What I Learned in My First Year of Ultramarathoning

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This article by Camille Herron originally appeared on her website, CamilleHerron.com.

I thought I’d share some things I learned from my first year of ultrarunning (up to the 100K road racing distance)! It’s been a heck of a year- I’m like a sponge, taking it all in!

  • The realization that I’m born to run long… really long. I’ve used the analogy that running my first 100K was like Billy Elliot doing ballet for the first time. It was an epiphany and felt so natural to go much, much longer than I ever had! I feel at peace now, knowing that I found my calling in life. I feel like I could run for days (and some day I will!). Very excited to see where the journey goes!
  • I have to treat the men as competition— there simply may not be any women who can keep up (at least on the roads; see what happens on the trails!). I have to not be afraid if I’m catching up to or competing with the top men- they can push me and make me go faster.
  • My greatest strength is my brain. I’ve been a consistent marathoner for so long, and I always said it’s because I’m good at maintaining a level head, going “zen”, and troubleshooting problems. This is amplified times 100 in ultras! You have such a large number of peaks and valleys, the longer the distance… AND it most definitely becomes more mental, staying positive, and troubleshooting problems (which I do every day as a research person!).
  • Marathon training legitimately works for ultras. I probably had a slightly greater emphasis on consistently higher volume and a little less quality, but for the most part there wasn’t really anything special I changed about my training. My longest run was the marathon I did four wks before the 100K. I don’t do back-to-back long runs- just get in 40-50 miles every weekend in doubles. I felt really comfortable getting on the trails too over the holiday, despite the very minimal off-road running I do. My legs are calloused from the yrs of road running (in racing flats)! I feel like my leg turnover is an advantage on the trails- I can feel the power in my legs on the climbs (from yrs of high volume/hills/squatting), and my legs can really churn on the downhills. The only thing I’ll change for the trail ultra running is doing one of my longer easy runs every two weeks as an extended long run on the trails (and practice fueling/hydration). I’m looking forward to cross training on my Bionic Runner and adding back in some strength training!
  • Heartrate training is the way to go. I’ve been HR training since 2009. I learned from my HR progression runs that I could push a lot harder than I thought in the marathon (which is 87-90% of HR max). This led to big breakthroughs. Now I’m applying it to the ultras, training and focusing on the effort at the lower end of my progression run pace (80% of max). I know how much pain I can handle, and I try to crank it at that effort for as long as I can for the 50 mi-100K races.
  • Ultras beat up the legs less than marathons. I even say this from having done my ultras on the roads! The marathon is still the most gruelingly painful event on the entire body- like shredding the muscles. I’ve been healthier running ultras! However, the metabolism, endocrine, and immune systems I believe take a bigger hit in ultras. I always wondered how ultrarunners were able to run so many in a yr (vs. <5 marathons for elite marathoners)- relating to another point below… I think the soft surfaces are easier on the legs. The slower pace and softer surfaces means less muscle damage (as long as you’re prepared for the downhills!). Gotta eat a lot of hamburgers to recover quickly from ultras!
  • Figuring out your nutrition/hydration plan can be life changing! I totally sucked at this in my first two 100Ks this year (while puking my way to the 100K World title)! What works for a marathon definitely doesn’t work for ultras. You need way more fuel (spaced out appropriately!), and hydration is critical. You’re depleting all your glycogen and having to “top off” at a consistent rate to maintain your blood sugar/electrolyte balance. You throw in heat or cold and it gets tricky. I finally nailed what works for me at the Fall 50, carrying my water bottles, taking in a gel every 30 min, and a few cups of sports drink. This is not to say this strategy will work every time, and I need to be in-tune with what my body says it needs for any given race.
  • Carrying fluids in a race works a small miracle! The 50 Miler was the first time I carried fluids for an entire race, keeping a 10 ounce bottle tucked in my shorts the whole time and changing it out at every station (about every 5+ mi). I drank as needed and was able to take my gels evenly spaced out. My energy level felt great the entire time… AND I didn’t puke this time!
  • Crewing! I didn’t even know this was allowed in road races until a week before the 50 Miler. Lin G. offered to crew for me- can’t thank her enough! Who wants to join “Team Herron” and crew/pace me all over the world?!


