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A woman running down a road with onlookers on the side crosses the finish line
Leadville ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter on Sept. 1 won the 172-kilometer Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Chamonix, France, winning her third 100-mile race of the season and becoming the first athlete to win the triple crown of ultrarunning in a single season. (Photo courtesy Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

CHAMONIX, France — Courtney Dauwalter is known to have a lot of fun while running extremely long races.

In her 100-mile ultra-distance trail running races, she’s often seen laughing, smiling and generally in much better condition and with a much more affable temperament than typical runners and even her elite-level rivals do. She and her crew are known to tell jokes with simple punchlines even amid the toughest moments.

In the endurance sports community, some call it “Type 2” fun, the kind of darkly tinged enjoyment that comes from immersing in exceptionally long and grueling outdoor adventures and racing endeavors. It’s not the relatively easy-to-endure kind of fun that comes from an hour-long trail run, a session of singletrack mountain biking, hiking up and down a 14er or a backcountry ski adventure. 

Type 2 fun is when you push yourself right to the edge of your physical, mental and emotional limits and are somehow still able to relish in some sort of relative success and pleasure despite considerable anguish and fatigue.

Saturday in Chamonix, France, after winning the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) — a 172-kilometer ultrarunning race around the Mont Blanc massif — Dauwalter admits she had moved on to the depths of what might be called Type 3 survival and the notion of fun had completely left the conversation hours earlier somewhere along the trail. 

The 38-year-old resident of Leadville had won the race twice before in 2019 and 2021, but her journey around the 106-mile loop that weaves through France, Italy and Switzerland with 33,000 feet of elevation gain was much more difficult this time around. She kept moving the whole way through the race, but she really had to grind and dig deep to finish.

“There were moments that weren’t that fun anymore,” Dauwalter said candidly after winning the race for the third time in three tries since 2019 in 23 hours, 29 minutes and 14 seconds. “It was really, really hard. The last half of it was really just about holding it together as best I could to get to the finish. I kept wondering how I would get back here.”

For the typically happy-go-lucky free spirit who often laughs in the face of agony — or as she says, expanding the depth of the pain cave — and is known for wearing baggy, basketball-style shorts, snacking on jelly beans mid-race and quenching her post-race thirst with several cold beers and refueling on nachos and chocolate croissants, this was far from a usual run through the mountains for her.

An hour after winning the race — which is the de facto world championship of 100-mile mountain running — Dauwalter was crashing hard and needed to rehydrate, eat and sleep. Her feet hurt, her legs and hips ached, her lips were blue and she began slurring her words as she spoke to the media about her monumental struggle to finish the race with the cumulative fatigue she carried from her epic summer of ultra-distance running.

“My quads are blown. There will be no running for the next few weeks,” said Dauwalter, a full-time professional runner who is sponsored by running shoe maker Salomon. “You can’t triple unless you try. Any time we’re given the opportunity to try something difficult or crazy, we should absolutely take it. This was totally crazy and really, really difficult, but worth it.”

Dauwalter is already recognized as the GOAT of women’s ultrarunning after her dominant results over the past six years in winning the world’s most difficult races numerous times. But on Sept. 1 in Chamonix, after already having won California’s Western States 100 in record-setting time and the also breaking the women’s record en route to victory at the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run in Silverton, she embarked on the unthinkable challenge of trying to win UTMB, too.

A woman with trekking polls runs up a mountain with a man close behind her
Leadville ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter on Sept. 1 won the 172-kilometer Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Chamonix, France. Earlier this summer she won the Hardrock 100 and Western States 100. A former cross-country coach taught her “there’s always one more level you can crank it.” (Photo courtesy Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc)

Only trail running royalty has won all three of those events in a lifetime — namely legendary Spanish runner Kilian Jornet and Dauwalter. Last year, Jornet became only the second runner to win the Hardrock 100 and UTMB in the same year, but he never considered doing all three in the same season. In 2007, American Nikki Kimball won Western States and UTMB two months apart, but she didn’t compete in the Hardrock 100. 

Prior to Dauwalter, the closest anyone has come to winning all three was in 2021, when U.S. runner Krissy Moehl finished fourth at Western States, fourth at Hardrock and 14th at UTMB. By becoming the first and only runner to earn victories in all three races in the same year, Dauwalter’s already otherworldly status seemed to enter another universe. 

