Courtney Dauwalter had some pacers in the Moab 240 Endurance Run, which is actually 238 miles. These pacers — friends, and her husband, Kevin Schmidt — ran with her for 20 or 30 miles to keep her company for short periods. These guys’ biggest fear? That they wouldn’t be able to keep up with her.
“I was fortunate. I met her at 190 miles,” said John Stanley, a friend and former co-worker. “The guy who was pacing her at 80 miles got dropped when she took off after another runner who’d passed them.”
Dauwalter covered the 238 miles of the October race in rugged Utah canyon land in 57 hours, 55 minutes to win outright, over 10 hours ahead of the man in second place. Two weeks earlier, she had finished first overall in a 50-mile trail race, and three weeks before that she was the first woman in the Run Rabbit Run 100-mile race in Steamboat Springs, Colo. In February of this year, Dauwalter set the women’s U.S. record for number of miles run in 24 hours — 155.39. Of the 45 ultra distances she’s entered since 2011, she has been the first woman in 23 of them; she’s won nine outright.
“Even in the ultra community, Courtney is a pretty unique person,” Stanley said. “She’s definitely physically gifted, but I would say her greatest strength is her mental game, the ability to push herself through pain and suffering.”
Now living in Golden, Colo., Dauwalter, 32, grew up with two brothers in Hopkins. She always loved sports — the competition, practices, teammates. She played soccer early on, and started running in seventh grade. Twice she won the Minnesota high school title in Nordic skiing, and competed on University of Denver’s Nordic team, but post-collegiately, her focus returned to running. A couple road marathons in 2009 and 2010 whet her appetite; a 50-kilometer (31 miles) trail race revealed the whole all-you-can-run buffet. She won that race.
Dauwalter has taken a year off from teaching eighth grade science to focus her considerable energy on training (up to 120 miles per week) and racing (usually 11 ultras per year). She talked about her devotion in a recent conversation, which has been condensed.
You did pretty well at the marathon, and won your first 50K. Was it success that encouraged you to keep trying longer races?
Dauwalter: I didn’t have that much success. My first 50-miler was a survival adventure. It was hailing, freezing rain. I was tripping, face-planting in mud, and it took me 10 hours or so. I was so in awe that our bodies can travel that far. Immediately I thought, I’m going to do a 100-miler.
And that was 2013 Superior Trail on the North Shore?
Superior 100 was incredible. The trails are really technical — roots and rocks the entire way. But what a beautiful way to get to see Minnesota! I also got to share the experience of completing my first 100-mile with my husband, brother and dad. None of us knew what we were doing, but we figured out how to run, crew, pace and enjoy the suffering of a 100-mile race together.
“Enjoy the suffering.” Let’s talk about that. You did not finish your first attempt at 100 miles in 2012 because you were really suffering. But in subsequent races, you’ve reported hallucinating, laying on the trail vomiting, falling, legs swelling, going blind! That’s not suffering?
I quit [the first 100-miler] at 60 miles, the only race I DNFed, and have been kicking myself ever since. I didn’t know what suffering was going to be like. I didn’t know that our brains can help us overcome physical suffering, and was not prepared for the battle. I have since learned to tap into the mental capacity we have to overcome physical barriers. I wish I hadn’t dropped, but it lit a fire in me. There will be suffering — it’s normal and you can get through it. It’s amazing what our bodies can do, but even more, what our brains can do. This is a hugely mental sport.
What would make you decide to drop out?
I haven’t found that thing that would make me think: This is unsafe. If I’m suffering too much I think I would be smart. If I was causing permanent damage to myself ... I’m really competitive so I often have blinders on.
You’ve developed this ability to ignore extreme fatigue and physical pain. Going blind and still completing 12 miles of technical single-track [in the final miles of 2017 Run Rabbit Run 100]? How did you know that wasn’t permanent?
[Laughs] It gradually crept in, with side blurriness slowly moving across till it was pure white. It was the gradualness. It felt topical, like it was just the lenses on the front of my eye. It didn’t feel like an optic nerve or brain thing. I actually didn’t give it much thought.
Aren’t there some sheer drop-offs?
I could see a little circle if I looked straight down. I could make out the edge of the trail vs. not trail.
Why push your body that hard? Isn’t that your body telling you to stop?
[Laughs] Why not? is my answer to the first question. I am so curious about the potential of our bodies and brains. The way I’m investigating is by running really far distances. It keeps me wondering and signing up for the next thing. If there was something longer than 200 miles, I’d definitely consider it. And I don’t think it’s my body telling me to stop. Once I did it, once I pushed through, I was a normal functioning human in 48 hours. Our ability to bounce back is part of what’s so cool.
How do you train for a 200-plus mile race? Do you train for nighttime running?
A month prior to Moab, I ran a 100-mile race. It’s a good physical and mental check. ln February or March, I start signing up for 50Ks and 50 miles to race my way to a 100 or 24-hour race. I don’t log miles, I’m not attached to a specific workout on any day. I mix in training on roads and trails. I don’t have a coach — figuring it out on my own has been part of the intrigue. I don’t specifically train for night running, only by doing a 100 miler or 24-hour race.
Isn’t four weeks or six weeks between ultras sort of short?
I actually sneaked a 50-mile in between Run Rabbit Run [100-mile] and Moab. My legs felt great the day after Run Rabbit but my brain had an overall sense of fatigue, so I took a week off of asking anything of myself, to get back to a place of feeling pumped. After a big race, I’ll take a week or a couple weeks off and just enjoy life.
Nitty-gritty, how does one run 238 miles?
Left foot, right foot, left foot. Perpetual forward motion. I walked for a while if I was feeling tired. When I could run, I ran. When I hit a low point, I tried to identify what’s making me down. I talked to myself, sometimes out loud: Come on, let’s do this. Sometimes I try music, not on single-track, though, because of animals.
If you’re wearing music, you might miss clues. Animals are only a problem if you surprise them. I’ve seen bears, tons of rattlesnakes. Once a moose was blocking my path.
In the nearly 58 hours [at Moab] I slept for 21 minutes. I’d never gone beyond 24 hours so that was a new part of ultrarunning for me. I wasn’t drinking caffeine but I just never got sleepy. At 190 miles I tried to sleep for 20 minutes but I couldn’t shut down my brain. Then a few miles on I got really sleepy and laid down on the side of the trail and slept deeply for one minute, and was totally rejuvenated.
What have you learned about yourself through ultras?
I continue to be amazed by the capabilities of us as humans. I try to take those lessons from ultras and apply them to daily life, to be a more patient and better human.
Science indicates women are more suited to extreme distance than men. Do you think that’s true or are you an anomaly?
I think women can compete on the same playing field as men [in endurance events] because it’s less about muscle mass, hugely mental. I treat every person at the start as my competition. Right now, more men do really long distance races, but as more women get into it, I think you’ll see women taking overall titles.
What’s next? Even longer races? Bucket list? What’s the limit for 24-hour race?
There might be a limit [for miles covered in 24 hours] but I don’t think we’ve come close to it. Next year I’m looking to push my limits with longer distances or faster pace, or a combination of that. There are some 48-hour races. I think that would be interesting, to dip my toes into multiple days of running. I don’t have an official bucket list — whatever captures my imagination. A woman from Poland has the world record for 24 hours [at] 162 miles. I’d like to see if I can get past 160.
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer. She lives in St. Paul.