Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Sixty miles into her first 100-mile attempt, Courtney Dauwalter was done.It was 2012 at the Run Rabbit Run 100 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She was 27 years old and determined to find out what her body was capable of. Not as much as she had hoped, it seemed. Her legs were shot, her stomach ached and she was exhausted.
“There were two paths I could take,” she says. “I could accept that 100 miles isn’t for me, or I could figure out how to make it happen.”
Just over seven years later, she has finished over a dozen races of 100 miles or more and has DNF’d just two. Now, she’s one of the most dominant runners in the sport, famous for her capacity to leave competitors—both men and women—in the dust.
>TEACHER BECOMES THE STUDENTSeemingly overnight, Dauwalter went from a middle-school science teacher to one of trail running’s most dominant athletes. She’s ticked off notable wins across ultrarunning’s most prestigious, and some lesser-known events. She’s known as the woman who can outrun men at extreme 200-mile distances.She has the top-end speed to win events like the Western States 100-mile race and the endurance to set course records at the Tahoe 200-miler. She has the turnover and stamina to set course records at the Javelina Jundred 100K, compete in 24-hour track events and win big-mountain events like UTMB. She has formerly held the American women’s record for most miles run in 24 hours, 159.3 miles in 2017. She doesn’t specialize in a particular surface or distance. She specializes in the unique, problem-solving mindset that ultramarathons require.Dauwalter is lanky and tan, proof of a lot of time spent running outside her home in Golden, Colorado. Her blonde hair is perpetually pulled back in a ponytail, and sometimes folded over in a small, straw-colored bun. Her wide blue eyes fold into a squint when she laughs, which she does often. Her smile is relaxed and her teeth are shockingly white (Dauwalter is known to brush her teeth several times throughout the course of 100-mile-andup events).
“She seems to be mostly driven and motivated to find out what her limits are, not necessarily just to win,” says Addie Bracy, a professional ultrarunner and sport-psychology consultant. “ In pursuit of that mission she has developed some ability to just not let pain and discomfort bother her. If something is going wrong or something is hurting, she treats it as a fixable problem.”
She spent the next year training and teaching in Denver, where she met her husband Kevin Schmidt, a runner and software engineer.
Some mutual friends had introduced them, referring to Dauwalter as a gal who “liked to run a bit.” Naively, Schmidt suggested they tackle a couple of Colorado’s Fourteeners for a first date.
“It took everything I had to keep up with her, but somehow I survived!” says Schmidt. “I’ve been trying my best to keep up with her ever since.”
“She seems to be mostly driven and motivated to find out what her limits are, not necessarily just to win,”
“There’s a million theories out there,” says Dauwalter. “You really just have to test stuff yourself to see what works.”
When she started to approach training as a personal puzzle, things started to click into place. Food was nutritional Tetris, and Dauwalter was figuring out the exact configuration of carbs that would allow her to push her limits.
“There was a lot less barfing after that,” says Dauwalter. “I dialed it in, and started relying on Honey Stingers, Tailwind and mashed potatoes.”
As she stood on the start line of the Superior Falls Trail 100, Dauwalter told herself that she would finish, no matter what.
“I didn’t care what it looked like, or what place I was in, but I was going to get to the finish line of that race,” says Dauwalter.
And finish she did—in second place and in the top 10 overall.
The emotion of completing a goal that meant so much to her was overwhelming. “I cried for the last 10 miles of that race,” remembers Dauwalter.
It sparked a nascent curiosity in her to see what she was capable of, and how much farther, and faster her legs could carry her.
In 2017, Dauwalter stepped out of the classroom to pursue running full-time.
“Mostly, I just wanted to find out what was possible, for me and for the sport,” says Dauwalter. “I didn’t want to look back in 50 years and wonder what could have happened if I had invested more in this sport.”
RELATED:Beating The Boys
So, Dauwalter went all in.
Her laid-back approach to training and fueling is echoed by her choice of apparel on the trail. Dauwalter eschews the form-fitting spandex favored by many trail geeks and opts instead for looser T-shirts and knee-length shorts, which the internet has dubbed “Shortneys.”
John Stanley is a frequent running buddy, who befriended Dauwalter while they were both teaching and coaching cross-country in Denver.
“On most of our runs together I feel like I’m training hard and she is doing a recovery run. But running with Courtney, whether we are doing long easy miles or more intense training, is always great,” says Stanley. “It is just getting out and sharing miles with a friend. Even though she can drop me at any time, she is willing to stay with me and give me encouragement.”
On the occasion that Dauwalter does drop him on a hill, she’ll always come back down and throw in an extra repeat, just for the company, says Stanley.
It’s this balance of problem solving without overthinking that has allowed Dauwalter to excel at long distances over the past few years.
