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Even world champions can have a tough time at their first trail ultra.
“I made all the rookie mistakes,” says Camille Herron, 34, of Warr Acres, Oklahoma, of last weekend’s Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, where she finished fourth. “I wore road-racing flats, which worked fine until it started raining halfway through.”
Herron won last year’s IAU World 100K and 50K championships, and has a marathoning resume that would make most runners jealous. But those races were all on roads, and relatively flat. Lake Sonoma was Herron’s first trail race, and she picked a doozy; the course has over 10,000 feet of vertical gain, and as much vertical loss.
The weather didn’t help. “With all the rain, it was like a mudslide going downhill,” she says. “I’d never experienced that before. I’ve had such limited training on trails, then add in the mud, and it’s like, what do I do?”
For starters, she fell – a few times.
“At one point I slipped backward going downhill, and there was this downed tree blocking the path,” Herron says. “I tried to duck, but I’m pretty tall – about five-nine and a half.”
Her head squarely met the tree, knocking her onto her back and taking her hat off.
“I might have had a mild concussion, because I kept falling the rest of the day,” she continues.
In other words, her first trail ultra was a lot like most first trail ultras: fraught with mistakes, replete with lessons learned and things to improve upon for next time.
“I’m still getting my feet wet in all this,” Herron says. “Each ultra I do, I learn a lot more and make mistakes to improve on. There’s definitely a learning curve.”
Perhaps Herron’s biggest weakness was covering the elevation change – particularly downhills, which can wreak havoc on unsteeled quads over the course of a 50-miler.
“Everyone watching me said I looked like I was resisting going down hills,” she says. Her quads “weren’t conditioned, hadn’t been beat up, and so everything started cramping up and it was really hard to continue going the pace I’d been going.”
Herron lives in what she calls “probably the flattest place in America,” near Oklahoma City.
“We make up for it with the wind,” she continues. “I feel like I’m training with a weight vest sometimes.”
Still, Herron had planned to get to whatever hills she could following the Cowtown 50K in February in Texas. Having run on part of the Lake Sonoma course last year, she was well versed in the vertically demanding nature of the course that awaited her.
“The plan was to spend the six weeks between Cowtown and Lake Sonoma doing hill-specific training,” she says. “I was going to go to the Wichita Mountains [about an hour from Oklahoma City] to do a 50K training run. They have lots of vert and technical terrain.”
But the week following Cowtown, she tweaked her hamstring, severely limiting how much vert she could cover in training. She would tweak it twice more before the race.
“It was a rough five-and-a-half weeks trying to get healthy and get to the start line,” she says. “The third time I tweaked it, I was running downhill, slipped, and almost did the splits. It was so bad I couldn’t run for three days, and this was only three weeks out from the race.”
Even a week out, Herron was not sure she would make it to the Lake Sonoma start line, though a 16-mile trail run the Sunday before reassured her. “It felt like I was throwing myself into the fire,” she says. She also assuaged her disappointment during the run-up to Lake Sonoma by turning her attention to long-term racing plans.
“The plan is to train for Comrades,” an 89K road race in South Africa in May, she says. The race switches directions – one largely uphill, the other mostly downhill – year-to-year. “It’s a down year, so I knew Lake Sonoma would help beat up my legs and condition them for the long downhills,” she says. “Thinking long-term helped.”
Finishing With a Smile
Herron took a late fall that re-tweaked her hamstring in the last mile. She was passed by Anna Mae Flynn, slipping to fourth place and missing out on the final “Golden Ticket” entry to the coveted Western States 100, awarded to the top two male and female runners. (Along with Flynn, winner YiOu Wang snagged a Golden Ticket; runner-up Kaci Lickteig already had a guaranteed entry from her second-place finish at Western States last year).
Herron limped into the finish, leaning sideways, covered in mud, nonetheless grinning from ear to ear.
“This was the most I’ve ever smiled in a race, which is a reflection of how much fun it was and how different it was,” she says. “I was surrounded by such beautiful scenery, and it was a new and different kind of intensity from my road racing.”
Plus, she notes, the festivities lasted all day and went into the night, when everyone went dancing at the bars.
“It was just a giant party,” she says, in a pleasantly surprised tone familiar to first-time trail-ultra runners.
“Everyone assumes I’m disappointed, missing out on the Golden Ticket, but I’m having a good laugh at the whole thing,” she continues. “Besides, if either YiOu or Anna Mae decides not to take it, I’ll get to run Western States.”
In addition, Herron sees Lake Sonoma as yet another learning opportunity.
“I’m very encouraged by getting fourth, and in [7:30:09, which would have been third last year and second in 2014], given the circumstances,” she says. “Being healthy and knowing how to prepare better, I could knock off time.”
An obvious tweak to her preparation will be to run more hills, she says. But she also recognized her pacing was different from that of the trail veterans around her.
“Coming from the roads, I started out full-throttle and saw how long I could hold on,” she says. “Obviously, that didn’t work out very well in the second half. The women around me were a lot more relaxed, a lot more steady.”
As for when she’ll take her second crack at the trails?
“Everyone’s asking me when my second [trail race] is,” Herron says. “But I’m still trying to take in my first one!”