Barely larger than two square miles, it serves as the seat of Johnson County, with a population just north of 1,300. Otherwise modest and unassuming, Vienna is home to one of the most storied events in ultrarunning—Tunnel Hill.
Since its inception in 2014, Tunnel Hill has attracted a who’s who of elite runners: Coree Woltering, Harvey Lewis, Arlen Glick, Traci Falbo, Zach Bitter, and Camille Herron, to name a few. It’s an undeniably fast course. Records fall here like dominos.
Race Director Steve Durbin has seen some remarkable things in this quiet Illinois town—things he never dreamed of seeing—and he shares some of those stories here, recounting Zach’s and Camille’s record-breaking performances and the pivotal moment that made all of it possible.
Tunnel Hill is a notoriously fast course. Is that by design?
Yes. Definitely. We wanted the course to be as fast as we could make it, yet still, be a beautiful and interesting course. The years leading up to 2014 saw lots of courses claiming to be the toughest, with the most elevation change. We felt there was a market for a race that allowed for people to run fast. An “easier” course for those wishing to run their first 100, or 50, or for veterans of the distance to run a personal best. If you remember all the tough mudders back before 2014, everyone was trying to be Barkley-esque. “This is the toughest course anywhere.” “My course is tougher than yours.” We went for the opposite of that. Our slogan was, and continues to be “How fast do you want to run?” Rails-to-Trails courses can be boring, so we use the prettiest 25 miles of the 56 total miles of the Tunnel Hill State Trail. You’ll see wetlands, lots of trestles, rock formations, and of course the famous tunnel. Yet the course is relatively flat and smooth.
What were the first few years like?
We weren’t sure what to expect the first year, 2014. We were hoping for at least 50 runners. Over 300 registered. The week leading up to the race, it was 70 degrees on that Thursday. Enter the “polar vortex”. By race morning it was 18 degrees. 48-hour world record holder, Traci Falbo, ran an FKT for 100 trail miles with her 14:45. That gave us immediate credibility. Everyone knew Traci. In 2015, Mike Bialick came down from Minnesota and ran 12:52, which was the fastest 100 in North America by about 45 minutes. Other runners were looking at Ultra Running Magazine’s top 100 runners and wondering, “Where is this Tunnel Hill?” The best decision we made was to certify the course distance. That’s what caught Camille Herron’s eye.
Were you aware of Camille Herron prior to 2017?
I really didn’t keep up with the ultra-running elites. I had a keen interest in Western States (two-time failure there), so I knew of Scott Jurek. I enjoyed running trail races. But since I mostly ran regional races, I only knew a handful of the elites. So, no, I didn’t know Camille. Her husband/coach, Conner Holt, emailed me about two weeks prior to the race, asking about her running it. He sent her resume to me, and I was like “Holy crap!” First American to win Comrades in a million years, and holder of several records.
Is it common for an athlete to reach out beforehand and make it known that they are going for a world record?
It is now, but it wasn’t back then. I had no idea someone would set a legit world record on our course. After the contact with Conor, we took a LOT of steps to make sure everything was legit for a world record. Special thanks to timer/USATF official/course certifier, Brandon Wilson, for his work in getting us ready. Before the race Camille was on Facebook proclaiming “I was born with wings and legs of steel. I am going to break the world record at Tunnel Hill.” And I’m thinking, “God, I sure hope so.” As we all know, she shattered the world record by 63 minutes, with a brilliant 12:42:20.
So what about when Zach Bitter comes the following year?
I knew of Zach from seeing him race around me over, and over again at the Six Days in the Dome held at the Alaska Dome in August 2014. He was gunning for the world record in the 100 miles, and I was running the 24hr. We were elated that he chose to run. At the time, the world record for 100 miles was 11:28. Zach had the American Record, and based on Camille’s success, decided to go for the world record. He was on pace through about 85 miles, before slowing a bit, but still set a world’s best for off road with his 12:08:36. I had the good fortune of directing Six Days in the Dome in 2019 when it was held at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee and he set the world record with an 11:19. Super good guy, and incredible talent.