Although she was well off the course record of 22:30:54 she set in 2021, she still won the race by more than 40 minutes over Germany’s Katharina Hartmuth. Dauwalter took the lead early in the race and was never challenged, but she said started feeling bad near the 60-mile mark in the wee hours of Saturday morning while running through Italy. She dealt with a finicky stomach that left her on the verge of throwing up, but credits her husband and crew chief, Kevin Schmidt, with keeping her physically and emotionally stable as she maneuvered her way through the pain cave and the remaining miles of the course.

“I’d say I had about 50 miles of running left in my legs when I started and then they were definitely feeling the rest of the summer,” she said. “I just wanted to muscle through, and I really wanted to finish no matter what time I was coming in. I didn’t know if I would have to really triage at an aid station for a while or if I could keep moving as best I could. But the fans out on course this year were incredible and their energy was definitely propelling me forward.” 

A woman wearing a vest that holds water runs down a hill as onlookers clap
Leadville ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter races in the 172-kilometer Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc on Sept. 1 as the world championship course winds through Trient, Switzerland. (Brian Metzler, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In the men’s race, Flagstaff, Arizona, runner Jim Walmsley (19:37:43) became first U.S. man to win the race after temporarily moving to France to optimize his training, followed by part-time Colorado Springs resident Zach Miller (19:58:58) in second. 

But four hours after they finished, Dauwalter’s amazing feat stole the show in Chamonix. What makes it especially mind-blowing is that she did it at a time when women’s ultrarunning is more popular and competitive than ever.

“What she’s doing is almost beyond comprehension,” said Moehl, a two-time winner of UTMB (2003 and 2009) and the Hardrock 100 winner in 2007. “She’s definitely taking the sport to the next level for women.” 

Growing up in Minnesota, Dauwalter was a four-time state champion Nordic skier in high school who competed for the University of Denver in college. She found her forte in long-distance trail running while living in Golden and working as a high school science teacher. But, despite her meteoric rise in recent years, she admits she had challenges when she moved up to 50- and 100-mile races 10 years ago. But, working with Schmidt, she figured out what worked best for her, both in training and during races.

Dauwalter has won more than 50 races of 50K or longer over the past 10 years, including twice winning the Madeira Island Ultra Trail 115K, Western States 100, Hardrock 100, and Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, plus overall wins (beating all the men, too) at several races, including at the Moab 240 (2017) in Utah, which she won by more than 10 hours, and Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra (2020) in Tennessee, where she ran 283 miles over three days to outlast the field in the sole-survivor type of race.

As great as she’s been, she’s seemingly risen to a new level this year with course-record wins at the Bandera 100K in Texas and Transgrancanaria 128K in the Canary Islands early in the year, and then her incredible triple of winning the Western States 100, Hardrock 100 and UTMB. 

Since moving to Leadville full-time in 2020 with Schmidt, Dauwalter has been living at an elevation of 10,200 feet and often running up and over the high local peaks that range from 12,000 feet to 14,450 feet. She remains self-coached and says she determines what her workouts will be once she wakes up in the morning.

A woman in sunglasses and a vest holding water puts her hand on her chest
Leadville ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter on Sept. 1 won the finish of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Chamonix, France. It was her third 100-mile victory of the summer. And her hardest. ““There were moments that weren’t that fun anymore,” she said. (Photo courtesy Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc)

She’s refined her fueling strategy in recent years and now mostly subsists on liquids — primarily a lot of water and Tailwind Endurance Fuel, a calorie- and electrolyte-rich product that comes in numerous flavors — including this summer’s limited-edition “Dauwaltermelon with Lime” flavor that debuted in June before Western States. She also eats stroopwafels, gels, jelly beans and occasionally pancakes when she’s suffering from a bad stomach. 

Dauwalter credited her parents, who were in France to watch her run, for encouraging her to try anything when she was a young girl, as long as she didn’t quit, and her two brothers, who encouraged her to be competitive and push her limits.

She almost reached her limits last weekend, but somehow found a way to make it to the finish line. She was greeted by a roaring crowd in the packed pedestrian village of Chamonix. 

“I had a cross country ski coach who was very adamant that we always had one more gear than we thought we had,” she says. “So when we were physically feeling like there’s nothing left, he would encourage us and try to teach us that there was one more, there’s always one more level you can crank it. So then he started to instill that in me. 

“But in ultrarunning I had to relearn it — almost like I didn’t connect the dots right away — but I realized it was the same idea. Ultrarunning is different, it’s a new sport, but it was the same thing — there’s always a little bit more left in us that we can keep tapping into.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @brianmetzler