Camille Herron caught my attention 6 hours, 27 minutes and 35 seconds before she crossed the finish line in the first position. I vividly recall watching her bobbing up and down with a huge smile on her face as I watched the start line. Although her smile was a departure from the usual stern faces lining the front of the pack, it was her free-flowing blonde locks that made me sit up and take notice.
“I started letting my hair down 17 years ago when I started college! I haven’t used a hairbrush since then either! I don’t know how it happened – I got tired of always having to deal with my hair and loved how it felt flowing freely! It fits my personality too. I feel like Wonder Woman!”
In case you’re wondering how she maintains it, “I use lots of good conditioner :-)”. Yes I know, I always make sure to obtain the most important information – who doesn’t want good hair?
You’re probably more likely wondering how this35-year-old American athlete came to dream of running and winning Comrades and how her two previous unsuccessful attempts didn’t deter her.
“My first running book in Junior High in 1995 was Lore of Running by famed South African physician, Timothy Noakes. He wrote all about Comrades and the heroes of Comrades. It was the only ultra I had heard of until recently! I always wanted to run it – I didn’t know I’d have the ability to win it!”
At that stage in her life, Camille wasn’t even a long distance athlete. In high school, she was a 3-time Track State Champion and 3-time All-Stater in Cross Country. Despite her successes, she believes that she was never built for track running and injuries during her year of running for the University of Tulsa ended her collegiate career.
“I was never really built for track running! I got better the longer the distance, so it made sense to focus on the marathon for most of my career and then transition to ultras. I think I’m doing what’s natural to my physiology now, with the ultras, It feels easy and right! The races are obviously not easy, but I love pushing myself to the extreme.”
It was two years ago when she ran her first 100K that she realized she was built to run ultras.
“That’s when I realized I needed to take Comrades seriously and could really win it.”
Winning didn’t come instantaneously to her and she epitomises, “if at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.” She made her debut at South Africa’s most iconic race in 2014 but fell ill the day before the race and had to pull out in the later stages. In 2015 she did not start and in 2016 she added another DNS to her record when she had to pull out beforehand due to a severely torn left hamstring tendon. If you listened to her post race interviews, this is not the same hamstring that was bothering her to the end of this year’s race.
“I didn’t race in 2016 because of severely tearing my left hammy tendon. It was actually my right hammy that bothered me towards the end of this year’s Comrades. I took some time off and am building back right now. I’ve gotten treatment and have been doing exercises. It’s improving, and I think it will be Ok!”
I’ve always wondered what it’s like for a professional athlete to make a decision to pull out of a race. With so much sponsor and media expectation and interest.
“We recognize that my health is everything and the #1 priority! I’m someone who will literally push myself to unconsciousness (as happened trying to run Comrades ill in 2014) or limping to the finish with a severe injury (as I tried to do last year at a trail race- which kept me from running Comrades). I was able to persevere through 35K of puke to win the 100K World title and run the 4th fastest 100K ever. As elites, we have to make a judgement call if our health is severely compromised, before or during. I credit my husband, who’s my coach, at helping me make the right judgement call. We’re definitely in a different category than recreational runners. Running IS my livelihood and profession.”
Having her husband as a coach has been an advantage to her.
“It works great! Plus, now we both have adjusted our schedules so he can travel around the world with me! He knows how I’m feeling day-to-day so we can adjust training appropriately. This is really important to thriving and staying healthy!”
Camille Herron is big on balance and understanding what her needs are and being bold enough to make necessary changes to ensure she’s thriving and healthy.
“I formerly worked full-time in a demanding and stressful research job. I had re-devoted myself to running back in 2015, which led to 2 World titles. However, the routine wasn’t sustainable long-term with my demanding job, and I started to breakdown one and a half years ago. We finally had to re-configure and re-simplify our lives so I could focus more time and energy on running, traveling, and the recovery aspects. I now work more flexible hours for my day job, and have a boss who’s extremely supportive of what I do! Running and the recovery is now my main priority.”
Camille Herron uses how she feels as a barometer for when she goes to work, when she takes naps and when she eats.
“I may or may not go to work– it depends on how I feel. If I feel like napping, I do. I’m NOT a morning person – I now sleep in, usually run at midday, go to work for a few hours, and do the bulk of my training in the evening. I actually skipped a long run one weekend because I was too tired that day. Having that kind of intuition and flexibility was super important to being healthy and ready for race day at Comrades. Even as serious as I am, running is my stress release! I don’t lose sight of this and make sure I enjoy the process!”
Her eating patterns are equally as intuitive, she describes it as being very good at being in energy balance which is important for staying hormonally balanced too. She eats a lot of meat and potatoes, ice cream, butter, peanut butter, and beer in moderation. She also keeps hydrated by always having a water bottle at work and she carries snacks in her purse (like Clif Bars and trail mix).
“I found out in grad school that my lifelong diet is higher in fat- 34%. They couldn’t believe how much beef I eat! I seem to naturally be a good fat burner, which is probably partly why I’m a good ultra-runner too.”
