I have also learned to embrace those moments in races that are really hard, where you go to the pain cave . . . you can’t summon the pain cave just by wishing it was there. You have to be trying, pushing really hard and doing something pretty cool usually to find the entrance to that pain cave, so celebrating its arriva—it’s a pretty fun mindset to have.”

—Courtney Dauwalter

Episode summary

Get inside the process of navigating an ultramarathon with world-class runner Courtney Dauwalter. Courtney shares her evolution into the sport of ultra running, and how she’s learned to problem solve the many challenges involved to get from start to finish. Central to her exploration is the mental game and excavating the hallowed space of the pain cave.

Courtney Dauwalter is well known in the ultra-running community, and news of her accomplishments has even extended into mainstream media. She started gaining wider recognition in 2017, when she won the Moab 240 Endurance Run outright: that’s 240, as in miles. She’s also won internationally prestigious races like the Western States 100 Mile and UTMB, she’s held the 24-hour world record, and in 2020 she won the US title for the Big’s Backyard Ultra Challenge.

Courtney is undeniably one of the best ultra runners in the world. She’s also developed a deep interest in exploring the limits of human endurance. Through those pursuits, she’s learned a lot about the many obstacles runners face in ultra events and how to resolve them.

One area she’s particularly interested in is the mental side of ultra-endurance running. Here, we get into it. 

Full Episode Transcript

Cherie Turner: Hello, you are listening to Strides Forward, where we share stories about women ultramarathon and marathon runners, with each story focused on a particular topic or theme. My name is Cherie Louise Turner; I’m a runner and also the host and creator of Strides Forward. If you’re a returning listener, welcome back! And if you’re new to the podcast, I’m so happy you’ve arrived.

For this episode we’re exploring a topic that’s critical to running long distances, and that’s the skill of problem solving. And there was one woman in particular I’ve wanted to talk to for a while about this because I know it’s something she’s really good at.

Courtney Dauwalter: My name is Courtney Dauwalter and I live in Golden, Colorado.

Cherie:  Courtney Dauwalter is well known in the ultra running community, and news of her accomplishments has even extended into mainstream media. She started gaining wider recognition in 2017, when she won the Moab 240 Endurance Run outright; 240, in as miles. She’s also won internationally prestigious races like Western States and UTMB, she’s held the 24-hour world record, and in 2020 she won the US title for the Big’s Backyard Ultra Challenge, a race with a unique format; we’ll get to that a bit later on.

Courtney is undeniably one of the best ultra runners in the world, and as such, she’s also developed a deep interest in exploring the limits of human endurance. Said another way, she wins races and she goes after pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Through those pursuits, she’s learned a lot about the many obstacles runners face in ultra events and how to resolve them.

Because in any really long challenge, there are many moving pieces. And the ability to navigate those pieces well plays a huge part in how fast you will get from start to finish, or if you’ll make it to the finish at all. Some of this happens in the preparation for an event, and much of it happens during the event. And a core part of that navigation is problem solving.

All this, however, wasn’t anywhere in Courtney’s mind when she lined up for her very first longer distance run, a road marathon she did in 2007 when she was  22.

Courtney: I was standing on the start line texting goodbye to my family and friends . . . because I thought 26.2 miles would kill me.

Cherie: Courtney has been a lifelong athlete. In middle school and high school, she ran cross country and track. And during college she competed in cross-country skiing. When she moved to Mississippi for graduate school, she returned to running and soon enough got herself to the start line of a marathon thinking the distance might kill her.

Courtney: I never would have guessed I would have made it 26.2 miles. When I actually made it, I just wondered, What’s the next thing that sounds too hard to do that I could finish if I just try?

Cherie: A switch had been flipped.

Courtney: I realized how fun it is to go that far and surprise yourself.

Cherie: A few years later, in 2011, Courtney started looking for the next thing that might sound too hard, but that she just might be able to finish if she just tried. In the world of running, if you’re looking to go farther than the 26.2 miles of the standard marathon, the next most common race distance is 50 kilometers, which is about 32 miles. And with this, you enter the realm of ultramarathons: races that are longer than a marathon.

In many parts of the world, those events happen on trails. So not only are you running further, you’re probably going to be navigating roots, rocks, trees, and hills.

