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What makes this Golden woman run 279 miles on one hour’s sleep?

How a high school science teacher embraced the ultramarathon, where runners train in saunas, surgically remove toenails and regularly hallucinate during runs

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Courtney Dauwalter runs on the trails near her home in Golden on Nov. 6, 2018. (Dan England, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Seven years ago, Courtney Dauwalter was a mild-mannered high school science teacher who wasn’t much different than the rest of us. She was a go-getter, sure, someone who liked challenging herself, but there are millions of those.

She ran cross country in high school in the fall and went Nordic skiing in the winter, and she got so good at the latter that University of Denver gave her a scholarship. When she graduated, she ran for fun and moved up to marathons, as many go-getters do, until she got bored with pavement and turned to trails, something she gravitated to after growing up in Hopkins, Minnesota, hiking with her parents.

Ultramarathons were on the trails, and that was fun, and they were another way for her to challenge herself. She began with a 50K, only six miles more than a marathon, nothing too radical.

But on Sept. 17, 2011, her second ultramarathon, a 50-miler deep in the woodsy mountain trails of Steamboat Springs, was scaring her to pieces. She was already in awe of the distance — 50 miles! — before she signed up and gave herself a panic attack. She wasn’t even sure she could finish the race.

All those nerves came even before the mountains of Steamboat stirred up a nasty storm, bringing a driving rain, lightning and the kind of hail that felt old-school, like a religious punishment.

Courtney Dauwalter

When an especially jarring bolt of lightning creased the sky, she bolted, too, tripped and fell face-first into a mud puddle. She looked up, sputtered and saw a guy wearing a trash bag, a wide smile and an outstretched hand.

“Let’s go!” he said like a kindergartner eager to splash in the gutter.

As they dashed down the trail, in the soaking, freezing downpour, he whooped and hollered, and something clicked in her. She ignored the cold, the muddy film covering her eyes and her quivering legs and began laughing a goofy, yelping holler that’s now her trademark, coupled with a grin full of teeth. And as she ran and the sky threw lightning bolts like javelins at her heels, all she could think about was how much fun it was to be out there.

“He was a great example of embracing what the day gives you,” Dauwalter said. “You could have easily been grumbling your way through it, but he helped me see it was a fun adventure, and I was getting to do it as opposed to having to do it.”

She was 26, and that day helped make her into what she is today, one of the world’s most badass ultrarunners.

She’s speedy for sure, especially for a 34-year-old. She won the women’s division of this year’s Western States 100, perhaps the most iconic 100-miler and one that draws a strong field. She’s also beaten everyone, male or female, in nearly a dozen ultras, including a 240-miler in Moab, Utah, where she finished 10 hours — yes, hours — ahead of the poor soul in second place.

But her speed is not her real strength. No, in a sadistic sport where participants run in saunas to train, surgically remove their toenails and trade stories of vivid and frightening hallucinations during their runs, what leaves her competitors in awe is her toughness.

Her most recent jaw-dropper was running 279 miles in three days and on less than an hour of sleep in an event where the only goal was to outlast everyone else. The hellish race designed by the gleefully evil Gary Cantrell, organizer of the world’s hardest race, the Barkley Marathon. Authorities such as Byron Powell, who wrote a book on how to run ultras and owns “IRunFar,” a social media site dedicated to the sport, were duly impressed.

By The Numbers
Dauwalter’s 2018 season

12 — Pairs of worn-out shoes
2 — Toenails that fell off
1 — Ice castle she hallucinated during the Big Backyard Ultra
2,405 — Jelly beans eaten

“As much as that’s running,” Powell said, “that’s really an embodiment of perseverance. That showed the kind of grit and resolve that most of us don’t want to discover.”

Dauwalter’s reputation as one of the toughest folks in a sport full of them appears to be a sharp contrast to her persona. She laughs a lot, even when she’s not on the trail, loves junk food and is happily married to Kevin, a more casual ultrarunner who has completed a 100-miler but so far refuses to do anything over that. She lives in Golden, runs full-time and thanks the sunshine and her good fortune and her sponsors, and on most days, she laces up to go for a run that could be 40 minutes or four hours.

And yet, once she begins running on the trail, she becomes someone, well, different.

