Golden’s Courtney Dauwalter has taken the ultra-marathon world by storm
It’s hard to wrap your head around exactly what ultra-runner Courtney Dauwalter does, but one way to look at it is this: When Dauwalter has completed a marathon (26.2 miles), she is often only about one-quarter of the way toward the finish line.
In fact, when she demolished the field in the Moab 240 Endurance Run last October, crossing the finish line 10 hours faster than the second-place (male) finisher, the Golden-based athelte ran for two and a half days (just under 58 hours), averaging 97.7 miles a day. That’s like running nine back-to-back marathons. Makes you tired just thinking about it.
Dauwalter, 33, is a natural at endurance sports. The Minnesota native, who was on the cross-country, track and Nordic ski teams in high school and then raced for the University of Denver’s Nordic team, took up marathon running during a two-year teaching stint in Mississippi (“there was no snow, and it became my exercise outlet”). She did her first ultra race (ultra is anything longer than a marathon), a 50-kilometer run, in Texas, where she lived briefly before moving back to Colorado. “I didn’t even know that ultra- marathons were a thing, so it opened up a whole new world for me. It blew my mind how fun it was to run on trails and be rolling through the woods on this single track.”
Since then, Dauwalter, who this year is taking a break from her job as an eighth- grade science teacher at an all-girls school, has set the American 24-hour women’s record, running 155.391 miles Feb. 25–26, 2017, and, last September, ran the final 12 miles of the 100-mile Run Rabbit Run race in Steamboat blind. “My vision started blurring on the edges; I thought it might be my contacts or the morning fog or my headlamp running out of batteries, but it just kept creeping in until it was all white,” she says. “If I stared at my feet, I could make out trail vs. not-trail, and that’s how I stayed on course, but I was tripping over everything. I just wanted to keep moving—I had no choice—and that was my priority every time I fell.”
That “mental stubbornness,” as Dauwalter calls it, is one thing that makes her such a good ultra-runner. That and good genes that keep her relatively injury free and an ability to go for long periods without sleep. “During a 100-mile race, I try not to need a nap, but during the Moab race, my husband (who runs up to 50-mile races) met me at some of the aid stations with the car and I’d climb in the back inside a sleeping bag and lie down for 20 minutes. Later in that race, I lay down on the side of the trail for one minute and slept the deepest sleep I’ve ever slept and woke up totally rejuvenated.”
Dauwalter, who runs in long, baggy men’s shorts and a men’s T-shirt, trains every day, running and doing basic core work. “During the week I might get in a couple of runs that are near 20 miles and a few that are down near 15 to 18 miles, just to get a lot of distance on my legs. Colorado is perfect for training. The accessibility of amazing train- ing networks and the 300 days of sunshine definitely help.”
During races, the 5-foot, 7-inch Dauwalter travels light, carrying a phone (on which she can download the course map), food (she likes Honey Stinger products but might have mashed potatoes or quesadillas during longer races or even candy corn or jelly beans), water (“the most water I have ever carried is 2.5 liters in a hot desert section”), emergency jackets, hats and gloves, plus a headlamp (for running at night) and music. “I spend a lot of the runs just thinking. I only use music occasionally,” she says. “Sometimes, I save it for when I hit a really low place and need a little boost. I like music where I know the words so I can sing to it, but I’m a really bad singer. I was asked to leave seventh-grade choir because I’m so bad.”
But the thing that really keeps Dauwalter going out on the trail is her mind. “I’m really intrigued by what humans are capable of physically and mentally,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve come close to reaching our full capabilities as humans. When my body starts hurting really bad, I switch over to my brain and focus on positive thinking and persistence. They are my next gear.”
And she has no plans to stop anytime soon. “I’d like this to be a lifelong sport, even in my 50s, 60s and 70s,” Dauwalter says. “It’s so cool to be able to go out where cars can’t go, to be in a place you wouldn’t be able to see unless you were running there.”