In 2017, Dauwalter won the Moab 240-mile race, which traverses the high desert in Moab, Utah, outright, beating the second-place competitor by 10 hours. Wins at the 2018 Western States Endurance Run and the Tahoe 200 (where she finished second overall) solidified her as an ultra-icon. Still curious, Dauwalter kept pushing.
In 2018, she was runner-up at Big’s Backyard Ultra, an almost sadistically challenging race where runners must complete a 4.16667-mile loop each hour for as many hours as possible. If you want to relax and regroup, you earn that time by running faster. The last runner standing wins. On the third day of the race, after 279.2 miles and 67 laps, Dauwalter conceded the race to Johan Steene from Sweden. She and Steene had run 33 miles farther in the race than any previous competitor in the race’s eight-year history.
For someone in Bracy’s field, Dauwalter might be the closest thing to a perfect mental specimen, a petri dish of almost unshakeable mental toughness.
“That’s terrifying to everybody else … Maybe there’s nothing more to it,” responded Rogan. “Maybe it’s just incredibly hard work and grit. That could be just it.”
“It could be really simple,” said Dauwalter.
Dauwalter is a zen koan in action. A master of mindfulness who doesn’t need meditation. Her grip on things is so relaxed that she’s able to elicit complete control when it counts. The sound of one hand clapping.
Her approach is scarily simple. Find the dark moments, and embrace them.
“Your best bet is to barrel forward. I like going into those dark moments and learning from them,” says Dauwalter. “You don’t get to summon those whenever you want. You’re doing something really difficult, and that’s how you grow your capacity to endure.”
“While she probably does have some physiological attributes that help with her success, I still think it’s her psychological advantage that has set her apart,” says Bracy, who has interviewed Dauwalter multiple times in her studies as a sports psychologist. For someone in Bracy’s field, Dauwlater might be the closest thing to a perfect mental specimen, a petri dish of almost unshakeable mental toughness.
It’s not all mind games. Dauwalter is also known for high-volume training weeks with massive amounts of gain. Combine her mysteriously un-structured training with the black box of her brain, and you get a trail-running supermachine.
“Court is the toughest and hardest working person I know,” says Schmidt. “She’s also the most humble and kind person I know. Despite her many accolades, she seems to ground herself in knowing she can always improve and never lets success go to her head.”
Fellow runners recognize Dauwalter for her positivity while racing.
“She is just a very positive, happy and kind person and I can say from racing alongside her that she is still that way in the middle of a 50-miler,” says Bracy.
Bracy remembers encountering Dauwalter 30 miles into a 50-mile race, the longest Bracy had ever run at that point. When Bracy confided in her competitor that her legs felt like crap and she was nervous about the direction her race was headed, Dauwalter responded rationally, and with compassion.
“That’s awesome! It’s OK that your legs hurt, that’s normal. You’ve totally got this!” said Dauwalter.
“That just showed me how she treats the pain and discomfort of racing long distances,” says Bracy. “In the most basic context, I think Courtney has developed the mental strength necessary to get a near maximal effort out of her body.”
“It was a weird summer,” says Dauwalter. She wasn’t used to putting in so many miles on a road bike, as opposed to the trails that she loved. As she started to string together longer and longer runs, another goal started to feel possible.
Throughout her turbulent summer, UTMB loomed large. While many runners flock to Mont Blanc’s shadow to spend most of the summer examining the TMB trail’s many peculiarities, Dauwalter stayed at home in Golden, Colorado, to focus on rehabbing her hip.
On race day, Friday, September 30th of 2019, says Dauwalter, “Since I’m not a calculated person, I thought if I just kept going around the mountain, I’d find my way back to Chamonix eventually.”
Dauwalter took the lead around the halfway point, at the Bonatti aid station, and held it as the race circumnavigated the Mont Blanc Massif, crossing from Italy into Switzerland and back into Chamonix, France.
The last miles, however, were excruciating for Dauwalter, who spent the last couple of hours visibly hobbling (albeit quite quickly) over the Alps’ challenging, steep, rocky terrain. Her gait was forced and off kilter, her face set in an expression of obvious effort. After 24 hours, 34 minutes and 26 seconds, she beat the next woman, Sweden’s Kristin Berglund, by over an hour.
While Dauwalter had won large international races before, like Madeira Island Ultra Trail, Tarawera 100K and Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, UTMB was a recognition of her dominance in the sport. Dauwalter was out to satisfy her own curiosity of what she was capable of—and become one of the world’s best trail runners in the process.
After some time off at the end of 2019, Dauwalter has been focusing on base building and cross-training to prepare for 2020.
“I’m feeling good and excited to get the race season going!” says Dauwalter.
Instead of a set-in-stone ticklist, Dauwalter has a “wish-list” for the year to allow for some flexibility. This year, she hopes to get back to UTMB and Big’s Backyard Ultra, as well as tackling the Hardrock 100.
So, what’s her secret?
The secret is, there is no secret. You just keep going.