She once went blind with a dozen miles to go in a 100-miler in 2017, stumbling many times, including one where she fell hard enough to gash her head on a rock, which momentarily alarmed her until she realized she was OK. Never mind that someone at the last aid station nearly screamed at the sight of her bloody face.

Dauwalter made an important discovery that day in Steamboat, where she ran through the painful hailstones bouncing off her raw skin. She not only likes challenging herself. She craves it. The harder the race, the more Dauwalter enjoys it.

Endurance athletes have a name for that intense suffering, a place few of us ever want to visit. They call it the Pain Cave.

By now you’re probably wondering what’s wrong with Dauwalter.

It’s a fair question. It’s unfair and silly to suggest that all ultrarunners are damaged souls, but the sport seems to attract those recovering from addictions or dealing with past abuse or mental illness. And even the ones who seem normal on the outside can live a painful, spartan life of running dozens of miles over rocks and eating plants day after day, with some sleep thrown in. They even seem to enjoy that life.

So it’s OK to ask. Her father, Dick Dauwalter, gets that same question all the time: Is Courtney, you know, OK?

Dick has two answers to that. Here’s the first: Yes.

“It’s interesting,” said Dick, who still lives in Minnesota. “When she comes home and hangs out here, and we are out tromping around and having a beer someplace, you would never know that she was anything beyond a normal kid having a beer. She’s regular, ol’, everyday Courtney. She’s the same kid we sent off to college.”

Many say the same thing about her, almost to the point where she is, indeed, a superhero with two personas, the trail runner who loves trials of torture in the Pain Cave and the woman who loves to hang out with her friends and has a diet of nachos, beer, candy and sugary cereal.

“She’s kind of goofy, all the time, even in the hardest moments of a race,” Powell said. “She doesn’t take it overly seriously. She just rolls with it. And that makes it more relatable in a lot of ways.”

In fact, her favorite part of her first ultramarathon, that 50K, was the snacks. She loved weaving through the woods, running in the middle of what felt like nowhere, even if the trail wound through a local park, and she loved all the chilled-out, friendly, funny people.

But those aid stations were awesome. The stations at road races usually have some sort of fluorescent sports drink, water and, if you’re lucky, packets of slimy, gooey “gel” that taste like melted plastic wrapped in Fruit Stripe gum. But aid stations in ultramarathons are buffets of junk food, and Dauwalter stuffed her pockets full of jelly beans, her favorite treat, at every stop.

She eats what she wants, when she wants it. After an affair with Lucky Charms, she’s currently snuggling up to Cinnamon Toast Crunch. One time she cut out candy for a month before a race to see if it would make her faster. She called that month “joyless” and hasn’t messed with her diet since then.

Dauwalter is kind to herself in a way that many elite athletes, including ultrarunners, are not. She doesn’t like the gym — she can’t even do one pull-up — and really doesn’t do anything but run. When she does run, she has no training plan, and on the (admittedly few) days she doesn’t feel like running, she will stay inside all day and watch movies and eat cereal.

Dauwalter’s training partner, John Stanley of Westminster, is a good example of her approach to training. Stanley is a middle-of-the-pack age-grouper who’s run a couple 50-milers. He can’t push Dauwalter. But he’s Dauwalter’s friend: She runs with him because she enjoys it. She met Stanley years ago while teaching in Denver. Near the end of her teaching career, before she got sponsorships from Tailwind nutrition and Salomon gear a year ago that allow her to run professionally, others would come into her classroom and ask her about her race, usually some long ultramarathon, that weekend.

“Oh, it was great,” Dauwalter would answer. “How was your weekend?”

“She likes to deflect attention away from herself,” Stanley said. “It’s pretty endearing, actually.”

Dauwalter, in other words, is not a glass-eating, intense freak, and she does not live a spartan life. She’s even relatable, at least according to Powell. Dauwalter acknowledges the fact that some, if not more than some, ultrarunners have something about them that makes them able to endure pain, or even crave it, whether it’s a past addiction or a disturbing job or the sweet taste of freedom after a life of abuse. And yet, Dauwalter is downright normal.  

“I don’t have like a demon I can point to,” she said. “I think I’m just really competitive. I loved doing my best at everything I tried to do, and this is just a fun outlet to do as an adult.”