Courtney: I remember loving how free it felt to be running through this forest, weaving around on dirt trails. n this first 50km I did, no one out there cared what their time was. At the end of it, it was like, let’s just enjoy a day out on the trails, and eat some snacks at these aid stations when we get there and eventually, they’ll tell us when we’re done, and that will be the finish line. It was not so much keeping track of the mileage as it was enjoying the run. Enjoying being out in the woods all day. I remember loving that feeling and it made me want to try more ultras.My legs hurt, but it was also so much fun.

Cherie: Later that year, Courtney notched up her ambitions and finished a 50 miler, the Run Rabbit Run in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. That same event offers a 100-mile option, and Courtney decided to make that would be her next big challenge, the following year.

A common goal with hundreds is to finish in less than 24 hours.

That’s one full day of putting one foot in front of the other, without significant rest. It means dealing with the cold of the morning, then the heat of the day, and the dark of night. You eat on the run. You drink on the run. You process pain and emotions and wandering thoughts on the run. Even for venteran ultra runners, these are always a huge, unpredictable challenge.

Courtney: I was excited and so scared when I was starting it. I had no idea what to expect but I was hoping that I would just figure it out when I was out there.

Cherie: Courtney was buoyed by hope and excitement. She had some good experience under her belt. And she had a reasonable dose of fear. With that, she stepped into the unknown to discover how to figure this ultra thing out. What she didn’t yet know was that within less than 24 hours, she’d come away with profound insights that would reverberate for years to come.

Courtneyi: when I hit mile 40, my legs were just trashed. They were just so tired. My body hurt so bad. I trudged it through the next 10 mile segment to where i saw my crew at mile 50, and then I was like, I don’t know how I would do this whole thing that I just did on repeat again.

Cherie: Courtney had met the great specter of doubt.

Courtney: So from mile 50 to mile 60, basically I just whirlpool myself into this really negative space in my head

Cherie: Because doubts and other negative self-talk have a way of convincing us that they’re true. And they also have a strong tendency to multiple and run on repeat. As Courtney would come to understand, pulling out of this dark whirlpool is a critical part of figuring out how to get through these longer distances.

Courtney: I told myself that I wasn’t capable of 100 miles, and that there’s no way, if my legs hurt this bad I could make it to the finish line, that it was a joke that I even thought to sign up for this,

Cherie: Who are you to think you can do this?

Courtney: just got into all of the negative self talk that can happen and ended up dropping out at mile 60,

Cherie: That day, Courtney came away with a very important piece of understanding.

Courtney: I had convinced myself that I wasn’t capable of finishing.

Cherie: She had been the architect of her own demise. But that also meant, she held the levers of control to build a different outcome.

Courtney: I had no idea the whole mental game involved in ultra running and how powerful our brains can actually be. I’m really thankful to have had it because it triggered this whole thing in me . . . it pushed over this first domino of figuring out the 100-mile distance, figuring out the mental game involved in ultra running.

Cherie: The mental game was the first domino, but it wasn’t the last.  Figuring out how to navigate all of these pieces sparked a deep curiosity in Courtney that has captivated her ever since, though more 50 milers, 100 milers, 24 hour races, that 240 mile Moab race and more. And for the record, Courtney went back conquered Run Rabbit Run 100 a few times, winning it twice. And with every experience, she banks a bit more knowledge about these complex events.

Courtney: There are a lot of puzzle pieces; the longer the race is the more puzzle pieces, there are more puzzle pieces involved if it is a longer race. There are all these puzzle pieces that I start to figure out and then I’ll do a race and that puzzle piece or what I think I figured out about it will get thrown out the window again and we have to reassess it. Some of them are like, training has many puzzle pi eces of its own. I would say the mental game has a lot of pieces, nutrition, gear, those kinds of things, and I think like problem solving in the moment, so when things come up that you didn’t expect, having some sort of arsenal of ideas at least to solve that problem is more puzzle pieces.

Cherie: And one thing that ultras can guarantee is that there will always be something that comes up that you didn’t expect. And dealing with an unhappy digestive system is a really common one.

Courtney: Nutrition is a great one that you think you have dialed your nutrition plan and you’ve figured out how to keep fuel going in during a long effort and then on a certain day for whatever reason, it’s coming back up on the trail instead of going in and fueling you to keep running.

Cherie: There are a few hard realities in ultra running that will end your race no matter how much will you have to continue: one is that, if you can’t keep food and liquid in, your miles are numbered. There will come a point where there’s no amount of positive thinking that’s going to keep you going if you become too dehydrated or depleted.

