STEP INTO THE PAIN CAVE OF COURTNEY DAUWALTER, ULTRA RUNNER OF THE YEAR.
WORDS BY SARAH BARKER – ILLUSTRATION BY ALEX MOORE
Ultra runner Courtney Dauwalter’s UTMB triumph this year came on the back of her Hardrock and Western States victories – she’s the first person to win all three events in one calendar year. Writer Sarah Barker has known Courtney since the ultra runner was in high school with her daughter and has often looked at Courtney’s adventures through protective parental eyes. What are Courtney Dauwalter’s limits, and why does she continue to push them? Is suffering really a good thing?
Back in issue 35 of Like the Wind, Sarah gave Courtney a call…
It’s November 1997, and a leaden sky hangs over Northfield, Minnesota. The temperature is a brisk 33°F (0.5°C!) for the State High School Cross-Country meet. I am there to cheer on my daughter, but finishing in an impressive 10th place in that race is a seventh-grader: Courtney Dauwalter.
Like my own student athlete, Courtney Dauwalter followed the endurance calendar – cross-country, Nordic skiing, track – although skiing seemed her specialty: she was a four-time state champion. So by default, I was aware of her back in the days of pasta parties and pre-race hair braiding and, you know, she seemed like all the other kids rocking letter jackets: athletic by nature, equally motivated by teammates and Twizzlers.
Clearly something happened between then and 2016, when Courtney made a big blip on the ultra running radar, winning eight of the 11 ultras she entered that year, three of those as the overall champ. And that’s when she was still working full-time as a science teacher in Denver. Since then, Courtney Dauwalter has become one of the dominant figures in ultra running.
She’s still a bad-joking, perma-laughing, candy-crushing kid from Minnesota, but there’s another side to Courtney: a steely adventurer, driven to exploring the smoking edge of human endurance. This brand of exploration comes at significant physical cost: quads that appear to swallow her knees, flayed feet, serial vomiting. She pushed her limit to 283 miles at the 2020 Big’s Backyard Ultra sufferfest, sleeping only a few minutes at a time for 68 hours. Her feet had not even returned to normal size before she was planning ways to go further.
As a person who has wholeheartedly accepted my physical and mental limits, I feel it’s my duty to question Courtney on this topic. Maybe it’s a motherly thing.
In our past conversations, Courtney Dauwalter has talked about an insatiable curiosity for pushing her limits, while I try not to say: “Do you think that’s wise?” Having given no sign of relinquishing her quest nor of heeding my bleating, it seemed a good time to revisit this whole “limits” thing. I caught up with Courtney by phone from her home in Leadville, Colorado.
I remember you being competitive in high school but not out of the ordinary, like doing crazy high mileage or anything.
Definitely not. I mean, I ran a lot. I was in cross-country and track and on the ski team in seventh grade, all through middle school and high school, but I was not high mileage.
So, no running for three days straight?
No. I didn’t know ultra running was a thing.
I’m trying to get at where this intensity came from, where you veered off from nearly everyone else. For example, most of your Hopkins [High School] ex-teammates are satisfied with 26.2 miles and a beer – when and why did you decide that wasn’t enough?
After college I entered a few road marathons because it was a thing a lot of people did. I honestly didn’t know if I could finish one. I thought 26.2 miles would kill me – like, my legs would fall off. When I finished and that didn’t happen, it pushed over the first domino. I had thought that was too hard, that it was impossible, and it wasn’t, so I thought: “What’s another thing I could try?”
That’s when my curiosity [about ultra running] kicked in. It was never about moving my time down in the marathon; it was always about how much further I could go. My curiosity got sparked by suddenly realising that things that sound impossible might be possible. For me, that thing was ultra running, so I signed up for a 50km – which, again, sounded impossible until I did it. I continued to think: “What’s next?”
I’m thinking about Run Rabbit Run in 2012, when you dropped out – why?
It was my first attempt at 100 miles. I had worked my way up in distance, and each time I was surprised I could do it. At Run Rabbit Run, my legs started to hurt, my feet started to hurt, my body was feeling beat up. My mind went negative and I convinced myself that I wasn’t cut out for 100 miles. I thought: “This is a joke. I should quit. I should be OK with that limit. I should be OK with 50 miles.”
