After running 60 miles through snow, steep, root-filled switchbacks and thousands of feet of elevation gain, Courtney Dauwalter entered what she calls her pain cave. During the next 40 miles of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, she imagined herself holding a chisel, scraping away the most remote spots of her pain while concentrating on every step she took . When Dauwalter crossed the finish line in 15 hours, 29 minutes and 33 seconds, she had beaten the women’s course record by more than an hour and set the 23rd fastest time of all time in the race’s 45-year history.

To put Dauwalter’s time in perspective, every year from 1978 to 2009 he would have won the Western States men’s division – arguably the most competitive 100-mile race in the world. Scott Jurek won Western States seven times (most recently in 2005). But he has never run as fast as Dauwalter this year. She beat the 1994 Western State record set by Ann Trason, who won the race 14 times, by more than two hours.

Dauwalter is one of the most dazzling characters in ultra running. Known for her love of candy, nachos and beer, she is also known for her baggy shorts and vivid hallucinations on the golf course, which are depicted on hats and t-shirts. In the last 10 years she has won more than 50 races of 30 miles or longer. In 2017, she won a 240-mile race in Moab, Utah by 10 hours. When she won Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra in 2020, she ran 283 miles and hallucinated that Mickey Mouse was on a circus stage handing out t-shirts to a crowd.

Now she’s trying to do what even the most experienced ultra runners would consider extraordinary: winning three hard-fought 100-mile races in a single summer. Twenty days after her Western States appearance, she won the grueling Hard Rock 100 in Silverton, Colorado, beating her own record by 20 minutes and finishing fourth overall. This weekend, seven weeks after her Hardrock victory, she will compete in the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc, a brutally steep 106-mile race in Chamonix, France, whose terrain is more suitable for billy goats than humans. She has won the race twice and currently holds the women’s record.

“In general, I’m pretty tired,” said Dauwalter, whose motto when things get difficult in a race are, “That’s okay” and “Be brave and believe in it.” She said that taking part in all three races wasn’t the plan at first, but she just had to try.

“I’m so curious about what’s going to happen and looking forward to testing myself,” she said.

Dauwalter, 38, is lanky and blonde with a deep tan, expressive blue eyes and permanent laugh lines and believes one of the biggest developments in her running career has been embracing The Pain Cave. At first she thought it was the place where she could no longer bear the suffering and had to stop running. In fact, she dropped out of the first 100-mile race she attempted in 2012 because she was overcome with pain. But the more races she ran, the more she realized she could handle it. She said she envisions herself wearing a hard hat, wielding a chisel, and “going into town and trying to make a pile of dust out of it while I’m in there.”

She continued, “It always feels like this is a special opportunity because we can’t summon it at any time. We have to do something hard, push ourselves, and then maybe we’ll get a chance to get in. And if we can do that, we should celebrate that we did it.”

Dauwalter sat on a patio overlooking the Rocky Mountains at her home in Leadville, Colorado, on a sunny afternoon in mid-August, sipping a fruity seltzer and pointing to two 14,000-foot mountains that she often runs to from her home. In a sport where most top runners have a coach and set their training schedules weeks in advance, Dauwalter trains herself and doesn’t know how many miles she’ll run on any given day. Your morning usually starts at 4am with a cup of coffee with vanilla crunch cream. She answers emails and then does about 40 minutes of strength training. At 7 a.m. she sets off and walks for one to five hours. She often adds a bike ride and second run with her husband Kevin Schmidt.

“I try to be really open to everything that’s happening each week so I can actually tune into and listen to my body,” said Dauwalter, who wears a running watch but doesn’t post her workouts on popular running apps like Strava A lot of ultrarunners do that. “When I go into a week thinking it’s going to be a really big week or I have all these great ideas about it, it makes it harder for me to listen to my body and actually respond to what what he tells me.” Her big running weeks are often 140 miles.

Schmidt, a software developer who said he knew nothing about ultramarathons until he met Dauwalter over a decade ago, keeps track of the possible mile splits she might have and meticulously plans the bases along the route. Although Schmidt sets time goals, the pair doesn’t focus on it or get too confident about a race until Dauwalter crosses the finish line. In 2019, she led Western States but had to retire at mile 80 with a leg injury. In 2021, while playing hard rock, her stomach problems were so severe that she was unable to continue. Even if everything goes as planned, random events can occur, such as when Dauwalter had to veer off course to avoid a moose, or when she lost her sight because her corneas became swollen from the dust on the trail.