Courtney: Like at the Tahoe 200, my nutrition had to go out the window basically from mile 30 on because the nutrition I normally use during a long race

Cherie: Courtney is talking about the greuling 200-mile race that takes place in the Sierra mountain range in the Lake Tahoe area that spans California and Nevada. She decided to tackle that massive challenge in 2018. So, to spell this out, she was facing 170 miles of running, at altitude, over incredibly challenging terrain, through day and night, and she couldn’t keep anything down.

Courtney: like this wasn’t staying in at all. And so then we were just trying everything. So being open-minded to test anything that my crew could come up with to, you know, give me at the next aid station and, um, be willing to have more speed bumps along the way as we solve it. But then eventually finding the thing that stays in. And for this one, it took from mile 30 until about a hundred mile, 130 to figure out that pancakes would stay in and nothing else was really working. Then it was just pancakes for those 70 remaining miles.

Cherie: Seventy miles of pancakes. You do what you must. Like in 2017 during the closing miles of the Run Rabbit Run 100-miler. She was feeling good, and well in the lead, but then started to notice something very strange happening.

Courtney: When I was about 15 miles out from the finish I was having like this weird blurriness on the edges of my vision. And as I kept moving forward through the miles, the blurriness like slowly seeped in and covered my entire field of vision and it went pure white.

Cherie: Courtney was out on a tough trail in the mountains of Colorado; she was alone, she had already been running for 85 miles, and now she couldn’t see.

Courtney: So when I held my hand in front of my face

Cherie: Courtney had covered about 5 miles in the time it took her vision to become almost completely obscured. And as alarming as it was, she had this innate sense that this was temporary and otherwise, she felt fine. And, in the least, she needed to get to the next aid station. So she focused on figuring out what to do.

Courtney: So, um, if I stared straight down at the ground, I could see this tiny little arch in front of my toes of ground. And so that was my solution to getting to that finish line is just stare straight up at your feet, make sure you stay on the trail by watching this dirt path and keep moving as quickly as possible to get these 10 miles done.

Cherie: Courtney had the will, and she’d found the way. There was, however, the reality of getting it done.

Courtney: It wasn’t pretty, I mean, when you can’t predict what’s coming on a trail, you often trip on a lot of things. So I was just like belly flopping my way down the trail through these last 10 miles. Um, but every time I fell, it was like, get back up, dust yourself off, make sure everything is okay like that. I wasn’t, you know, actually injuring myself and then resume looking straight down at my toes and trying to move as quickly as possible.

Cherie: Courtney ran and tripped and belly flopped her way to the next aid station. From there, the race organizers allowed a volunteer, and further down the trail Courtney’s husband, to run with her and alert her to obstacles along the trail. And that is how Courtney won her second Run Rabbit Run.

Courtney‘s vision did return a short time later. And as she would come to learn, she wasn’t alone in this experience. Researchers call this temporary blindness ultramarathon-associated vision loss, and have found that it happens to a very, very small percentage of ultra runners.

Through these at times extreme experiences, Courtney had discovered that she had a great willingness to do whatever it takes to solve the puzzle of getting to the end of an ultra, however unappealing her solutions might be. But that was tempered by understanding when it was time to stop. In 2019, while on a bid to set the course record at Western States 100-mile trail race in California, Courtney opted to pull out. A hip injury was threatening to cause some real damage and it was time to call it. In 2020, Courtney set out on the roughly 490-mile or 788-kilometer long Colorado Trail to clock the Fastest Known Time or, as they’re better known FKT;  that is, she was attempting to cover the entire distance of the trail faster than anyone else.
But after five days of running, covering over 300 miles, Courtney had started to wheeze, badly. She and her crew decided it was time to stop and get Courtney to an emergency room. There was diagnosed with acute bronchitis. And within just a matter of days, as she rested and let her lungs heal, Country was already musing about completing the entire trail.

All of Courtney’s accumulated experience has all landed her at an exciting intersection. She has a good understanding of knowing when enough is enough, for her, but she also has a consistent build up of experience, desire, and fitness to explore the ultimate boundaries of her abilities.

