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Courtney Dauwalter: The fun-fueled ultra-marathon star defying science

<i>Jordi Saragossa/The Adventure Bakery</i><br/>
Jordi Saragossa/The Adventure Bakery
Jordi Saragossa/The Adventure Bakery

By Matt Foster, CNN

Most people’s idea of fun wouldn’t involve running for hours on end through brutal, undulating terrain — but ultra-marathon sensation Courtney Dauwalter is no ordinary person.

While an ultra-marathon is technically defined as any race longer than 26.2 miles, Dauwalter’s exploits tend to take place at distances far greater than that, usually between 100 to 250 miles.

The 38-year-old’s list of achievements is almost interminable. Dauwalter, a four-time ‘Ultra Running Magazine Ultrarunner of the year,’ holds multiple course records for the obscenely long races around the US and abroad.

Dauwalter’s breakout moment came at the Moab 240 — an annual 240-mile race in Utah. At the 2017 edition, shortly after making the decision to become a full-time ultra-runner, Dauwalter completed the course a scarcely believable 10 hours ahead of all other competitors — male and female.

The Transgrancanaria event on February 24 — Dauwalter’s most recent escapade – resulted in her 15th straight race win by gender dating back to March 2021, according to results database Ultrasignup.

The Minnesota native completed the grueling 128km course (79.5 miles) — including over 7000 meters of elevation gain – around the Canary Island in a course record 14 hours 40 minutes: over 90 minutes ahead of her closest competitor.

Pizza and pints

What makes Dauwalter’s success even more remarkable is her approach to the sport. Given the extraordinary distances covered, you might expect her to have a forensic outlook on the craft, with rigorous training schedules, extreme diets, and advanced technology galore.

In fact, the opposite is true.

“Pre-race I’ll usually go with pizza,” Dauwalter tells CNN Sport. “Pizza is easy to find almost anywhere, it’s predictable, and it’s delicious.

“Afterwards I’m often craving a beer and just a huge pile of nachos.”

With regards to coaching, Dauwalter believes there is no replacement for intuition. Indeed, she doesn’t even wear a heart rate monitor.

“The best way for me to train right now is no coach, no plan, and really just tuning into those signals — physical, mental, emotional,” she says. “Then every day I can assess myself and see where I’m at for the day.

“One of the cool parts of this sport is that there’s so many ways people go about training for these races — there is no right or wrong path to completing a 100 or 200-mile race.”

‘The Pain Cave’

On the face of it, Dauwalter’s ultra-marathon supremacy is confusing. Personable, modest, and bearing a disarming grin, it is hardly the image that leaps to mind when one envisages an extreme sport phenomenon.

Underneath that smile, however, lies a resolute commitment to mental strength, aided by a particular visualization exercise she created for when the going gets tough: The Pain Cave.

“The Pain Cave is the place I go to in my head when it feels like I physically can’t take another step,” Dauwalter explains. “I’m a very visual person, so I’ll picture actually grabbing a chisel and entering this cave in my mind, because oftentimes our bodies are wanting to tap out before we’ve actually reached our limits.”

The idea is that, in using the imaginary tool to extend the cave’s depth, Dauwalter is extending her mental capacity to push her boundaries and turning the bodily pain into a productive exercise.

“If we can just stay strong in our heads and change our mindset to something useful and positive, we can usually achieve way more than what we initially thought,” she adds.

Friendly flying eels

That is not to say that the mind-over-matter approach comes without risk in ultra-marathons.

Dauwalter says she once lost her sight completely in the closing phases of a race in 2017 — telling the Rich Roll podcast that for the final 10 miles of a 100-mile race, it was “pure white” in her field of vision.

Hallucinations can be a common occurrence when testing human resolve to the limit in ultra-marathons. Andrew Mojica, a former psychology student at the University of Texas, told Trail Runner Magazine in 2017 that “at least a third” of the competitors he studied in 2003’s 135-mile Badwater Race in Death Valley, California, experienced hallucinations.

True to character, Dauwalter has a positive and novel method of coping with the unexpected visions.

“At first I didn’t know that these hallucinations happened during races — I distinctly remember I was doing a race in Colorado and there were flying eels like bombing towards my head,” she laughs. “And there was a giraffe standing right next to the trail on this, like, Colorado mountain.

“Now that I know those things happen, and I might make some friends out there, I’ve just grown to appreciate it — like, ‘what friends might I make on this race?'”

The forefront of science

A former science teacher herself, Dauwalter’s ongoing success against men and women has catalyzed discussions around the science of biological sex and how it contributes to performance as distance increases.

“There’s a lot to learn about what people are capable of in this sport — and specifically a lot to learn about what people are capable of in those races that are 200-plus miles,” Dauwalter explains.

“Endurance and strength are factors in running a race, but suddenly in the mix you’ve got the ability to problem solve, mental strength, like, stubbornness is a factor in there or the ability to stay awake.”

These less tangible talents are where Dauwalter excels, and the Colorado resident is animated by the prospect of participating in the ongoing learning process around race length.

“All these other skills that have nothing to do with muscle size and are skills that really anyone could develop or be naturally good at,” she continues.

“So, it will be interesting to see how our understanding of what’s possible develops as we get more and more people doing them (longer races) … and to be a part of that is really exciting.”

Exploring the world with your feet

It feels remiss to describe someone as impressive as Dauwalter as happy-go-lucky given the breadth of her achievements, but she herself is adamant that her enjoyment of the exploits and the problem solving that comes with absurd distance is fundamental to her triumphs.

“For me, training, racing and exploring what’s possible with these ultra-races, the really long trail ones, is fun,” Dauwalter says.

“And I love pushing my limits and seeing what’s possible — so keeping that as fun as we can is top of the list of importance.”

Ultra-marathons’ inbuilt relationship with nature keeps the enjoyment fresh for Dauwalter.

“It feels really special to be able to explore in that way, to appreciate how silent it can be in some of those moments and some of those places and not really know what’s coming,” she says.

“When you come around a corner on a trail and you have no idea of the huge view you’re going to be rewarded with — it’s such a cool surprise to have.”

The ultra-marathon circuit is truly global. In the last year alone, Dauwalter won races in Texas, Cape Town, and the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, and the runner is grateful for the travel opportunities afforded to her by the sport.

“I really appreciate exploring these places with my feet,” she says.

Mission statement

Dauwalter is too humble to consider ideas of legacy and achievement. She herself is “definitely not keeping track” of her winning run, she says. However, her fame and fanbase continue to grow (at the time of writing, she has 420,000 followers on Instagram).

Pressed to contemplate what she would like her impact to be on the sport and beyond, her message is clear: we should all seek to push ourselves more.

“In general, I think everyone’s bars are just a little bit too low, and that we should raise the bar for ourselves,” she says. “We should go after the thing that sounds a little bit crazy or sounds a little bit too difficult and just see, because, why not?”

Whether that extra exertion comes via her beloved sport is secondary, as far as Dauwalter is concerned.

“Yes, I want more people to experience ultrarunning,” she concludes. “I would love people to choose that as their thing that sounds crazy that they want to try. But also, I think people can just do that with anything in their life and see what happens with it.”

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