  • There’s the possibility of getting lost. This probably isn’t going to happen on the multi-loop courses, but in the longer races, being more strung out, leading (!), and of course on the trails… it seems easier to be directionally challenged. If it wasn’t for my ‘guides’ on my adventure runs at Lake Sonoma/Western States, I could have easily gone off course. I’ve heard this is one reason for having a ‘pacer’ towards the end of long races, when it’s ~dark and you’re a bit dazed and confused. I’ve heard the actual race courses though are usually well marked.
  • Ultrarunning is like it’s own little world, apart from mainstream road racing. I almost feel like I’ve lost touch with the marathoning/road racing scene the past 6 months- like I entered a new sport and left my past behind. I need to keep doing the shorter races so I don’t forget how I got to this point!
  • I’m trying to be a student of the sport. There’s a gazillion different movies, videos, media outlets, writers, videographers, and an overwhelming amount of sharing on social media. I’ve had to learn what resources, athletes, and people to follow. I’ve watched at least three Western States movies/videos (multiple times). I was intrigued watching the movie about Yiannis Kouros.
  • It seems like just about everyone and their sister is some sort of ultra coach (and a gazillion different camps going on)! Is this a new phenomenon in the ultrarunning world?! All I know is the best ultra coach sits on the couch across from me every evening! ?
  • There’s completely new lingo and races to learn about, like FKT! I thought this was some sort of acronym for fartlek… (and now my fellow marathoning friends are probably Googling what FKT means)! Conor had no idea what ‘Leadville’ is (other than being a town we’ve driven through in Colorado). I could go on and on with the random stuff I’ve learned, even just the past few weeks!
  • I need a watch with more battery power. I found this out when I went for my epic 34 mi birthday run on the Western States

    Lucky to have Bob showing me the ropes of Lake Sonoma and learning the best ways to fuel/hydrate!trail! 7-8 hrs of battery power won’t cut it anymore!

  • It’s a whole new market of companies! I knew next to nothing about Outdoor Retail until just the past few months. I look at the ads in Ultrarunning Mag and have no idea what this stuff is (What is Udo’s Oil?!). I now realize that certain brands are marketing towards specific populations.
  • Adding to the above, the Outdoor Retail industry is really freakin’ awesome!!! I’ve been putting a bunch of shoes and gear to the test recently and oh my gosh… What have I been missing out on all this time?! There’s so much thought that goes into designing products,  and they really do make a difference. I’ve really enjoyed finding products that make my life and running better. Now I can ‘climb every mountain’, go for some FKTs, and run to my parents house down in Norman!
  • My younger years of being an all-around athlete and running barefoot since 2003 may really help with the trail running! After a run at Lake Sonoma, my friend Bob said I’m very light on my feet and all around good at every aspect. Knock on wood, I haven’t had any major falls or ankle sprains yet on the trails (even rolling my ankles slightly, I’m strong and nimble)! I’m pretty coordinated and a fast learner. Ifelt more confident after experiencing Lake Sonoma.
  • Ultra trail races rule the roost in the US. When I started running ultras this year, I thought I could be an ultra road specialist and chase the road and track ARs/WRs. It became more apparent as the year went on that it’s A-OK to be a trail specialist in the US…. but not as OK to be an ultra road specialist (who are, unfortunately, under-appreciated and under-recognized). At the international level, road ultras are more popular and competitive. With my blessed talent, it’s only right that I continue to chase the road and track ARs/WRs. Of course, now I have no other choice but to become an ‘all-terrain’ runner too (and super excited about it)!
  • The fastest ultrarunners in the world are racing on the roads and competing at the various ultra World Championships. Just because there’s more trail races than road/track races in the US doesn’t mean they’re any more ‘competitive’ than the international road races/World Championships.  I faced more 2:30-something marathoners at the 50K/100K World Champs than what exists at any trail race or at Two Oceans/Comrades. Only one Comrades winner ever (Ann T.) has a faster 100K time. Of course, being a fast marathoner doesn’t always equate to fast ultrarunning (or fast trail running!). However, there is definitely a greater concentration of ‘fast marathoners’ at the international road ultras than on the trails. There’s a few legitimate badasses who excel at both roads and trails (and track too)- these are the people I aspire to emulate!

I wish to become a legend, and legends do it all! I’m only five ultras into my career… while continuing to learn at a rapid rate! I’m looking forward to becoming an “all terrain” ultra athlete in 2016. I appreciate those who have supported and encouraged me to entering the ‘new world’. It will be fun to re-evaluate and share my perspective a year from now.

An easy run at Lake Sonoma with Bob. I tested the legs on one of the downhills, and scored a lifetime personal best for 400m, omg!

I’ll be able to climb every mountain with my mountain of gear!

To read more from Camille Herron, click here.

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