[Editor’s Note: Camille Herron won the 2017 Comrades Marathon on June 4, 2017. She is attempting to turn around from this win to compete in and finish her first 100-mile race at the 2017 Western States 100 this weekend. The following is her Comrades report, and her thoughts going into Western States.]
My journey to winning the Comrades Marathon began in 1995, when I started running. My dad got me my first running book, Lore of Running, by famed South African physician, Tim Noakes. While my 13-year-old brain couldn’t fully comprehend all the science in the two-inch-thick book, I was able to enjoy and appreciate the stories he shared about the Comrades Marathon. I read about Comrades champions like Arthur Newton, Wally Hayward, Bruce Fordyce, and Frith van de Merwe, who seemed larger-than-life and national heroes. I thought that someday I’d like to venture to South Africa to run Comrades. It was beyond my wildest dreams that I’d be able to win it!
There is a tremendous amount of history behind Comrades. It began in 1921 by veteran, Vic Clapham, to commemorate the South African soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. He intended for the race to be a unique test of physical endurance and to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity.” It is a living, breathing memorial and display of camaraderie, selflessness, dedication, perseverance, and Ubuntu (humanity toward others).
More recently, during Apartheid when South Africa wasn’t allowed to compete in the Olympics, Comrades was celebrated as South Africa’s ‘Olympics.’ The 96-year-old race was called by Runner’s World magazine the “Boston or New York of ultras,” being the world’s oldest ultra and the largest at 20,000 entrants. It is televised nationally and streamed worldwide for the full 12-hour time limit. Those in South Africa grow up watching it, and many want to complete it as something to put on their curriculum vitae.
Its slogan is “The Ultimate Human Race” and it certainly lives up to such a reputation! While it is truly exciting to follow at home, it is something you can’t fully appreciate until you actually participate in some capacity. The energy and support along the 87- to 89-kilometer road-race route is electric, thrilling, and welcoming! It alternates being either an ‘up’ year or ‘down’ year between Durban and Pietermaritzburg and vice versa. This year was an ‘up’ year, with 6,000-plus feet of vertical gain and going over several notable hills.
My first attempt at Comrades in 2014 unfortunately did not go as I’d hoped. Thinking I was severely jetlagged, I was bedridden, lethargic, and flushed the day before with what I later found out was a fever and stomach virus. I attempted to race, having come halfway around the world and thinking my fitness could overcome how I was feeling. My literal (!) and physical guts on display for 83k, I bravely held onto third to fourth place until I blacked out and hit the concrete. Suffering a concussion and losing my memory, I ended up in the emergency room not knowing who or where I was. Unfortunately, my Nedbank Running Club teammate, Charne Bosman, also ended up there. Across the room from me, we sorrowfully waved at each other. While the outcome wasn’t what we’d hoped, I’m very grateful and blessed that Charne and her family were my lifeline this day!
Fast forward a few years, while I wasn’t able to compete in 2015 or 2016, I watched Charne win the 2016 edition of Comrades! I cried tears of joy for her, knowing what she had overcome and how she had picked herself up to try again! I could only imagine how much this meant to her, the South African people, and those closest to her.
This year, in 2017, I was finally able to go back and strive for my own redemption! While battling injuries and overcoming difficult personal circumstances in the past year, we focused solely on building up toward the Comrades-Western States double and if–fate willing—the double win! It had been 20 years since an American had won Comrades, let alone won the Comrades-Western States double in the same year, which Ann Trason did in both 1996 and 1997. I’ve built a career out of going for crazy endurance feats, so I felt it was within the realm of possibilities for me. To win even one of the races would truly be humbling and a huge honor. To win both in the same year is beyond comprehension in this day and age.
Being hobbled by a knee injury at the Chuckanut 50k in mid-March and overcoming hamstring injuries the past year, I’ve had anything but a perfect buildup! My emotions have been tested, and going into Comrades I felt my fitness and health were only at 80%. However, judging by my heart-rate-based pace, I felt confident I was fit enough to contend for the win. I had put in many many weeks at 120 to 140 miles per week since December. Every two weeks we drove 90 minutes down to Mount Scott where I live in Oklahoma so I could complete a grueling hill session.
I have to give much much credit to the truly incredible team around me, including my husband/coach, Conor, my Nedbank Running Club team/volunteers/managers (including Nick Bester and Adriaan Cronje), my agent Mark Mastalir, and my main sponsors Nike/Nathan/Marathonguide.com. I’ve received nothing but positive support from them–they believed in me and that I could pull of the win! Thank you for all the support and good karma from our amazing Green Dream Team.
