Everybody wants to know what Courtney Dauwalter’s secret is. And the more success she has in ultrarunning, the more often she’s asked: How do you do it?
If she had to boil it down, she’d probably just say: I keep it pretty simple.
Dauwalter’s latest victory came in August on one of the biggest stages of the sport: the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 106-mile race that starts and ends in Chamonix, tracks through the Alps of Switzerland, France, and Italy, and features 32,940 feet of elevation gain. It’s one of the toughest races out there—and Dauwalter, 34, is the fourth American woman to win it, in 24 hours and 34 minutes. She was 21st overall, with 144 women and 1,412 men finishing the race this year.
“I’ve been watching UTMB from home the past couple of years, so I knew it was a big deal and there’s a lot of spectators and there’s cameras all over the course—I knew all of that in theory, but had never experienced it,” Dauwalter said, during a phone interview on Tuesday with Women’s Running. “It was pretty cool to be a part of. It’s good to be fully immersed in that kind of atmosphere at an ultramarathon, because it’s so unique and pretty wild.”
She’s the 2018 Western States Endurance Run champion and in 2017 she outright won the Moab 240 Endurance Run, beating the entire field by more than 10 hours. At the 2018 Tahoe 200-miler, Dauwalter, who lives in Golden, Colorado, with her husband, Kevin Schmidt, finished second overall in 49 hours, 54 minutes and 36 seconds—which beat the previous course record by eight hours.
And although this racing season ended on a high, it came with an unusual number of challenges. Dauwalter was planning to compete in July at the Hardrock 100, but the event was canceled in June, due to historic amounts of snowfall in the San Juan Mountains. Then she lined up to defend her Western States title, only to drop out at mile 80 with sharp pains in her hip—difficult for a competitor who’s had few injuries.
Dauwalter, whose athletic roots are in Minnesota where she ran cross country and Nordic skied as a kid, reflected on coping with those ups and downs during the past three months, and also shared her philosophy on adapting to changes, training, and keeping that easy-going attitude.
Live and learn.
Around mile 67 of the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run, Dauwalter had an unusual sensation. Her hip was buckling under her and shooting pain. Somehow, she hung in until mile 80, when she decided to call it quits.
For the next two months, she spent most of her time in physical therapy, learning that perhaps alongside of running, her training should include some strength exercises and flexibility.
“It was a tendonitis issue, but also my body was really out whack—just really unbalanced,” Dauwalter said. “Certain muscle groups had stopped working, others were overworked. I righted the ship and now I do maintenance stuff.”
That “stuff” includes hip activation exercises, foam rolling, and general stretching, which she incorporates regularly now.
“I know this sounds so obvious, but it has fallen by the wayside in the past couple of years,” she said.
For as many ultra-distance races as Dauwalter enters, she has few DNFs (“did not finish”) in her results. The hip injury came on quickly and she spent 13 miles trying to figure out a way to complete the distance.
“The reality was I wasn’t going to run another step in that race, so the decision was: Should I hike it in to finish it? Or should I stop because I don’t want to make it worse?” she said. “The aftermath was acceptance of the situation—I couldn’t do anything to change it, so I wanted to learn as an athlete what I need to do in order for it not to happen again.”
And while she spent much of her time in physical therapy, Dauwalter also needed to get her outdoor fix every day, so she took to cycling—and lawn care.
“It was a different kind of patience. I think time moves slower when you’re injured, possibly,” she said, laughing. “I mowed my lawn like probably 100 times in a week. I’m just kidding, although I was doing a lot of yard work just to get outside.”
Play your hand.
The Hardrock 100 was a major target on Dauwalter’s 2019 racing schedule. Its cancelation, in addition to her injury, made the summer unexpectedly turbulent. Her notoriously even-keeled attitude served her well.
“We can control what we can control. If not, there’s no use fretting or spinning yourself in circles getting frustrated by it,” she says. “In general, in all things in life, that’s super important.”
Fast forward to UTMB, where many U.S. trail runners head over weeks in advance to practice on and preview the course, posting spectacular pictures of morning trail runs and scrumptious meals throughout the days. Dauwalter, on the other hand, stayed home in Colorado to take care of her physical therapy for as long as possible. She arrived on Tuesday night for the Friday evening start, looked at the map, and made do.
“There was no reason to stress myself out about it. I did what I could by looking at the elevation profile and I read a couple of race reports,” she said. “I figured it was 106 miles in Alps and I was just going to keep following the trail until it brought me back to Chamonix.”
In the last 50K of the race, runners face another grueling 9,000 feet of climbing.
“Who knows, maybe it would have been beneficial to have seen ahead of time,” Dauwalter said. “But seeing it beforehand wouldn’t have changed the fact that it was there and it was still really hard.”
Train your brain.
In so many of the challenges that Dauwalter faces in the longest races, it’s not the physical strength that carries her through, it’s her mental fortitude. She trains her brain as much as her legs.
“Physically, it always becomes hard and that’s when you can tap into the mental piece of it,” she said. “I’ve been learning and accumulating the mental piece of running.”
During the last 50K of UTMB, Dauwalter said she had nothing left.
“I kept telling myself that was okay, but I was going to keep moving,” she said. “I tell myself, ‘There’s only one way to get to the finish line.’ If you break it down, it’s really simple.”
And because she relies so much on the psychology of racing, it’s also important to recover emotionally when it’s over. So many runners give themselves time to let their bodies rest, but for Dauwalter it’s her mental muscle that needs TLC.
“I’m still running and easy jogging,” she said. “But I will take time to not stress out for a while before I get ready for the next one.”
Go by feel.
Despite a few years of compiling high-level accomplishments, Dauwalter said she’s still learning how to train. She doesn’t follow a schedule.
“I go by how my body feels and how my brain feels,” she said. “I let my feet guide me when I leave my house every day.”
In the early spring, she maps out a racing schedule and gauges “when I can go wild” with training and when she should ease off in preparation for competition. In between, it is anybody’s guess how many weekly miles or how much climbing she’ll incorporate.
“I just listen to my body and take a day off if I need it,” she said. “I have the ability to track my miles and climbing with my watch, but if I’m wearing it, I’m not really looking at it or plugging it in to gather data. Sometimes I don’t remember if I’ve taken a day off lately, so I look at the watch to see.
“It’s amateur hour over here…but it’s kept me healthy and enjoying it.”