The negativity spiralled, I made it to an aid station, cut off the bracelet, and dropped out. It was a mental low that I let get away from me. In hindsight, my body felt normal; that’s what it takes to run 100 miles. I just wasn’t ready for what that meant.
So these things seemed insurmountable?
Yeah, I was thinking: “You can’t do this distance. You shouldn’t be hurting like this at 50 miles.” And the negative self-talk grew.
An ultra runner in the making: trying again
How did you change your mind about what’s “normal” for a 100-mile race?
A couple of things changed my mind about trying 100 miles again. First, I dropped out of the race at a spot that was pretty inaccessible, so I had to sit there for hours waiting for a ride out. In those hours I had a front-row seat for all the people coming through that aid station. I remember noticing how tired they all looked and how difficult it seemed to be, but that none of them were quitting. They were pushing on and problem-solving and moving towards that finish line. The other thing is that it didn’t sit well with me that I had quit. I didn’t like that I stopped when things got hard, and I knew I needed to try again to really see if it was possible. Both of those things had me signing up for my next 100-mile attempt really quickly.
Your next go at 100 miles, where did your mind go when you started hurting?
When I signed up for [USA ultra running race] Superior 100 in 2013 I knew how important my brain was, and how staying away from negative self-talk was going to be key in me getting to that finish line. I was determined to complete 100 miles, no matter how tough it got. And it got really tough out there. I cried the last 10 miles of the run because it was so difficult, but I was able to keep moving forward by staying strong in my head. I learned so much from that race and was so excited to finish. The DNF in 2012, and then finishing the 100 in 2013, was a huge part of me starting to understand the mental game of ultra running.
Ten years on, have you just dialled in how to train and run a 100+ mile race such that you honestly aren’t suffering?
No, I still want to suffer. I push to suffer. Running 100 miles hasn’t gotten easier; it’s not a breeze. My body still suffers. I just have this mental experience. I come to it more prepared.
Wait – you want to suffer?
Absolutely! That’s why I’m signing up for these really difficult things. We don’t know what we’re capable of, we don’t know our limits until we try, so I want to get to that place. I call it the pain cave: that point where you physically can’t keep going. That’s when your mind takes over and you dig in with your brain to help your body keep going. My goal is to get to the pain cave and go in and make it bigger, with hopes that every time I make it bigger I can reach a little farther into myself next time.
On the realities of ultra running
Tell me about some of the more vivid realities of running for 200+ miles. What happens to your body?
Well, your knees swell up, your hands and feet are swollen. Your feet get beat up and tender so you can feel every rock and every angle. Sleep deprivation comes in – you’re kind of in a fog between being asleep and being awake. Sometimes there are gastrointestinal (GI) issues and things won’t stay in your body so you have to test out different foods to see what will stick.
Do you think of these things as “suffering”? Like “Gee, my feet really hurt?”
Some discomfort I ignore because giving it attention or [putting it on] a pedestal does nothing in trying to keep working toward the finish line. So, small expected discomforts I shove to the side. Instead of thinking of it as suffering, I have this pain cave visual, and it suddenly becomes productive. It feels like there’s a purpose. It’s possible to keep going in my pain cave. I visualise grabbing a chisel and going to the back of the cave and making it bigger. The pain is productive because I’m making this pile of rubble as I chisel away at it. It makes my potential greater the next time I visit it. It’s the same cave I return to every time so, if I run a race in July, when I visit the pain cave again in October I start where I left off last time. I’ve created another level of mental strength.
You talk about chipping away at your pain cave; I tend to think of the things you’ve described as your body telling you to stop. Exploring limits has an element of danger. Do you think of what you’re doing as dangerous?
I do not. I want to live for a very long time. I am not looking to put myself in situations where there would be risk. If something like that happens, like it feels on the edge, I try to stay logical.
You know I’m going to bring up that race, 2017 Run Rabbit Run, where your vision slowly failed, you fell and incurred a picturesque head injury, but kept going.
Ha, yeah, I don’t recommend running without vision if that isn’t how you typically run, and I will say, that was not ideal. The logic for me was that I knew the trail I was on, it didn’t have cliffs or intersections where I might go off into the mountains where they wouldn’t find me. I knew I could follow this trail and get to the next aid station. If I’m in a pickle, I try to keep my logical brain at the forefront.
