Camille Herron’s 100-Mile World Record

How do you break records for a distance you’ve never run before?

At exactly 7:42 p.m. November 11, 2017, in a pitch-dark Illinois night, Camille Herron raised her arms and crossed the finish line of the Tunnel Hill 100. With a time of 12 hours, 42 minutes and 39 seconds, the Oklahoma native smashed the previous 100-mile women’s world record by more than an hour, and set the fastest known time (FKT) for 100 miles on a trail by anyone—male or female—in North America.

How did someone who had never run more than 100 kilometers (62.1371 miles) completely crush the records?

The secret to her success might lie in her background in science—she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in exercise sports science. “I’m all about the research behind things and apply it with myself,” Camille said.

As an undergrad at the University of Tulsa, she started her research in strength training studies. She spent time much of her time focusing on blood lactate (which is hard to explain in an aside). She learned if there is an eccentric (contraction that occurs as muscles lengthen) component to exercise, subjects produce more blood lactate and thus, increased muscle growth.

She began adding eccentric exercise to her own training in the form of downhill running. She also incorporated upper-body strength training to her regime. It was like clockwork—every time she added upper-body exercises, she saw increased performance in her running after six weeks.

Camille went on to get her masters at Oregon State University, with her thesis in bones and exercise. Through her research, she found that low-level mechanical stress enhances recovery. For laypeople, she broke it down: “Recovery is all about trying to get the blood—with its growth factors and micronutrients—where it needs to go. Even walking and easy jogging can help you recover quicker.” She makes sure that she doesn’t lie around after races—she’s up walking or jogging the next day.

After graduate school, she worked in bone research at Purdue University and the University of Michigan. At a work-related bone symposium, she learned about research suggesting it’s better to divide exercise into two bouts with four to six hours in between. Seizing this research, she applied it to her own life. “I’ve actually averaged 100 miles a week for 11 years. I run twice a day, every day,” she said.

She used all of her research-inspired training tools to prepare for this race—eccentric exercise, upper-body workouts, twice-a-day training and light mechanical stress for recovery. But how did she apply the research to her nearly unbelievable trail record this past week? It came down to nutrition. “I’m all about the science as far as nutrition too—the research says that you should aim for 60–90 grams of carbohydrates every hour,” she said. However, during the Tunnel Hill 100, she started feeling hungry as the day wore on. “My energy was hitting peaks and valleys. We had an extra sports drink, a concentrated hydrogel, [with] 80 grams of carbs … I yelled at my husband to switch to that. When I did that, it was like rocket fuel.”

She learned that when running farther than she ever had before, she needed more calories. Even later in the race, she needed something to settle her stomach. “I drank a beer and a half. It was magic. It settled my stomach and I had mental clarity,” she said. Ever a scientist, she explained that alcohol is a vasodilator, meaning it opens blood vessels. She says the alcohol helped to increase blood flow, aiding in recovery and providing more mental clarity.

But science only takes you so far. The rest, in Camille’s case, comes down to joy. She genuinely loves running. “I can’t believe it. I’m just really, really happy. It’s kind of cool to find your calling in life,” she said. She considered this race as just another long run.

She started to think about going for 100 miles earlier in the year, and had two attempts before the Tunnel Hill 100, first at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, where she suffered a concussion, and then the Leadville 100, where she started experiencing leg paralysis a few miles into the race. She did not finish either.

The idea refused to leave her. She knew the previous women’s world record was held by Gina Slaby, set at the 2016 Desert Solstice track race with a time of 13:45:49. Gina surpassed the record held by Ann Trason, set on road in 1991, by about two minutes. Camille knew that she could break that record.

Camille used her pace from past races to extrapolate her time—deciding that she could run 100 miles in around 12 hours and 20 minutes if she kept a 7:20 to 7:40 minute per mile pace. “Theoretically, that’s what’s possible,” she said. “I had this confidence. I felt [a 12-hour 100-mile women’s record] was possible; it was just a matter of time before someone pulled it off.”

Turns out, she was right. She averaged a 7:37 minute per mile pace.

There were no mile markers on the Tunnel Hill 100 course, so she simply focused on her effort, listening to her body and troubleshooting any issues that came up. In the last 38 miles, farther than any distance she had ever run before, she thought about a documentary she watched on the legendary ultrarunner Yiannis Kouros, who said that the farther the race, the more he had to find mental inspiration.

“The last 20 to 30 miles, I was thinking about Yiannis. I was thinking about my workouts and how I felt and how I pushed in them,” she said. “I also have some friends whose daughter has had a lot of health issues. I was trying to run for her. If you find inspiration beyond yourself and your goals, if you find the meaning behind what you’re doing, it gives you that extra boost.”

In addition, she was pushing not only her own limits but the limits of what women can do. “There are so many incredible women running. Last week, we had Shalane Flanagan win New York City. And Courtney Dauwalter beat the men in a 200+ mile race. We are just really elevating what we can do. For me, it’s just so cool to be part of that movement. How much faster can we go?”