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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter Explains Why She Runs Through Blindness And Hallucinations

Illustration for article titled Ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter Explains Why She Runs Through Blindness And Hallucinations
Photo: Howie Stern

Courtney Dauwalter is a real nice girl, but competitive. She’s 33 now and married, and living in Golden, Colo., but she grew up in Hopkins, Minn. where she was one heck of an athlete—ran track and cross country, did nordic skiing, went to state a few times. One thing led to another, and now she’s into ultra running, crazy long distances: 100 miles, 200 miles.


Turns out, she’s really good at it. Of the 51 ultras she’s entered since 2011, she’s been the first woman across the finish line in 27 of them; she’s won 11 outright. Take, for example, last October’s Moab 200 Endurance Run, which is actually 238 miles. Courtney won that. Not just the women’s division—she won the whole shebang, 10 hours ahead of the second-place runner, who was a guy. This was on hilly trails through desolate canyons, over the course of almost 58 hours. The prize was a handmade plaque.

Did I mention she quit a perfectly good teaching job to do this full-time?

It’s nice to be good at something, for sure. But does it have to be suffering? Make no mistake, no one, not even Courtney, is good at scissoring their legs for 58 hours; no one is good at foregoing sleep in favor of tottering on past eight mealtimes. No, to be successful at covering those kinds of distances is to be good at suffering and overcoming (read: ignoring) the rebellion your body serves up when it’s made to keep going.

In 2012, Courtney dropped out of her first 100-mile race at the 60-mile point because, like a normal person, she took the whole baseball-bat-to-the-quads-total-body-ache-of-impending-death set of symptoms as a sign she should stop. But after a bit of reflection her takeaway from that was: “I didn’t realize that suffering is normal, or that our brains can help us overcome physical suffering. I was not prepared for the battle. Just like you train your body to be stronger, you can train your mind. It’s amazing what our bodies can do but even more amazing what our brains can do.”

Courtney’s brain seems to be good at dispassionately observing, for example, that her body has been shivering on the side of a trail for a couple hours, trying not to lie in its own vomit, and declaring, Yeah, doable. Carry on. Stuff she’s carried on through includes but is not limited to: blindness that came on in the last 12 miles of a 100-mile trail race and the subsequent falls and bleeding head injury, firehose vomiting, hallucinations, toenails falling off, 96-degree heat, hail, and quads so swollen they appeared to be swallowing her kneecaps. The thing is, before her feet have even deflated, Courtney is thinking how cool that was, that her legs did not actually fall off, and planning how much farther she’ll push herself next time.

I’ve spoken with Courtney about her running philosophy on two separate occasions—in November 2017, and just recently. Courtney was good at suffering through those phone chats. Following are some highlights of our conversations.

Two-hundred-thirty-eight miles—why push your body that hard? Aren’t these picturesque things—vomiting, shivering, hallucinating, going blind—red flags? Isn’t that your body telling you to stop?


Courtney Dauwalter: “Why not?” is my answer to the first question. I am so curious about the potential of our bodies and brains. The way I’m investigating that is by running really far distances. If there was something [a race] longer than 238 miles, I’d definitely consider it. And no, I don’t think those types of pain and suffering are signs you should stop. I mean, I troubleshoot and try to fix what’s causing it, but my solution is usually to just keep going. Once I pushed through those things, I was a normal functioning human 48 hours later. Our ability to bounce back is part of what’s so cool. You can endure a lot if you set your mind to it and push through.

Okay but most of the time you find your limit after the fact, when it’s too late. What if 48 hours later you didn’t bounce back?


CD: [laughs] You’re really playing devil’s advocate here. Too late is a very real thing. I’m asking a lot of my body now that it’s my job. I try to listen to my body, and treat myself nicely. If I was intending to do 20 miles and end up doing six, that’s okay. But training and racing are different—if I tweak a hamstring in training, I don’t ignore it, but during a race, I’ll keep pushing and see if it will pass.

