Golden’s Courtney Dauwalter is one of the top ultrarunners in the nation.
She has won 28 of 53 women’s races since 2011, and topped the men’s winner in 10 of those races. Last week, she was the first woman to cross the line at the prestigious Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in northern California. Her time — 17 hours, 27 minutes — was the second-fastest for a female in that race’s history.
And then there’s the time she went blind during a Colorado race, fell and bloodied her head — but still won.
Dauwalter, 33, grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, competing in cross country — both running and skiing — in high school. After graduating in 2003, she chose the University of Denver so she could compete as a Nordic skier while studying biology. Later, she spent six years teaching eighth-grade science at Denver’s Girls Athletic Leadership School, but left last year to focus on running full-time.
“It was becoming hard to balance and be great at everything that I wanted to be great at,” Dauwalter said. “My husband and I, we’re young. We’re calling it my ‘first retirement,’ to take this opportunity so that down the line we don’t look back and wonder, What if?’ “
Dauwalter sat down with The Denver Post this week at a Golden coffee shop.
Q: Congratulations on your win at Western States. That’s a huge race. How did it feel to win it?
A: It was really cool. I felt honored to be there and to be able to try and put my best race together against really stiff competition. There were tons of women who could have won it, depending on how our days unfolded. It’s a lot different from a lot of ultramarathons. People are lining streets to cheer, and aid stations are full of all sorts of support. It’s got a really cool vibe in that way.
Q: Ultrarunners talk about the hardest parts of races using terms like “hurt locker” and “pain cave.” Did you spend any time there in that race?
A: Yeah, I guess I gradually entered my pain cave around mile 70. I had taken the lead around mile 52 and was trying really hard to grow a gap behind me and to not make any mistakes that would wreck this lead. Basically, it was staying in it mentally, reminding myself that I was fine and that I could do this, trusting my legs to keep going even when every step was hurting.
Q: You have this amazing record for not only winning women’s titles but also beating the men’s winner, too. You don’t seem to find it that interesting. Why?
A: I don’t keep track of that stuff. Those aren’t numbers that I care enough about. Every race I’m going out there to push myself as hard as I can physically and to dig as deep as I can mentally. Remembering every single win isn’t at the top of my list.
Q: Your first big win was the Run Rabbit Run 100-miler at Steamboat Springs in 2016. That was a turning point, wasn’t it?
A: I didn’t expect to win. No one expected me to be in the top 10, I don’t think. Somehow I was able to put the pieces together pretty efficiently that day. That’s where it started to become something where we were like, “This could be real, we could do something with this.”
Q: You went back to that race a year later and won again but went temporarily blind. What happened?
A: My vision just started closing in like 12 miles from the finish line. I just was thinking it was foggy or my contacts were dry, whatever. It kept closing in, just whiteness closing in. By the time I reached 8 miles out, it was pure white. I was running on single-track trails and couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I could make out the trail so I knew I was on the course still. Which is lucky — I could still be lost, probably (laughs) — but I kept tripping on rocks and roots. One of the times I fell, I banged my head on a rock. I felt liquid dripping down my face, but I couldn’t see it, so I couldn’t confirm (that it was blood). I just pretended it wasn’t. I finished with blood dripping down my face, couldn’t see. I don’t recommend it.
Q: Why did you keep going after losing your vision?
A: To me, it was the only solution. It was like a problem that I had encountered, I needed to find a way around it or through it or over it, and the only solution that made sense to me was to keep going … because that’s what you’re here for.
Q: What did the doctors say about the cause?
A: Their best guess is corneal edema. But it’s a tough study to do because you’ve got to be there at the right time and hope somebody goes blind (laughs).
Q: Five weeks later, you beat everybody — men and women — at the Moab 240 in Utah with a time of 57 hours, 55 minutes. What was it like?
A: We got to be out there for multiple days exploring the area and our own limits at the same time, which was really special. There were points on the course where you could see the La Sals way off in the distance, just an outline of this mountain range. We’d be running the exact opposite direction, knowing that at mile 200 you’re in the La Sals. It also felt unique because the only thing I had to do for the next couple days was keep moving. That was my only job. I love running, so that’s like paradise. What else would I want to be doing?
Q: You won by almost 10 hours over the next finisher. Why did you keep pushing with such an insurmountable lead?
A: I love competition, and winning is always the goal because that means I’ve pushed myself and found out what was possible on that day. That’s the piece that keeps me pushing even if I am in the lead: not wanting to finish and have gas left in the tank, but wanting to feel fully satisfied that I fulfilled the potential I had for that race.
Q: Why is the integrity of the performance so important to you?
A: I was raised that way. My parents set the example, if you’re going to commit to something, you do it 100 percent. Even if you committed to something and you hated it, you couldn’t quit. It’s just a core value of mine.
Q: Figuring out calorie intake is a key problem for ultrarunners. How do you refuel?
A: I have really simple stuff I use every race: Tailwind Nutrition, which is an electrolyte powder, Honey Stinger waffles and chews, then mashed potatoes. At these aid stations, there are buffet lines of every food you can imagine. I don’t usually go through the buffet lines. I keep it really simple. Over the years I found this combination of nutrition doesn’t turn my stomach. It gives me the energy and carbs that I need, and the salts, and can get me to most finish lines just fine. That’s not to say I don’t have races where I puke everywhere.
Q: I once heard it said that if you have to ask someone why they want to climb Mount Everest, you won’t understand the answer. Why do you do ultrarunning?
A: I’m really curious about what humans are capable of, and I don’t think we’ve reached our limit. I’m going to explore the running piece, see how far I can run and how fast. I like searching for my limits physically, but also what our brains are capable of and what we can overcome with positivity, staying tough and not making excuses. It doesn’t have to be running. You don’t have to sign up for a 200-mile race, but just to find something you’re passionate about and see how well you can do it and how far you can take it. I think that’s cool.