On Sunday 15th October 2017, Courtney Dauwalter didn't so much beat the field at the Moab 240 Mile Endurance Race as destroy it.
This gruelling course in the rocky peaks of Utah subjects runners to extreme temperatures and highly technical terrain, including 8,981m of elevation gain and an equal amount of loss. Imagine jogging up Everest and then back down again.
Ordinarily, it would take anywhere between three and five days for an athlete to cross the finish line, but Courtney managed it in just two days, nine hours and 59 minutes. In this type of race, it’s rare for there to be a difference of more than an hour or two between the first and second-place finishers. However, Courtney’s time put her 10 hours ahead of second place (a man).
But that’s not all: Courtney has already bagged her first win of 2019 at the Tarawera Ultra in New Zealand. Until recently she also held the American women's record for the most miles run in 24 hours (159.2) On top of that, she clocked eight wins last year, bringing her total to 32, and has been known to go so hard that she actually lost her eyesight for the last 12 miles of one particular race, but still went on to win.
Ahead of a jam-packed year of racing, the 34-year-old reveals the secrets behind her success.
Racing is in her blood
While Courtney seemed to burst onto the scene out of thin air, she’s no stranger to track, trail, or even cross-country ski courses. Although she’s far too modest to come right out and say it, her formative years were filled with extraordinary sporting achievement.
Courtney won a scholarship to the University of Denver for competitive cross-country skiing, but running has always been her number one event.
“In junior high and high school, I started focusing more on cross-country and track and I found that I really loved being able to push myself in races. Since then, running has been a regular activity for me as a way to clear my head before work, or just to meet up with friends for a chat.”
A former high-school science teacher, she gave up her career last year to begin racing professionally. Needless to say she hasn't looked back.
She doesn't wear 'all the gear'
If you ever happen to find yourself at an ultramarathon needing to pick Courtney out from her competitors, just look for the glowing lady with the beaming smile who looks like she’s dressed for a basketball game rather than a 200-mile endurance race.
“It’s pure comfort!” she says. “I have always preferred longer shorts and found that in ultramarathons they are still my chosen length.”
She follows no diet or proper training regime
“There’s nothing strict about my diet at all,” says Courtney. “I eat without restrictions on any food groups. I don't follow a training plan either. Both of these things mean I’m free to listen to my body every day and go from there. What I'm craving, how my legs and mind are feeling are taken into account each morning as I plan my runs and food for the day.
During my first 100 miler, I dropped out of the race at mile 60 because my legs hurt really bad and I didn't know how to shift gears to the mental game.
"Before races, I go for anything that is convenient. Often, that means pizza or a Chipotle burrito bowl. During races, I stick with my tried-and-true race foods – Honey Stinger waffles/chews, Tailwind nutrition snacks and mashed potatoes – unless the race is really long. In races over 100 miles, I have added in quesadillas, pancakes, noodle soup, and McDonald's double cheeseburgers. Post-race, the first thing I like to have is a beer. And after that, nachos!"
She’s sparked a gender debate within the ultrarunning community
There has been talk as to whether women might be ‘better cut out’, both physically and mentally, for running longer distances than men. Despite regularly leaving men in her dust, Courtney’s not so sure.
"It's a pretty cool time in ultrarunning [right now]. Women are pushing all sorts of limits and raising the bar for each other. I feel lucky to be in the sport right now, but I’m not sure 'better cut out' is the phrase. Although I do think that as the races get longer, the playing field evens out a bit and the race becomes more about stamina and mental strength."
It’s a sentiment echoed by Shawn Bearden, professor of exercise physiology at Idaho State University and host of the Science of Ultra podcast:
“If each person’s maximum capability is plotted as an individual dot on a graph, comparing men and women would look like two shotgun blasts where the average of the male blast is slightly higher than that of the female. But, identify who signed up for a particular race, then throw in all the factors that can move those dots a little up or a little down on the specific day the race is held — from training prep to race-day decisions and motivations — and a particular woman might well win outright."
While they may not necessarily be better than men at running ultras, Bearden does note that there are certain physiological traits, unique to women, such as a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres and greater resistance to central fatigue. “These factors will contribute to women being relatively better at longer distances vs. shorter distances,” he explains.
She knows how to kick her brain into gear
“I think the mental aspect is huge!” says Courtney. “For me, this is the most interesting part of ultrarunning. During my first 100-mile attempt, I ended up dropping out of the race around mile 60 because my legs hurt really bad and I didn't know how to shift gears to the mental game. Now, when it becomes physically painful, which is inevitable, I try to remind myself that by staying tough in my head, by not giving up on myself and by continuing to push forward, I can overpower the physical pain.”
She lives in the moment
A big part of that mental hurdle is staying grounded and tackling each race step by step.
“Usually I am trying to stay in the moment,” she says. “It’s important to keep working hard on those miles and to not think of the finish line yet. I don't like to count my chickens before they hatch and I only let myself celebrate the finish once I have actually crossed the line.
Sometimes, when the going gets really tough, this means staying totally focused and reciting a mantra in her head. “It might just be ‘You're fine, you're fine, you're doing fine, this is fine'.
“The human body and our brains are such an amazing combination. I am always intrigued by our ability to complete these big mileages and that keeps me coming back for more. What else can we do? How fast can we go? How much physical pain can we push past by being strong in our minds?”
She loves making new friends along the trail… even hallucinatory ones
Running hundreds of miles all through the day and night, with limited food and even less sleep, is a great way to see things that, well, aren’t actually there. For Courtney, the hallucinations usually come at night, when her mind is exhausted and trying its best to make sense of shapes in the darkness.
“The first few times it happened, I was seeing giraffes and flying eels in the mountains of Colorado,” she says. “It really freaked me out. I was ducking and covering as the eels swooped towards my head and staring at the giraffes along the trail.
“Now, though, I usually can recognize that it’s happening and I’ve made some great friends out there! I’ve seen a leopard in a hammock, a cello player, a colonial woman, a 12-foot-tall cowboy swinging a rope over his head, a lot of cats covering the path, an ice castle and a farmer standing along the trail…to name a few.”
Her husband keeps pace
Courtney’s husband, Kevin Schmidt, hasn’t always been much of a runner, but he plays a big role. He organises the logistics for all of her races and even paces for her from time to time. This involves him getting out on the trail with her to ensure she’s running at her desired speed.
“He is a keen runner now! When we first started dating, he would run five miles on his biggest days. Now, he has completed a 100 mile race! We get miles together 3-4 times per week, I guess. Whenever we can fit it into our schedules."
She’s got a clear idea of what it takes to run ultras
“Patience, persistence and a desire to get it done,” Courtney says. “No one else can run those miles for you, but if you are willing to put in the work and are nice to yourself in the process, you can complete an ultramarathon.”
Courtney’s 2019 Race Schedule
February: Tarawera Ultra – Completed. Finished in first place.
June: Western States Endurance Run
July: Hardrock 100
August: UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc)
October: IAU 24-Hour World Championships