I felt very positive going into race day and even found myself dancing on the starting line! Having felt liked a canned sardine squeezed between participants in 2014, this time I made sure I got on the front of the starting line! Staying upright when the cannon fires is always challenge number one! I got goosebumps when they played “Shosholoza,” “Chariots of Fire,” and a few rounds of the crowing rooster. Finally, the cannon fired!
I had studied Sage Canaday’s 2015 Strava data the night before to get an idea of the grade of the first 40k or so of climbing. I gulped a bit at how extreme it appeared and how fast they were going! Mentally, I broke the race into thirds: the first 40k, 40k to 77k, and then the final 10k or so after the infamous Polly Shortts climb. As always, I intended to focus on my own effort I had practiced by heart rate (75 to 80% of maximum heart rate). I knew I needed to be patient on the climb, and then try to drop the pace once we got past the first 40k.
Surrounded by a sea of men, when we started to climb, I found myself feeling very comfortable. Zoned in on my effort, I had no idea of actual kilometer or mile splits (the race was counting down in kilometers from 86.7k). I could tell right away that my preparations at Mount Scott were spot on! Being in the South African winter and unseasonably warm/humid/windy (reaching 81 degrees Fahrenheit), I had planned to carry two small Nathan bottles the whole way. I carried half my Clif Shots and planned to pick up another baggy around halfway. We were able to receive aid from our club starting 20k into the race and every 10k thereafter. In hindsight, there were so many fluids and support on the course in the form of sachets that I didn’t need to carry so much! Ahhh, the benefits of road racing—thank you so much for all the course support! I tried my best to be ‘environmentally green’ and throw away my trash in bins rather than on the ground.
Feeling amazingly comfortable with the course and my preparation, I was mentally focused on getting past the extended climb and dropping the pace to give the course record a shot. However, my hammies became a greater challenge than the course itself. My butt essentially said, “Not today!” All you can do is give it your best on the day. Thriving off the energy, smiling, and enjoying the spectacular views of the African savannah, I focused on the positives and my own will to win. It felt like the whole country was cheering me on–I ran with all my heart!
As the temperatures warmed up, I began craving a beer to distract me from my hammy tightness. Knowing I had a six- to seven-minute lead but was off course-record pace, I could take a bit more time at the aid stations. With 30k to 10k to go, each time I saw my husband, I shouted, “BEER!” Having sampled South African beers leading up to race day, we settled on Jack Black’s Brewer’s Lager. Drinking a mix of this with ginger beer really hit the spot!
Coming into the finish, I saw what looked like an arch and timing mat. I crossed, they handed me a rose and baton, and I stopped my watch thinking it was the finish! Trying to remain upright, walking, and slapping high fives amongst the deafening noise, another runner suddenly came up behind me and pointed that I wasn’t finished yet! I went into an adrenaline-fueled sprint, around the corner, and could see the REAL finish line! Shooting confetti and breaking the finish line tape, I was finally finished. YEAH! I later found out everyone watching on TV was yelling, crying, hearts pumping, and emotionally fueled by my finish-line mishap! I’m forever blessed to the fellow runner/Comrade who tapped me on the shoulder and got me going again, whom I hope can receive the Spirit of Comrades award for his kind gesture!
I hugged my husband and team manager, Nick, and received the elaborate Caduceus trophy (which was extremely heavy for my tired arms, like 20 to 30 pounds!). It wasn’t until being revived in the medical tent that my emotions finally hit me!
I’ve worked so incredibly hard for 22 years, while never giving up on myself. Just the past year, I’ve been through much physical and emotional pain and grief. I can’t thank everyone enough who continued to believe in me and be a positive light! This year’s official race phrase was “Zinikele–It takes all of you.” It doesn’t just take all of me, but all of those around us too to succeed. I could feel the world behind me! I hope my performance inspires many and brings Comrades and ultra road racing into greater limelight amongst Americans and worldwide. I’m truly humbled and honored to now be a champion alongside my lifelong heroes. As Bruce Fordyce told me, I will always be a champion and part of the club. I hope I can bring more friends and fans to the starting line of Comrades to experience the magic!
My goal isn’t complete yet! I’m recovering at the moment and building toward the Western States 100. Those who know me best know I will fight like bloody hell for this win too. Thank you for following along. Cheers, everyone!