Camille Herron thinks of recovery in terms of blood flow, growth factors, and nutrients and how to enhance these factors.
“The body is simple and likes to move (and move frequently!), sleep, eat well, and hydrate.
Being in tune with your body and what it’s feeling after a race is key!”
She tries to eat as soon as she can after a race. The body needs calories and protein. Her top choices are fish and chips or burger and fries with a side of beer.
“Beer/alcohol in moderation is good because it’s a vasodilator (helps blood flow) and phytoestrogen.”
She also has Rapid Reboot compression boots which she uses after races and depending on when her next race is, she may take a few days off, and then do a reverse taper to build back up.
Camille Herron also uses what she learned during her undergraduate studies in Exercise and Sport Science to aid her recovery. Her research focused on testing blood lactate profiles during strength training.
“The more intense the regimen (having both concentric and eccentric loading), the more blood lactate is produced and thus growth hormone released. If you work your upper body as such, you get a systemic surge in growth hormone that can help the lower body recover faster.”
Her first workout back is always a sprint session to get her legs turning over again and she does upper body strength training with heavy weights to produce a systemic growth hormone surge to help her legs recover.
She also wrote a thesis on recovery through whole body vibration training which she also applies to her recovery process.
“Vibration training is a large vibration platform that has been used in physical therapy and gyms. The vibrational stress is somewhat comparable to walking/standing. I learned from the study that any amount of movement enhances blood flow and thus musculoskeletal recovery. The body likes to move and move frequently! Knowing this, I strive to run twice a day, every day. There’s no such thing as too slow!”
Too slow however was the time she took between entering the stadium at Comrades and crossing the finish line, causing millions of people to yell at their TV screens.
“I thought I was finished after crossing the timing mat with the arch and being handed the rose/baton. I was confused though why no one was there, and I just thought I had to keep walking to get to people! I was definitely shocked when the other runner came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed that I wasn’t finished yet! I feel very blessed for his kind gesture, and even more blessed that I had a large enough lead to still win. I don’t want to think about how traumatizing that would have been to have been passed like that! It would have been extremely heartbreaking.”
Kind gestures are part and parcel of what makes the energy at Comrades so great and incomparable to any other race.
“I loved every second of it, from being on the starting line and hearing Shosholoza and Chariots of Fire, the energy, and intensity during the race, and then coming towards the finish, being handed the rose/baton, shooting confetti, and finally being finished! The race is the reward for the hard work. It feels like the whole world and country is behind you and propel you to the finish! I haven’t this kind of energy anywhere else. I can’t wait to come back and do it again!”
Despite Comrades being such a South African race and the pride and support South Africans feel towards SA comrades champions Caroline and Charne people have been very warm to Camille and negativity has been very minimal.
“I definitely feel honoured and humbled to have won. It was very emotional for me and knowing how hard I work! I can sense the pride that South Africans have for Comrades– maybe I can be an adopted friend of South Africa now! 🙂 I hope my win brings Comrades into the greater limelight here in the US and worldwide. I’m very active on social media and engaging, so that’s a good thing! The only negative comments I’ve seen were about my awkward stride, people doubting I could lead from the gun to finish, overplaying how tired I looked as if to make me appear weak (of course I was tired– that’s how it should be!), and then the mishap at the finish and people thinking I was celebrating early! I really did the best I can, and that’s all you can ask for on the day, regardless of nationality.”
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Camille Herron was fascinating to watch. It wasn’t just her hair, her stride, or the finish line mishap that set her apart from the rest of the field but it was also her fuelling that stood out as different. She raced with fuel resting in the band of her shorts, making her self-sufficient along the course and even consumed beer along the way.
“With the warmer temps, I felt it was important to carry my own fluids and fuel and take things as needed. I had athletic tape on my chest and abdomen to prevent chafing. I also use Squirrel’s Nut Butter. Having done trail running has taught me how to be self-sufficient like this! When I ran my 50 Mile World Best, I carried a fluid bottle the whole race and grabbed a new bottle about every 8K. Hydration and fuelling are extremely important in ultras and being able to sustain the pace as I did.”
Her fuelling included a gel with water every 30 minutes and drinking sports drink as needed. She carried two bottles the whole way at Comrades.
“I would normally only carry 1 bottle if it was cooler. In hindsight, we are fortunate to have so much course support that I probably could get away with just 1 bottle for the future. The last 1/3 of the race I like to drink Ginger beer and regular beer. It’s a nice treat and seems to help me gain clarity and feel good!”
What ultimately set her apart from the rest of the pack was winning the race
“I read an interesting article recently. They compared winning and winning Championships to offense and defense in basketball. Being good at offense (meaning your genetic talent, training prep) will win you a lot of games or place high. Being good at defense (meaning your toughness, perseverance, tactics) can also help you win or place high. Those who win Championships or big races like Comrades are good at both offense AND defense! So yes, it’s being good at offense and defense that separates the winners from everyone else.”