Courtney: I’m really interested about, you know, physically what are, what we can do and how far we can go and, and what that looks like. But more so I’m interested in how our brains actually play a part in that and, um, help us overcome some of those obstacles along the way. So it’s a huge driving force for me. And I think that’s, um, primarily why I’m so interested in the races that are a hundred miles plus because those really long distances, like a 200 mile races requiring a whole lot of mental game and then some physical as well, obviously to go that far. But like, I dunno, it’s just so cool what you’re, what our brains can do. And, uh, that’s a huge driving force for me and my ultra running and in the like, challenges that I want to take on.

Cherie: The profound challenge of reining in the brain. Of flipping the script, as Courtney says; changing that negative, doubting dialog to something positive in the midst of pain and reaching out into the unknown takes a lot of practice and persistence.

Courtney: Now I use a lot of mantras, so I’ll just try and push out the negative thoughts by repeating to myself something over and over like, ah, you’re fine. This is fine. Everything is fine. That’s one of my mantras that I use quite often.

Cherie: That inner dialog may be simple, but it’s the sticking to it that proves to be very, very hard.

Courtney: If you just make less room in your brain for the negative thoughts, then eventually maybe you can forget that they’re there and you can push past them.

Cherie: It’s a game of unrelenting determination because the reality is, you’re constantly facing a rather unpleasant reality.

Courtney: Of course it hurts, it hurts to run this far, but that’s when you stay strong in your head, and you let this bad wave pass through.

Cherie: While pain may become a steady companion as the hours go on, times of good and bad will come and go. Sometimes simple efforts can shift things in a better direction.

Courtney: Calories often help as well. So just taking in some food, taking in the view, like appreciating where my feet have gotten me and you know, what I’m getting to spend my day doing can often be helpful.

Cherie: Of course a huge part of Courtney appreciating where her feet have gotten her has to do with the fact that she’s covering distances that are very, very far.

Courtney: Being out there for 24 or 48 hours or three days is allowing for more problems to come up and more like, I don’t know, you have to like shuffle around your puzzle pieces a little bit more during the race, because, uh, it’s really hard to predict what might go down in a 48 hour running event, um, or like what wrenches will be thrown in your day versus a 50 mile race that, you know, some people are finishing those in six, seven, eight hours. There’s just less time for, for things to go haywire. I think I’m drawn to the problem solving that’s included as the events get longer.

Cherie: And sometimes that problem solving involves facing the stark reality of how very difficult these challenges are.

Courtney: I have also learned to embrace those moments in races that are really hard where you go to the pain cave because they’ve become pretty special to me where, you know, you can’t summon the pain cave just by wishing it was there. You have to be trying, pushing really hard and doing something pretty cool usually to find the entrance to that pain cave so celebrating its arrival: it’s a pretty fun mindset to have I think.

Cherie: One event that’s become particularly interesting to Courtney is the Bigs Backyard ultra. Bigs has a unique format and there’s no set finish. Every hour, runners complete a course that’s just over 4 miles. They keep at this, day and night, every hour. The race ends when only one runner is left; that means that the final race distance is actually determined by the person or people who stop and leave only one person remaining.

The race started in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, and that has remained the premier Backyard event. But there are now backyard ultras all over the world. And on October 17, 2020, several such events were held in various countries throughout the world. Courtney won the US version, which took place at that original Tennessee location. She completed 68 laps. That’s 283.3 miles over the course of almost 3 days of running 4ish miles every single hour.

Something to keep in mind about this race is that the logistics are very straightforward: the course is a known entity, so there’s no course navigation or surprises. And you have access to everything you need every single hour. Most people have a crew at the start/finish area who help with meal and drink prep, massages, clothing changes, and anything else a runner might need. The only thing left to do is run. Well, run and think.

It’s simple. And it’s brutal. For Courtney, there’s a lot of room for discovery and some different types of problem solving.

Courtney: just like fine tuning the mental state that you can go into and, and playing around with like, where am I in my head? Am I thinking ahead to the next lap? Or am I staying right here in this current lap? What am I, what am I doing with my head space? And is it serving me well? Or is it like harming me in any way during this? So it’s fun just as like a science experiment on yourself to, to play around with all of those things. And during big backyard, you can think about a lot of it because you have all the time in the world and just this four mile loop that you’re existing on. So, like I remember spending a lot of laps, like thinking about what I was thinking about and if it was helping me or not,

Cherie: What Courtney found out there in these hours of pain, uncertainty, curiosity, and determination was a very simple answer, but also one that is so deceptively difficult to execute.