You’ve only dropped out once, back in 2012. Now, what sort of thing would make you pull the plug?


CD: Maybe if I heard something popping or snapping. Something where it would be damaging to continue. I am really competitive, though, so I often have blinders on…

How about blood in urine—have you ever had that?

CD: [laughs] No, I haven’t but that would be a race ender. I stick by the beer scale—if your pee looks like an IPA, you’re okay. Darker means you need to drink more. If it gets to the amber or porter range, you should seek help.


When you talk about running through pain, are you talking about bone sticking thru the skin sort of pain or exhaustion sort of pain?

CD: More exhaustion sort of pain. When you’re physically fatigued and mentally tired of focusing on this one motion, it can feel like pain. Sometimes it feels like a lot of work just to breathe. Of course your quads are going to be sore—you can push through that. The bone sticking through skin type, where you’d be doing more damage to continue, no, I don’t condone pushing through that.


Has the blindness thing happened again?

CD: No it hasn’t, thankfully. Now I wear sunglasses and use eyedrops. I don’t know—I may have been depleted and not taking in enough calories. I went to the doctor after that, and they suggested I try to keep my eyes wet and dust out of them. Their best guess is that my contact lenses trapped dirt and my eyes got dried out…


Wait, you wore contacts for more than two days with your eyes open?

CD: [laughs] Yeah, I always wear contacts. I have awful vision, I’m blind as a bat. How else could I see? I wouldn’t be able to see the trail or a moose or anything. They’re for distance.


That’s what I mean. You could just look down at the trail and so what if everything else was all blurry. You’re hallucinating anyway, right? If you’re going to have your eyes open for three days straight, just one less thing to worry about if you don’t have contacts in.

CD: I’m writing this down—try not wearing contacts. I can’t believe I never thought of this.


You’re welcome. Anyhoo, do you carry eyedrops with you?

CD: I do. It feels so good in the middle of a race.

I see on your schedule you’ve got Western States 100 coming up June 23, then on September 7, the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run—which I assume is 289 miles—and on October 20, the Big Backyard Ultra in East Buttwhistle, Tennessee. Big Backyard is another sort of hideous brainchild of Gary Cantrell’s, aka Lazarus Lake, godfather of the Barkley Marathons, which, by the way, seems right up your alley. Tell me about Big Backyard.


CD: It’s a last person standing competition—actually it’s called Last Man Standing.

Yeah, Gary Cantrell is fond of trolling women, saying no woman will ever finish Barkley. I guess it worked.


CD: Yeah, one of these years I hope to try it [Barkley]. No woman has won Big Backyard, either. We’ll see how it goes. Anyway, it’s held on a four-mile loop on Gary Cantrell’s farm out in the middle of nowhere. Every hour on the hour, he blows a whistle and you have to be in the starting corral. You have one hour to do the four-mile loop. You can drop out any time. If it takes you longer than an hour to complete the loop, you’re out. If you’re not in the starting corral when the whistle blows, you’re out. There’s no set race distance or time; you’re just racing against everyone else to see who’s the last person standing. When it gets down to one person at the start when the whistle blows, that person has to do one more lap. Mentally, you can’t get attached to any distance, you can’t bargain with yourself and say, “I’ll keep going until the 54th lap and that’s when I’ll be done.”

Last year, it came down to two guys. They went 250 miles, so two-and-a-half days. Most of the guys from last year are in it again, and six or seven of them are gunning to pass 200 miles. I’m hoping they push me, to see how far I can go, how deep I can dig. I’m hoping people will stay in for like three days. It’ll definitely bring out some good competition. I mean, four miles per hour, 15-minute miles, is a very sustainable pace. But if you want to build in some time to lay down for 10 minutes, you have to go quicker. If you conk out, you might not hear the whistle, so it’s a cool format, a new way to push yourself. Cantrell, you know how he is—he said he’s happy to keep blowing the whistle every hour. He said his schedule is open until Thanksgiving.