Wasn’t that record recently broken?
Yeah, (Aleksandr) Sorenson blew it away in January 2022, running a ridiculous 10:51:39. Geez, what’s up with that?
When Camille returned in 2022, was her intention to set a new world record?
Camille and Conor attend Tunnel Hill most years as our guests. Camille has served as the guest speaker and greeter twice, and Conor was the guest speaker this year. Conor closely monitors Camille’s workouts, and her results were at record-setting levels. They actually didn’t make the decision for her to go for the 50-mile world record until after she ran a training run on the course when she got to Vienna. I’m convinced that she would have broken Ann Trason’s world record of 5:40 for 50 miles. She was in phenomenal shape. Rested, and ready to go. The only thing that would threaten her attempt would be a weather change. We all monitored the forecast as it changed day-by-day, from temps in the 50s to down in the 20s. Then, the day before, they mentioned there was the slight chance of a “light dusting” of snow. From 2am until about 6am on race day we received about 3 inches. Ugh. Think about setting a world record…it’s all about training and timing. Conditioning and conditions need to be at or near perfect levels. Camille checked out the conditions on the trail, and the concern was possible freezing on the many trestles, so she made the understandable decision to not race. We all hated it, but it was the right call. She’s a great friend, and spent the day as she always does, encouraging runners on the trail, and at the finish area. People love her at Tunnel Hill.
You’ve seen some incredible performances at Tunnel Hill. What memory from the race sticks with you most?
It’s hard to beat seeing a world record. For someone who never dreamed of seeing someone set a world record—especially in southern Illinois, in a small town like Vienna—the excitement of it was incredible. Camille had been so vocal about it. The local news and regional tv station kept checking in during the race. We were taking video and sending it to them, and they did updates throughout the day. Keep in mind that Camille had never even finished a 100-mile race at the time, and I believe, failed in her two previous attempts that year. One of the things I love about Tunnel Hill is that you see the runners at the start/finish area four times; just after a marathon, the 50-mile mark, 76.5 miles, and then at the finish; is in the dark. When Camille blew through 50 miles in 6:07, we were just shaking our heads in wonder. She was way ahead of record pace, and she continued to be as the day went on. All good through the southern turnaround, and back through Vienna at 76.5. She hit the tunnel in great shape timewise. We were so nervous at the finish line. It was now dark, and runners completing 50 miles were coming through in a steady stream. We didn’t want to miss her finish, so we sent someone out about 300 yards to give us a heads up. He was nervous. The timers were nervous. We kept thinking, “Don’t screw this up!” About one hundred people were gathered along the finish, at the finish line, and when we saw her headlamp zooming towards us, in what we knew was a new world record, it was so thrilling. Ultrarunning legend Harvey Lewis ran the 50 miler and stuck around for the historic finish. He recorded a really cool video of the finish and spoke with Camille immediately afterwards (You can watch the video here: https://youtu.be/zQ_P9ml0bGk). It’s hard to say something was more memorable than that. But have you ever heard of Strolling Jim 40-mile run, founded and directed by Lazarus Lake? My good friend David Jones has won that race about a million times, especially the Masters. He also won Badwater back in the day, so that tells you just how good he was. David ran Tunnel Hill in 2016 in 17:34, and he beat the age group record—which was, I think, sixty-five to sixty-nine—by over four hours. However, it wasn’t going to be accepted because the course wasn’t certified. I said, “We have to get it certified. I am not going to have a friend of mine, or anyone, set an American record only for it not to count.” So, when that happened to David, that’s what prompted me to get the course certified. And that led to Camille setting the world record and everything else. Otherwise, she may have never checked into running the race. Isn’t that wild?
Photos: Chad Colson (@chadcolson) and Micki Beth Colson (@mother_runner_micki)