And yet she’s run 100 miles many times, and she just ran 279 miles with about five winks of sleep, until her brain and body insisted she stop so emphatically that you might wonder if another mile would have meant death.  

What makes that even more incredible, if you think about it, is that Dauwalter is human and whole, not some alien or science project gone terribly wrong. She is like you and me.

Well, kinda.

Dauwalter was always a really good ultrarunner. But in September 2015, even after winning a couple of 100-milers, she had another brutal race in Steamboat, puking all over herself for hours. She had wrinkled her nose at training, so she decided to see what would happen if she really put in the miles. She believed she needed to get tougher.

She and Kevin traded the city life of Denver for Golden’s mountainous, steep trails that go on for hours, and she put in those miles, 100 or more a week.

In 2016, she won the women’s Run Rabbit Run race, and the result surprised her. It felt like everything came together in a race that previously gave her trouble. She won her first elite ultramarathon — and by 75 minutes.

As if she needed a reminder at how precarious a 100-miler could be, the next year, at Run Rabbit Run, of course, 12 miles from the end, a white fuzz slowly clouded her eyes, the result of crusty contact lenses, and in an hour, with seven miles to go, she could see only her shoes on the dark trail.

“I thought my headlamp was dying at first,” she said. “It wasn’t that.”

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The race director took a look at her bloody face and, six miles from the end, assigned someone to run with her and lead her away from the edge of the road she couldn’t see. But she won the women’s race again and placed sixth overall.

Three weeks later, she beat everyone in the Bear Chase 50-miler, and then, two weeks after that, she crushed everyone in that Moab 240-mile race, which got her an unusual amount of attention, at least for an ultrarunner, from “Runner’s World” and comedian Joe Rogan, who had her on his popular podcast.

This year, she won the women’s division in three 100-milers, including Western States, and took second overall in the Tahoe 200-miler on Sept. 7 when the winner, Kyle Curtin, passed her in mile 182, an effort that left him shaking uncontrollably at the end, as if he was being shocked by a cattle prod. Most other runners finished a day or two later.

When asked if she’s scared herself, such as the time she ran blind in Steamboat, Dauwalter reflexively says no. The only option, she said, was to keep moving.

But then she pauses.

“When I reflect on it, that could have gone pretty bad,” Dauwalter said. “I fell a ton. I fell and hit my head. But at the time, it didn’t cross my mind to quit. I was in a race. All I was thinking about was forward motion. I just needed to get across the line.”

She began to burnish her reputation for having nearly superhuman endurance at the Moab 240, where she slept for a half-hour at the most and kept the pedal down, basically running hard for more than two days and nights, even when she was, say, 10 hours ahead of her next competitor, a time when most other runners would understandably take it a bit easy. And then came this year’s Big’s Backyard Ultra in Bell Buckle, Tennessee.

The race was unique, brutally simple and resembled the plot of a Stephen King story called “The Long Walk”: Competitors ran until they dropped out.

Runners stayed in the race by repeatedly completing a four-mile loop on a trail in the day and pavement at night, every hour. The race sounds almost easy, as four miles in an hour is the pace of a plodder, barely above a fast walk, until, hour after hour, it becomes horrifying. Another hour, another four miles, over and over and over, and the only way to earn a break is to run faster.

Dauwalter relished the chance to see how far she could go in a controlled environment, the way the science teacher in her might set up an experiment. In this case, she was more than happy to be the rat on a wheel. Indeed, the race seemed to be made for Dauwalter, and it explains why she can beat all the men in a race: Ultras are slower than any other race, even marathons, by a lot, essentially neutralizing the men’s genetic physical advantage. Ultras, in other words, can come down to will, and that’s where Dauwalter thrives. Stanley admires Dauwalter’s athletic gifts. He is jealous of them.  

“But they pale in comparison to how mentally tough she really is,” he said.

Stanley has paced her near the end of a few races, the time when most runners, including Dauwalter, are hurting and hoping for the end, and he hears her talking to herself, saying her favorite mantra over and over: You’re fine.

“I don’t make excuses,” Dauwalter said. “I can be nice to myself. But I won’t wiggle my way out of a run.”

Even so, she is a human being — kinda — so she was already struggling by the second night of the Big Backyard Ultra as she lined up at the start of every hour. She told herself she was fine, even as she was hallucinating and running half-asleep (she even fell asleep on her feet a couple times), but at sunrise, the daylight energized her, and she ran until nightfall.

