Catching up with the newly-crowned 24-hour racing champion
On Saturday morning, 33 individuals began to run around the track at Central High School in Phoenix, Arizona. For most of them, it was the start of what would be a very long day. Over the next 24 hours, their task was to churn out as many laps as possible before the 8 a.m. cutoff on Sunday. If you think that sounds like a case for the Arizona Department of Education, let me reassure you that these were consenting adults who’d paid $200 to take part in the Desert Solstice Invitational—a USATF-sanctioned 24-hour race. It’s an elite event with competitive qualification standards, which helps explain why there were only 33 participants. It also takes a certain kind of person to want to run more than 100 miles around a 400-meter oval.
But 100 miles is amateur stuff. Last weekend, Camille Herron, a 36-year-old ultrarunner from Oklahoma City, ran 162.9 miles (655.48 laps) to crown herself the overall winner at Desert Solstice, beating second place finisher Jacob Jackson of Loma Linda, California, by more than five miles. Though it was her first time running for a full 24 hours (Herron ran Desert Solstice last year, but stopped after she’d set a 12-hour women’s world record) she set a new women’s 24-hour world record, narrowly eclipsing Polish runner Patrycja Bereznowska’s previous mark of 160.5 miles, which was set at last year’s 24 Hour World Championships in Belfast, Northern Ireland. En route to her overall win, Herron also set the women’s world record for running 100 miles on a track, for which she notched an impressive split of thirteen hours and 25 minutes. (That’s an average mile pace of 8:03, in case you were wondering.)
We chatted with Herron to get her thoughts on the unique challenge of running a 24-hour race, ultrarunning vs. marathon training, and the future of her sport.
OUTSIDE: It’s safe to say that the majority of our readers will not have personal experience with this race format. How does one approach a 24-hour race?
Herron: I’m coming from a marathon background, so I know it’s hard to wrap your head around running 100K, and then 100 miles, and then 24 hours. I really had to work with my husband and coach, Conor, to think about what I might experience while running through the night and dealing with sleep deprivation, hypothermia, and nutritional needs. There are all these things you have to deal with on top of the actual running part. It’s more about your mind than your legs. It’s trying to will the legs to keep turning over through sleep deprivation. My legs just started getting really stiff and I was doing wind sprints just to try and keep my legs turning over.
On Twitter, you mentioned that you ate Taco Bell and drank a beer during the race. Can you give us more specifics on your fueling strategy?
I was alternating vanilla and raspberry-flavored Clif Shot energy gels every 30 minutes. Between that I was sipping sports drinks and soda—but, yes, I also had a beer late in the race. My favorite is Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale, which is appropriate since I became a little more dead as the day went on. [Rogue Ales is listed as a sponsor on Herron’s website.] The science says you can digest between 60 to 95 grams of carbs per hour. So I was mainly using gels and sports drinks and then the beer. I’m not usually someone who eats solid food on runs, but I knew that there might be a point at which I would just need something more substantial. I know I’m kind of crazy, but Taco Bell has been working for me since high school. I used to eat it in between track races and run really well. So, last weekend, my friend Gretchen got me some Taco Bell. My go-to is the Double Decker Taco. I ended up walking a couple laps and having a Double Decker Taco and a Dead Guy Ale at around 2 a.m.
How does one train for a 24-hour race?
If there’s anything I’m doing differently from other ultrarunners, it’s that I’m training like a marathoner. Ultrarunners might do back-to-back long runs, or 30- to 40-mile training runs. I’ve never done that. My long runs are only 18 to 22 miles. But I still run high mileage and do speedwork. I run twice a day, every day, and put in week after week of 120-plus miles. It also probably helped that I’m wired a little differently in that I’ve always been a really good nighttime runner. I’ve gone for 20-mile runs at midnight. I really like running at night because it’s really quiet and I can just zone out.
Speaking of zoning out, how do you deal with the monotony of 24 hours on the track?
It’s a very intimate experience. You’re passing people all day. You see people puking, going to the restroom, stopping to eat or to change their shoes—we’re all just kind of coming and going with each other all day. It’s a very social experience and, in that sense, very different from your typical road or trail race. Surprisingly, the monotony is not that bad.
On the same day that you won Desert Solstice, the cover story in the New York Times sports section was a feature on your fellow ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter. The headline read: “The Woman Who Outruns the Men, 200 Miles at a Time.” Did you think about “outrunning the men,” or do you view all competition as the same?
I definitely elevate my game when I have competition. I definitely saw this as a championship type race where I could do something epic. I was very motivated early on in the race and didn’t realize how close I was to the men. I think they started realizing that I was close to them. It was kind of fascinating when, one by one, they just all kind of died. And, actually, I was personally a bit deflated once others started giving up. Courtney gave up and then Zach Bitter and then Pat Reagan. I felt deflated because I felt if they’d hung in there we could have continued to push each other to maybe hit 170 miles. But that’s what ultrarunning is like. The further you get, the more it becomes this mystery. At some point it’s like: “Oh my gosh, maybe a woman can win this.” It’s an interesting thing about these track ultras: you’re sharing the whole day with everybody and seeing what everybody is going through. It hit me emotionally because I felt for the other runners because it wasn’t their day, but at the same time it was really exciting to realize I was going to win.
Going off the website, it looked like you also won $2250 in prize money. Is that right?
I actually have no idea. Ha! The racing means so much more to me than the money aspect. For me, it’s more about the history that I’m making and being able to raise the bar for the sport and for other women. I want to be remembered years from now. You can’t put a price on that. I want to be able to able to read my name in history books. I think of our sport right now as being like women’s marathoning in the ‘70s. It’s a cool part of history to see women just crushing it right now. I think it’s just going to get better and better. Maybe me being a marathoner moving up in distance will usher in more marathoners to try things like this.
Do you think ultrarunning will evolve out of its niche sport status?
I’m active within the USATF and serve on the women’s long-distance running committee. I was just talking with a new IAAF representative, Willie Banks, and trying to plant the seed with him that we need to get a mountain/ultra/trail event in the Olympics. When you think about the evolution of the women’s marathon—once they got the women’s marathon in the Olympics it just kind of opened up the floodgates. So, for me, as an athlete, I don’t think it’s so much about what I’m achieving versus trying to elevate the sport. I feel like that next evolution would be to get us into the 2028 Olympics. That would be amazing.
A large part of it would be just having the venue and being able to cover it from a media standpoint. And a 24-hour run is a pretty epic thing! When you look the marathon, it’s all about speed. I’ve run a 100K and there’s definitely another physiology to that. But when you go to 24 hours and it’s totally different, it’s just becomes more mind over body. Look at what happened: a woman beat all the men.