hamstring. It proved a miracle cure and at the championships, she ran a world record 270.116km (167.842 miles) and helped the US to team victory.
Her stunning total was partly due to an error. “I went out too fast. I thought the loop was 1,400m, not 1,500m, and only realised it when I had run about 100 kilometres and was 20 minutes ahead of my target.”
Along the way, she experienced serious stomach and bowel problems after a change to her usual fuelling plan. “I puked twice and then had gastric issues. They had provided mostly squatty potties and only three normal toilets for 350 runners. I knew that I needed to go but the queue was so long for the normal toilets that I decided to keep running. My gut had other ideas. The organisers freaked out at the sight of my soiled shorts and legs and forced me to take a shower and change clothes.”
Matters improved when she switched back to her normal race diet of mashed potatoes, tacos – and beer. “I’ve discovered that beer provides energy and settles my gut. I can get by on gels, but I prefer normal food.”
With little more than two hours left, she decided to engage ‘beast mode’ knowing that she could possibly break the world record. This she did by 10 kilometres, also improving on her own best from a year earlier.
Eat. Sleep. Run.
So what now? Herron has gone full-time, with Conor as her coach. Her routine, under ‘normal’ non-Covid-19 circumstances is simple and infinitely adaptable. “I eat a lot, sleep a lot and run a lot. I don’t feel I have to train at any given time. I can train in the middle of the night if I want. Or I can take a two-hour nap in the afternoon. I’m not a morning person!”
Thanks largely to her Comrades winnings, the couple, with their two dogs, have recently moved to a new home at 7,500ft above sea level in Alamosa, Colorado, near Adams State University where twins Eilish and Roisin Flanagan, originally from Omagh, and Stephanie Cotter from West Muskerry AC are currently based.
Herron had hoped to return to the Comrades Marathon this June but Covid-19 has put paid to that, and despite her preference for the roads, she’s eyeing up the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, which is the most prestigious trail race on the calendar. That’s not all and Herron is nothing if not ambitious. “I’m 38 now, so I have maybe five to 10 years left as a professional athlete. I’d like to move into multi-day events, like 48-hour and six-day races. And maybe the 40th Spartathlon in 2023. I want to break many more records – and I want to be the greatest of all time!” The latter is truly achievable, although it remains to be seen when the opportunity will arise to start breaking records again..
See www.runwithcamille.com for further information on training with Camille and Conor.