On that third night, her bulletproof brain began to crack, and she felt the start of a mental downward spiral, even when it was just down to her and Johan Steene of Stockholm, Sweden, for the last 30 miles.

Cantrell, the world’s meanest race director, proved it by gleefully marking her as a DNF,  or Did Not Finish, the saddest words in an ultramarathon, the way he marked everyone else but Steene.

Many in the ultrarunning world called it the most impressive DNF in the history of the sport.

There were early indicators that Dauwalter was, well, different. When she was 3, she wasn’t tall enough to kick-push her Big Wheel up the steep hill the older boys liked to ride, so she simply carried it on her back. Her father, Dick, said he and Tracy, Courtney’s mother, took the kids skiing, both on water and snow, when they were 5. They also coached soccer, and they didn’t coddle whiners.

“When they were little rec players,” Dick said, “they would say they were hurt, and we would say, ‘Are you hurt or are you injured?’ One meant we would tend to you, and the other meant we would tell you to get up, shake it off and run.”

Still, he admits to being in awe of his daughter’s ability to ignore discomfort. The first race he went to, a 100-miler in Superior, Nebraska, was hot and humid, and the gross air and sticky sweat turned a bracelet that recorded her time into a cheese shredder that rubbed her ankle into taco meat. Dick told his daughter when she finished that he’d cry at that pain, and she looked down and said, “Yeah, that hurts a little.”

In another race, during a short talk with Dick at an aid station, she turned her head and a stream of vomit dashed out of it.

“I gotta go,” she said with a smile.

“She just has this incredible ability to ignore, well, everything,” Dick said.

It would not be fair, he said, to suggest that Dauwalter got that toughness from them.

“I mean, her mom is pretty tough,” Dick said, “but this is 10 levels past that.”

Those two answers Dick has when others ask him if she’s OK? Here’s the second, longer answer: He’s learned to trust her.

“She’s a really smart kid,” Dick said. “She seems to know her body really well.”

Dick, in fact, learned a lot from his daughter about limits: When you think you’re done, well, you probably aren’t.

“These races are a long way,” he said. “Just because something happens at mile 30, it doesn’t mean you’re out. There’s a way to fix it.”

He takes solace in the fact that his daughter must be doing something right. She’s remained remarkably injury-free, dodged burnout and hasn’t sniffed overtraining syndrome, the malady that has mysteriously sapped the strength of the best ultrarunners.  Dauwalter may be ultrarunning’s media darling now, with a recent article in The New York Times besides all the other attention, which could lead some to believe she’s already peaked. But that’s not the opinion of many others, including Powell.

“It would be great to see her on the international circuit,” he said. “She hasn’t revealed her true hand yet.”

Dauwalter was, remember, a science teacher, and her favorite subject was space. She loved teaching space because there’s so much we haven’t explored, and perhaps that curiosity about the unknown, more than anything else, drives her to go far beyond what most thought was possible even a decade ago: She is innately curious about what the human body, her body specifically, can take. So far, that’s 279 miles.

“Mentally, I had nothing left,” she said. “There was no more left in there. I was at zero percent battery life.”

She took some time off after that and, as if to emphasize it, posted an Instagram photo of her contemplating the many flavors of jelly beans she supposedly planned to eat for recovery. She even dropped out of a December attempt at a world record for most miles run in 24 hours.

Instead, she settled for cheering on Camille Herron, who got that world record by running more than 165 miles at an 8:50 per-mile pace. Dauwalter the scientist wanted to know how far Herron could go. Dauwalter the friend helped Herron choke down some Taco Bell for the final stretch. Dauwalter the competitor thinks maybe next year she will give it a shot.  

Even Dick, despite the trust he places in her, did worry for a bit after she ran 279 miles, quit and called to tell him at 2 a.m. that she ran out of gas. He loved the race itself and tracked her on the web — “wasn’t that exciting?” — but he still wondered how she would recover from such a monster feat. Was she still Courtney? Was she, you know, OK?

He got his answer the next morning, and it made him smile.

“She was talking to her husband the next morning,” Dick said, “and one of the first things she said to him was, ‘Gosh, I think I could have run just a little more.’”


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