Post Tarawera, Hoka guru Roger Hanney was at the scene, seeing the action unfolding between two big superstars of US running, Camille Herron and Jeff Browning. Here he describes how the day unfolded and the immense battle between the two.
The weekend’s Tarawera Ultramarathon 100-miler was remarkable for its potential as a metaphor framing for what is happening more broadly in the sport of ultra trail running right now.
With Camille Herron, Comrades winner, multiple World Record holder and lap race dominator, set to go head to head with 100-mile trail specialist and consistency beast Jeff Browning. Chasing his 4th 100-mile win in just 11 months, the matchup was clear. Boys versus Girls, Speed versus Skills, Track versus Trail. As long as nobody ran away with it completely in the first 10 hours, this thing was going to get spicy.
It’s strange the “women as overall winners” conversation only really kicked off when Courtney Dauwalter eviscerated the Moab 240. Her outright win, emphasised by her having sufficient time to eat, wash, and sleep deeply. All before getting back to the finish line to welcome the guy who came in 2nd almost a half day behind her. Dauwalter already had a bunch of overall wins during the years before this apparent slaughter. Herron also had outright wins before taking out the 24-hour women’s WR and overall win at Desert Solstice in December 2018.
As soon as Tarawera launched at 4am on Saturday, there was an electricity that started with the ceremonial face-off between athletes and traditional warrior-dancers delivering the Haka. It continued with break-or-breakthrough racing from the gun.
Herron’s elbows swung through to shoulder height, more like an 800m runner than someone planning to shuffle the day away in the name of self-preservation. Zac Marion and Jeff Browning went with her but she set the pace. This is how it would be for the next 3 hours until missteps added distance. The mountain bikers leading the field would be diverted by a GPS error, adding perhaps 5 minutes of unnecessary running to Herron’s day. But Browning made the critical mistake of slipping into following the 50km course markings. His STRAVA would indeed later show an entire 4.18 mile loop of the lake added an extra 40 minutes of unproductive running.
Through the 30km checkpoint at Buried Village, fellow Hardrocker and now unexpectedly 3rd placed New Zealander Grant Guise was more than just surprised to hear his mate Bronco Billy hadn’t yet been through. For a moment he considered that maybe he should have said yes just a few days before when Jeff asked if a course GPX would be worth putting on his watch.
Back on track, Jeff soon drew level with Grant. Rattled by the detour and its significance in the race to follow, Jeff would be reassured by his friend’s pragmatic words.
“Seriously Jeff, all respect to these guys, but you’ve got an hour on this field”.
With more than 3 dozen 100-mile finishes, one DNF, a recent win at Hardrock and the record for combined times at Western States and Hardock with two top 10 finishes barely 3 weeks apart, it was a typically bold but fair call by Guise. Browning set out in pursuit.
Hitting the lake to cross by boat at the 50km mark, Browning had already started eating into the nearly half hour deficit between himself and race leader. Hot on Herron’s heels through this marker, 2nd-placed Zac Marion was streaming sweat with the beginnings of a wild look in his eyes. “She’s fucking crazy. I don’t know what to do with her.” All he could do was try to hold pace and hope the onslaught would slow. It didn’t.
Reinforced by race-week flu, cramping from the sustained fast start would level Marion shortly after. Before noon he would be passed by Guise and Aussie Phillip Fowler. Telling them that he wanted to finish even if it meant walking it in, Marion just wanted to get out of New Zealand with the finisher’s medal he’d promised to his niece. Vomiting and unable to continue, he’d finally drop at the 83km mark.
With the sun high above warm but not savage, Herron was through 101km at The Outlet just before 1:30 in the afternoon. Her time to this point would be 2 minutes faster than Dauwalter’s eventual winning time on the 102km course. Pain was creeping in now around the edges of her almost constantly smiling face. There was a trace of fatigue in her stride, but nothing indicating an imminent blowup. With Mt. Tarawera’s imposing volcanic crater framing her from behind, she was out of checkpoint in under 2 minutes with a marathon and a half to go. The countdown had started, with questions of who would be through next and how big a gap they’d have to close hanging tense and unknowable over the enclosed sub-tropical forest trail.
When Browning eventually emerged from the forest there was no desperation or anxiety, but a methodical determination was clear. He drank, ate barely anything, loaded bottles and fuel into his pack, turned and ran back out. His only questions for his crewman Dennis were, “It’s almost all trail from here now, right? Technical with a decent climb?”
24 minutes wasn’t the only difference between the female track star and the bespectacled mountain goat. Jeff was moving exactly the same way as he had been 5 hours and half this race ago, except maybe now his movements were even calmer, smoother, like some zen assassin on a permanent mission.
Over the following 40 kilometres he would turn a 24-minute deficit into a 40-minute lead, gaining roughly 90 seconds per km, or 2 ½ minutes per mile for the better part of a marathon. While the event’s large social media following cheered for both athletes unevenly (there was a massive groundswell of hope for an overall win by Camille), this was a battle where neither athlete was going to achieve an unfair win. Both were bloodying themselves heroically, wrestling with doubt and dreams and the hazards of physiology to do whatever it would take to break the line first.
After a sustained technical climb even as energy reserves drained, Herron was scraping the absolute bottom of her barrel as Browning caught her at the 132km mark. When he finally appeared at the start of the final half-marathon to the finish he had the renewed vigour of a runner no longer chasing but under peril of being chased. The next 20km of flat, fast and clean terrain would favour Herron if she could reach it before he’d been gone too long. But as time passed, runners completing the 102km course would appear, saying that they had seen her weaving and almost ground to a walk. To match Jeff’s fightback over the preceding 90km, she would need to rally in an almost impossible way. It would be the kind of effort that might only be possible from a 262km-in-24-hour track athlete.
As she emerged into the light of day and began the run around Blue Lake that would deliver her to the final aid station and the ultimate home strait, Herron’s face was that of a fighter who knew they were beaten but would still never quit. Her gait had a halting mechanical quality as she pushed on, saying only that she’d been having “the bonk from Hell”. And of course, that she just wanted to get to the next aid station where her husband Conor would have beer and pizza waiting.
Whatever the ultimate timings and placings might say, they can not convey the human investment of these two competitors. Browning and Herron both charged into the pain cave, Herron hard and early, Browning because he had no other choice.
The new generation approach of throwing down hard from the gun at milers and leveraging virtuosity to see what might happen is exciting to watch, and as an increasing number of capable athletes take this route it will continue to change our belief in what is humanly achievable as surely as it has already changed and will continue to advance our sport. But the less pyrotechnic discipline of grinding out a win, only made possible by diligent and sustained execution, riding the thinnest margin of error in parallel to deeply and intuitively grasped personal thresholds, is one that remains the pinnacle of endurance mastery. An art that would ultimately deliver Jeff an electrifying win at Tarawera.
Her motivation is to emulate racing icon Ann Trason by establishing records that will stand the test of time. With 17:20 for her first technical 100-mile trail race, Herron will be a real force at Western States in June. Browning’s driving force comes from a desire to honour time away from family with results that matter.
His final time of 16:19 was an hour ahead of Camille, who clearly rebounded into the final stretch. In perfect weather, it was a given that these two athletes would obliterate a course record that was first carved from mud and suffering. But without their respective abilities and a day-long game of catch-and-chase, there was no assurance they would set stout course records that look likely to withstand challengers for some years to come.