To run and win 100-mile races, the obvious assumption is that you love to run. Often though, you hear tales of ultrarunners who replaced less healthy addictions with logging long miles. So, when a seemingly kind and well-adjusted runner regularly wins ultra distance events—as in first to cross the line among both men and women—some may wonder about her story. For Courtney Dauwalter, who recently set the American women’s 24-hour track record for the second time this year and also finished first overall—by more than 10 hours!—at the inaugural Moab 200 Endurance Run, her story is simple. She loves to run.
Talking by phone just days after her she reclaimed her 24-hour record in Taiwan (she set the record in March, lost it in July and set it again) by covering 159.32 miles, the 32-year-old admitted, “I don’t even know what day it is right now.”
Dauwalter was back at the home she shares with her husband, in Golden, Colorado, enjoying some much deserved downtime. Her highlight reel from the past year includes successes both in the mountains and on the flats, including: wins at races from 50K (31 miles) to 238-miles, running as a Team USA member at the IAU 24-Hour World Championships, signing on as a Salomon-sponsored athlete, being on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast and setting the American 24-hour record, twice. The ultrarunner also stepped away from teaching science to eighth graders, something she’s done for nine years. She may return to the classroom one day, but, for now, she wants to see what she can do with her running.
When asked what she loves about running, Dauwalter’s response includes the standards of seeing beautiful places by foot and the community, but it truly comes down curiosity. She loves searching for what’s possible, and to discover the full potential of what she can accomplish both physically and mentally.
“For me, with those really long distances, it’s the avenue I’m taking to search for my potential,” Dauwalter says. “That mental aspect is really intriguing. I love the problem solving that comes with ultra running. Especially when you are in a multiple day event, that’s a lot of room for you to solve problems.”
For her introduction to ultrarunning, Dauwalter, who fell in love with the mountains while attending the University of Denver, ran a 50K (she won) and a 50-miler before moving on to her first 100-miler. That race, the 2012 Run Rabbit Run (RRR), in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, remains her only DNF (Did Not Finish), something that still bothers her to this day.
“Basically, things got hard. I hurt and I quit,” says Dauwalter, who’s used the DNF to hone her mental and physical tenacity, calling it “the domino for where I am today.” This past summer, she won RRR for the second time. What makes the win all the more astounding is that Dauwalter was running blind for the last 12-miles of the race (temporary blindness during ultras is not uncommon and is being researched).
“I pretty much couldn’t see anything, but I did not consider stopping, and I didn’t even want to consider slowing down,” says Dauwalter, who admitted to falling a lot during the final miles and finishing with a gash on her head. “I was racing. I had no idea where anyone was in the race. I was trying to get to the finish line as quickly as possible”
Dauwalter confesses she often feels “pretty inferior” to other racers when she toes the line. But she’s competitive, saying, “I’ll always be trying to catch the person in front of me no matter who they are.” Besides being part of her personality, her grit can be attributed to being from Minnesota and Nordic ski racing in high school and college.
“Growing up in Minnesota makes you hardier. Nordic skiing does too,” she says. “I had a fantastic coach in high school that taught us to push past where it felt comfortable, to go to that red line zone. It’s been part of my upbringing and continues to part of my life.”
Dauwalter also ran cross country and track in high school and used running as part of her dry land training for Nordic. She began running marathons after college, finding the long training runs to be “fun.”
“A 50K is not that much different from a marathon as far as distance goes. Once I did that, it was eye opening that there was this whole trail racing and ultramarathon world,” Dauwalter says.
For training and racing, Dauwalter keeps it simple and focuses on being efficient. She runs about 100 miles a week, something she calls, “on the high side, but not absurd.” She’s not much into cross-training, but does make time for core workouts. Massages and meditation or visualization aren’t on her to-do list like many elite-level runners. Nor is yoga, although she admits it could be a good idea. Dauwalter says her diet is best described as a “normal” American diet with no exclusions. Her husband, who likes to race 50Ks and 50-milers, is her crew chief, and she has a solid group of friends who are always willing to crew her. She attributes her success to finding joy in what she does.
“I don’t let myself make excuses. I think it’s really fun to train and work hard. You get out the door and you train, no matter the weather or circumstances,” Dauwalter says. “I also race pretty frequently. That’s part of it too, continually putting myself fin those long uncomfortable race situations.”
When we spoke, Dauwalter was in recovery mode, with a focus on doing “normal things, enjoying the holidays, and putting running and training on the back burner for a while.” Since she doesn’t necessarily taper before a race, she focusing on giving her body enough time to reset before moving on to the next big thing. Usually that involves eating extra calories, sleeping when she can (although it often takes a few days for her mind and body to settle down enough to sleep after a big race) and going on walks.
She’s still deciding about her schedule and goals for 2018 and beyond. The given is that the distances will be long. Possibilities include another 200-miler, perhaps a yet to be created 500-miler (something Candice Burt, the Moab 200 race director is considering), some of the iconic 100-mile races and the Big Backyard Ultra (the winner is the last man or woman standing).
Read More: Next Level: Inside the 200-Mile Race Trend
With an impressive ultra resume that includes nine overall wins (in which she beat all of the men, too), more than a dozen wins in the women’s division and plenty of podium and top 10 finishes, Dauwalter makes it look easy, almost.
“It’s not easy. I definitely have the highs and lows. The lows come, and I question if I’m capable of completing what I’m doing. It’s not a cakewalk. My expectations of myself are pretty high. I want to finish every race knowing I did the best I could do,” Dauwalter says. “It’s my motivation to find that next gear in low moments. At the end of the race I want to feel as though I was efficient as possible in every situation and staying in those low moments is not efficient.”