The couple said diet is now an important part of their plan. A friend who works as a nutritionist said Dauwalter had stomach problems when she raced because she wasn’t consuming enough calories. Dauwalter now gets a plastic bag from each base location, filled with a selection of gels and energy waffles, as well as water and a sports drink. Your task is to return a bag of empty packaging.

Schmidt believes Dauwalter’s supportive family and athletic background in her home state of Minnesota helped her learn to be aware of her feelings. While in high school, she cross-country skied and was a national champion in Nordic skiing, which earned her a skiing scholarship to the University of Denver.

“She had amazing parents who raised her really well, encouraged her to be competitive and didn’t put any restrictions on her, so she never felt like she couldn’t keep up with her brothers,” Schmidt said. “And she had really great trainers who taught her to be in tune with her body, which I think helped her have this very unstructured training format that works for her.”

Meghan Hicks, the editor-in-chief of iRunFar, an ultrarunning website, said many runners unintentionally set limits by focusing on a course record and the split times needed to beat it.

“Courtney doesn’t work that way,” she said. “She walks and runs how she feels.”

Hicks said Dauwalter has “an open-minded approach that you don’t see in a lot of runners, and I think maybe that’s one of their keys to success.”

Dauwalter’s accomplishments have led some to question whether women become faster than men as distance increases. dr Sandra Hunter, the director of the Athletic and Human Performance Research Center at Marquette University, said that won’t be the case. Men’s physiological and anatomical advantages, including less body fat, more hemoglobin and higher oxygen uptake, mean they’re consistently faster overall, she said.

Take Jim Walmsley, who holds the men’s record for the Western States with a time about 9 percent faster than Dauwalter. According to an article in Sports Medicine, that number rarely dips below 8 percent during large ultra-trail races attended by the best men and women. That was the difference between Dauwalter’s time and the fastest men’s time at the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc in 2021. The gap between the best male and female performances in running events from sprints to marathons is typically around 10 to 12 percent.

“There is a fundamental gender difference between men and women that is not going away,” Hunter said. But Hicks said women have reached a point in ultrarunning where they no longer need to be compared to men because their achievements are valid even without that comparison – a view widely held by women in the sport.

Hunter said Dauwalter’s running economy, which is measured by a runner’s oxygen consumption at a given speed and often improves as runners age, is potentially superior to most other participants in the sport. Although there is a boom in female ultramarathoners, there are still far fewer women than men in ultrarunning, and they typically run shorter distances like the 50k. Hunter said Dauwalter’s outstanding performance shows there is still a lot of room for advancement for women.

Dauwalter, known for being generous with her time and cheering on those around her, continues to encourage others in the sport, especially women, Hicks said. In 2020, when Hicks posted the women’s fastest known assisted time in a roughly 90-mile challenge called “Nolan’s 14,” which involves hiking and running 14 14,000-foot mountains, Dauwalter let her through the night running and telling jokes and stories to pass the time. Around midnight, she asked Hicks if she’d like a bite of pizza and pulled a foil-wrapped slice of pizza out of her backpack.

“Who does that?” asked Hicks. “Maybe your husband or your best friend? But who at the top of the sport does that?”

Dauwalter’s approach to the running business reflects her desire to advance others in the sport. She used her sponsorship with Salomon to influence a new line of women’s running shorts that are longer and looser than most shorts on the market. Dauwalter hopes the shorts will give women another way to feel comfortable, and that maybe “the length is what makes you get on the trail and try.”

She also wants to infuse some humor into what can be an intense pursuit. Tailwind Nutrition recently launched a “Make New Friends” line of t-shirts and hats featuring images Dauwalter saw along the way into hallucinations: a giant cowboy, dolls on a swing, a giraffe.

John Medinger, the former editor of UltraRunning Magazine, has been covering all western states since 1983 and has been collecting statistics on running for over four decades. Dauwalter’s performance cannot be quantified, he said. No runner has set better times than her in such a wide range of races – fast, steep, exceptionally long races and attrition races where last man standing wins.

“There are courses for horses and horses for courses, but I’m not sure there’s a course that’s not good for Courtney,” he said.

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