Picture the scene. It’s 2am. You’ve been running for 18 hours, and covered a distance of around 217km, when you start to feel a little peckish, but you still have six hours to run. What do you do?
While most of us couldn’t run for that long – or far – those that can probably wouldn’t choose to eat tacos while they did it. But that’s exactly what Camille Herron did when she was breaking all manner of records in the Desert Solstice 24-hour run in Phoenix, Arizona in 2018. And that’s because the Oklahoma-born ultrarunner is not like the rest of us. In fact, she’s not like anyone at all.
Eventually, she was covering 225km each week (for context, that’s more than the average weekly load of Eliud Kipchoge or Mo Farah), highlighting her body’s incredible ability to endure.
The woman who ran 270km in a single day
Like so many of the very best athletes, Camille’s thirst for running was born out of adversity when, aged 17, her family home in Oklahoma was destroyed by a tornado in 1999. After the alert came through, Camille and her family had 15 minutes to pack up their most prized possessions in a crate, before escaping to her grandparents’ house.
Apart from her running shoes, Camille also packed her favourite book Lore of Running, a bible of inspirational stories about runners, focusing on ultrarunners. “My first running heroes were ultrarunners,” she says. “It was hard for me to imagine running that far – what do they eat, how do they keep running?”
I started running long to celebrate my life and the talents that I was born with
They certainly weren’t eating tacos, but all that was to come. Camille’s running journey had started at school: “When I went to cross country in the eighth grade and all the other girls looked like me, I knew I’d found my sport.”
But it was after the devastating twister that she began to run longer on weekends – although at that stage ‘long’ meant six miles [10km]. “I just felt so grateful for my life and this running ability,” she reflects. “I started running long on Sundays to celebrate my life and the talents that I was born with.”
Not feeling the pain
Unfortunately, she suffered seven stress fractures while she was at university, forcing her to stop running, although she was unaware of the severity of her injuries, saying: “I didn't know my bones were broken. I didn't think the pain was that bad."
The enforced absence from her sport saw her take up the French horn and led her to a jazz festival where she met her future husband Conor Holt, an elite runner.
After the couple moved to Boulder, Colorado, it was always Camille who was running longer than Conor, despite him being the athlete, so he began coaching her.
I felt like Billy Elliot doing ballet for the first time. It was an amazing feeling – the longer I went, the better I felt
But, at that stage, Camille was only focusing on marathons. In 2011, she finished ninth in the Pan American Games, then, just 13 days later, she came home as the third American and 18th overall in the New York City marathon. Noting the incredible back-to-back performances, the New York race co-ordinator remarked that Camille should try ultra-running – she never looked back.
After taking on her first 100km race, she knew she’d found her niche. “I felt like Billy Elliot doing ballet for the first time. It was an amazing feeling, the longer I went, the better I felt.”
Not that Camille didn’t experience pain from running those distances. The problem for her competitors, was that she loved it: “I’m the type of person who likes to push my limits,” she says. “I just had to go longer to find out ‘this is hard, and I love it’.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Camille was that she was now winning races outright, even defeating the male runners. “It was strange for me to catch the men, I was like ‘what’s going on here?’”
In my mind, I’m Rocky Balboa going into this race, and I’m ready to throw 12 rounds of punches at these people
And so to Phoenix and The Desert Solstice, where Camille made ultrarunning history. Unlike a normal ultramarathon with its predetermined distance, the race requires participants to run for 24 hours around a 400m track, which Camille describes as: “mind boggling, super mental, like death by a thousand paper cuts.”
Pre-race, not a great deal was expected from her, with a Facebook group predicting she might place fifth. But that merely served to motivate her even more: “If you want to light a fire under me, start doubting me,” she says. “In my mind, I’m Rocky Balboa going into this race, and I’m ready to throw 12 rounds of punches at these people.”
Held in December, the days are reasonably warm, but the nights bring a serious desert chill, which is roughly when Camille became hungry. “I hit about 135 miles [217km] and I was wanting a taco,” she recalls. “I had a crew of three, and one of them drove to Taco Bell and got me tacos!”
My body went into this rigor mortis state. I died a death out there
Dying on the track
Once she’d finished, her pace slowed down and, without any serious competitors as she’d already taken care of her rivals, she found it hard to keep going.
“My body went into this rigor mortis state. I died a death out there. Once the competition had gone, I didn’t have as much motivation and my legs just felt like lead weights. ‘Ok, brain, tell my legs to keep moving!’”
With a world record on the line, Camille knew that even with her slower pace, she was still on track, so she ground out painful lap-after-lap, keeping her eyes on the clock as it eventually ticked to 24 hours.
Not only did she complete 262.16km in that time, but she also ran her first 160km (100 miles) in 13 hours and 25 minutes, another world best.
“It really felt like my legs were like rocks,” she remembers, and such was the state of her body, she had to leave the track in a wheelchair.
Of course, like every superhuman, that wasn’t enough. A year later, Camille went to France to compete in the 24-hour World Championships where she obliterated her own world record in the process, running 270km, although she did throw up twice during the race. Clearly, with no Taco Bells in France, she had to do it the hard way.