Courtney: for sure staying in the moment was helping. So not getting ahead of myself and not thinking of, you know, the next hundred miles or, Oh, we want to hit 400. So how many more days would that be? You know, like that can feel very overwhelming when you’re doing this four mile loop on repeat. And  I found it to be most useful to stay right where my feet were and to just tackle each four mile loop one at a time,

Cherie: Courtney found what worked and she also came to understand what didn’t work.

Courtney: it wasn’t working to, uh, think about, like, I remember thinking about waiting, wanting sunrise to come. And it was like the middle of the night and sunrise was five hours off still, which is five of these four mile loops, which can seem like a lifetime. Um, so I remember starting to think about sunrise and then getting a little bit down on like how far away that actually was and, and what that meant for these laps. I was running. Uh, so that one got shoved out immediately, uh, um, like any sort of extra stressing. So it was really hot and humid. So thinking about how hot and humid it was, didn’t actually change the fact that it was hot and humid. So, you know, removing those thoughts and just accepting, like, this is the weather that we’ve got right now. So just stay right here, one lap at a time.

Cherie: Staying right here, mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Courtney: I don’t know it, I think it’s partially, like it’s gotta be partially who I am as a person, but I think it’s also like over the years during these really long ultras, I’ve learned that if you just deal with the facts, if you stay in the fact zone and you try and keep emotion out of it, you’re often able to think more clearly and then problem solve more quickly so that you can, you know, move on and get back to the enjoyment of running. But sometimes when, uh, you know, everything is tumbling down and every problem is coming up  and if you let emotion get into it, then you just start spinning in circles, freaking out and, you know, getting in your own way basically. Um, so I think it’s probably multiple reasons that I try and stay that way, but, uh, I do find that it’s helpful.

Cherie: And in among the not freaking out, the staying right here, the focusing on the positive, the batting away of negative spiraling thoughts, there comes that place of facing the difficulty, head on, that sacred arena of the pain cave.

Courtney: It’s that place you get to when it feels like you can’t go anymore and you’ve reached your limit, but if you just can dig in a little bit more, you enter the pain cave and, uh, it’s, yeah, it’s a pretty special place where, um, you’re finding out what’s really possible for yourself. If you just keep on digging into this cave.

Cherie: With  every agonizing step, in that deep physical pain, instead of spiraling into a whirlpool of doubt, Courtney started a journey of exploring possibilities.

Courtney: I used to picture a really comfy chair and like a fluffy rug and like the pain cable is where I pushed into it and entered it. But then once I was there, I just relaxed and hung out in the pain cave. And there was like a, not a place of action. It was a place that I got to and then just stayed.

Cherie: It’s fitting, of course, that as Courtney’s goals and experience have evolved, this place of comfort, or no action and of staying put evolved as well.

Courtney: Now I picture it more where I put on a hard hat and I grab a chisel and I am trying to make my cave as big as possible. And so I’m like heading back into these caverns and just chiseling away and it’s place where I’m actually doing work. And, um, this is where like production happens. And this is the whole purpose of why I’m ultra running is to make this cave as big as possible.

Cherie: And every single time, it begins with this basic act of getting outside and moving forward.

Courtney: Oh, it’s  so cool. It’s just so cool. Like the places our feet can take us that you wouldn’t get to otherwise are so special, the, uh, views that you can get the sunrises and sunsets . Uh, so I, I love it if for 1,000,001 reasons.

Cherie: And with that, we have come to the end of our story with Courtney Dauwalter. I am so thankful to Courtney for sharing her story about problem solving and the special space of the pain cave in her ultra running.

I’m also very thankful to you for listening. We love making these stories about women who run long distances, but they are of course made to be shared, so you’re being here is an integral part of the process. Thank you.

We have a lot happening at Strides Forward, including our redesigned website. Please check it out at womensrunningstories.com. There you’ll find out new merch! Yes, merch! We’ll have a link in the show notes to that and out social media channels.

The Strides Forward team includes me, Cheire Turner, your host and producer. Cormac O’Regan creates and places all of the music you hear. And he does it from his studio in Cork, Ireland. April Marriner of Bonfire Collaborative does all of the design work for the show, including the website, merch, and logo. She comes to you from Truckee, California. You can find April at bonfirecollaborative.com.

Strides Forward will be back in February with a new season of shows. In the meantime, please check out our newly designed website and our merch! Proceeds from sales are split between charitable donations and supporting this show.

Thank you for your support. And until next time, this is Cherie wishing you satisfying strides forward.

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