Well, you know, sometimes logic and mental clarity are not so good after three days of running.
That’s true. I guess I’ve been learning to trust my ability to stay logical during tough moments. Oftentimes I have crew during these really long, difficult efforts. They want to get to those finish lines just as much as I do, but they are helpful in bouncing ideas off of, and can help in that logical thinking.
Blowing past your limits
Does your mom ever say: “Ya know, Courtney, that teaching job… you never taught until you hallucinated. Maybe that wasn’t so bad?”
My parents are so supportive. They think this is all fun. They love being part of it and learning more about it. In fact, my mom and I signed up to run a 50-mile trail race together. She wanted to see if she could do it. She wanted to see what it’s like with a bib on.
So they’re not worried about you when you’re hallucinating or whatever?
They trust me and believe in me. They’ve seen me in some dark places where I’m hurting really bad and it’s hard, but in those moments when I see them and can smile and joke with them, they know I want to be there, at that point, pushing myself.
A couple of things about limits – the one sure-fire way to find your limit is to blow past it, but by then it’s too late to report back in this world. I mean, the demographic most likely to have found their limit is dead people.
Hey, wait a minute! This is sounding kind of ominous. I don’t know how this is going to come off. I think I said I’d like to be around for a long, long time…
You did. And I don’t want to paint you as a self-destructive nut. It’s just that 99.9% of people live nowhere close to their limits, so hearing about you deliberately putting your body through some pretty colourful stuff… it sounds risky.
Well, life is short. We should fill it with things we love. That’s how my husband and I try to live, making the most of every day, packing it with what excites us and brings us joy. We’re not reckless. But the mountains don’t care who you are – even on a training run stuff happens, so we try to prepare ourselves as best we can.
Where’s the limit?
The other thing is that your limits are always moving out – you ran 279 miles at Big’s in 2018 and 283 miles in 2020. In 2020, if Harvey Lewis had stayed in, could you have kept going?
Yeah, it’s impossible to say how long I could have kept going. In my head, we weren’t stopping. I was still in this robotic routine, not considering the finish. On the other hand, when I ran 279 miles, I didn’t feel like I was swirling the drain until it happened, and suddenly I had nothing left. You never know on the day how far you can go.
What are your thoughts when you go past what you’ve done before, when you’re in uncharted territory?
I try, in general, to stay in the moment, where my feet are, and not project ahead or dwell on how much farther I have to go. Even to the next few steps. I bring it back, sometimes by talking out loud: “Be right where your feet are, right now.” Counting your chickens before they’re hatched or thinking, there’s no way I can keep this up – neither one is useful.
Races have an endpoint. Even Big’s stops once there’s no one else in the race. Do you see FKTs or 24 hour races as possible venues for going further?
For sure. I’ve done both of those. They’re fun angles on the same test of your brain and body working together. I did a 160-mile FKT loop, and attempted the 500-mile Colorado Trail, but didn’t make it to the finish. There are 24-hour races, 48-hour… six-day races. There are so many cool options for people to get fired up about and test themselves. FKT routes are special because they can be in a place that’s really important to you, and they can be a very individual or small group effort that will create a fun life memory.
Often breaking barriers is more about technology than body and brain – like rubber tracks and shoe tech. It seems as if you’re counting on your pain cave chisel, your ability to endure, your brain, as your primary tool for going further. Is that right?
Yeah, those are my key tools. And my jokes.
Tell me a joke.
Ha ha, sorry, you’d have to run with me to hear some jokes.
Man, that’s steep.
Competitive ultra running has an expiration date. Will you be satisfied with a life well within the limits of human endurance, or will you explore your limits in other areas, like knitting or something?
Ha! I did used to knit hats in high school. You can make some cool stuff. I have no idea what I’ll be doing. I did not predict that this chapter of my life would exist, so I’m not going to try to predict what the next chapter will be like.
Thanks to our ultra runner of the year Courtney Dauwalter for the opportunity to tell her story in our issue #35 (get your copy here).
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer focusing on running in all permutations. She’s historically preserved.
Alex Moore is a London-based illustrator, comic and storyboard artist. @alexmooreillustration