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The Profile Dossier: Courtney Dauwalter, the 200-mile race champion
“I always try to find the other side of the dark patch.”
As a complement to the regular Sunday newsletter, the Profile Dossier is a comprehensive deep-dive on a prominent individual. The dossier editions are only available to paying subscribers.
Hallucination. Blindness. Sleep-deprivation. Vomiting. Those are all conditions that ultra-runner Courtney Dauwalter has had to overcome to cross the finish line of a 200-mile race.
In 2017, Douwalter dominated the headlines after she won the Moab 240, a 240.3 mile footrace through some of Utah's most challenging terrain. It took her 58 hours, and she beat the second-place finisher by more than 10 hours. In 2018, she won the Western States Endurance Run, which is 100 miles, in 17 hours and 27 minutes. The list of impressive achievements goes on and on.
Dauwalter credits her success to being able to master the art of suffering. She has managed to stay calm even through bouts of severe nausea, a bleeding head injury, and temporary blindness. “I don’t think those types of pain and suffering are signs you should stop.” she says. “I mean, I troubleshoot and try to fix what’s causing it, but my solution is usually to just keep going.”
At some points, Dauwalter has been so sleep-deprived that she began experiencing bizarre hallucinations. During races, she says she’s seen flying eels, leopards in hammocks, a cello player, and dozens of cats covering the trail ahead. Despite the challenges she’s encountered over the years, Dauwalter believes people can endure far more than they think is currently possible.
“Our ability to bounce back is part of what’s so cool,” she says. “You can endure a lot if you set your mind to it and push through.”
(Photo credit: Howie Stern)
On becoming a master at suffering: Dauwalter’s prowess in elite ultrarunning has fanned the flames of the debate about whether psychological fortitude can trump innate strength advantages in endurance sports. Dauwalter believes her biggest competitive advantage is suffering — she’s simply willing to suffer more and longer than her competitors. This one will blow your mind.
“I put myself in situations where suffering is going to be involved and hope to be able to tap into the mental piece every time that physical pain becomes too much.”
On taking on the world’s most sadistic endurance race: In 2018, Dauwalter took on the infamous Big’s Backyard Ultra, an event in which runners have one hour to complete a 4.167-mile loop. Then, they do it over and over again, until there’s only one person left standing. She ran a total of 279 miles (!), which was the farthest anybody, except one, had ever run at Big’s Backyard. This is a great story about the extraordinary potential of human achievement.
“There was nothing make-or-break, but slowly accumulating wear and tear, until it’s suddenly too much to overcome.”
On finding her source of will: Dauwalter eats candy, crushes nachos, and drinks beer — all while ruthlessly beating male and female competitors on the 200+ mile course. And here’s the thing: She’s extraordinarily humble about it all. “When you talk to her, she seems so normal,” Joe Rogan says. “You’re like, ‘Where’s your demon?’ Her demon’s a quiet demon. It’s there … it has to be.” This short documentary follows Dauwalter during an ultra-race and explores her source of will. You’ll feel the pain just from watching this.
“She learned from a very young age that pain and suffering isn’t the end of the world.”
On cultivating mental and physical toughness: Dauwalter appeared on Joe Rogan’s show after she won the Moab 240, a 240-mile race through a desert, canyons, slick rock, and two mountain ranges. She completed it in less than 58 hours and took a total of two naps — one that was 20 minutes and one that was 1 minute-long. In this conversation, she talks about vivid hallucinations, going temporarily blind mid-race, and the mental challenge of pushing your body to its limits.
“I try to keep in mind that my brain will help me overcome this physical pain if I just keep going.”
On the biggest race day challenges: The wear and tear on your body during an ultra race is no joke. There’s the regular nausea and stomach problems, but then there are the more serious things like severe injuries, temporary blindness and hallucinatory states. To recover after a race, she does basic body maintenance like deep stretching, foam rolling, and some strength training. Here’s what Dauwalter’s self-care routine entails.
“You actually have to do recovery things sometimes.”
On welcoming discomfort: In this recent conversation, Dauwalter reflects on how her training has changed over the years. Although she tries to prepare herself mentally for some of the more painful endurance races, she can’t get to that level of pain on her daily training runs. You’re stress-tested, she says, on the day of the actual race. So if you’re looking for a reason to sign up for an official race, it could be an opportunity to explore a different side of yourself.
“Lately, my main strategy has been to stay in it and fully embrace how much it hurts … To get to that physical state where it hurts that bad means, you know I’ve worked really hard to get to that point and to celebrate kinda being in the pain cave.”
On doing things her own way: Unlike many of her rivals, Dauwalter doesn’t have a nutritionist and she doesn’t follow a strict diet to prepare for these incredibly grueling races. She wears a simple T-shirt and baggy shorts and has no interest in fancy gear. She fuels with mashed potatoes and gravy during a race. Yet she still comes out on top. In this podcast episode, we learn that the key to Dauwalter’s success may just be that she doesn’t follow the rules.
“In life, I enjoy eating and drinking whatever I want to. To cut things is out is taking the joy out of life, so I’m not interested in that.”
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Embrace the “pain cave:” Like many endurance runners, Dauwalter talks about pain as an actual place. When she was cross-country skiing in high school, her coach taught her that “the pain cave” is not as scary as it sounded. The reason it’s helpful to personify pain is that it serves as a reminder that you’re in control when you enter and equally as aware that you can leave. “It’s not a place I’m scared to enter,” she says. “It’s a place I’m excited to find the entrance to.”
Daydream to escape the circumstances: When the pain gets really unbearable, Dauwalter uses a mental strategy we’re all capable of: daydreaming. She distracts herself from thinking about the miles ahead by focusing on other things she’s looking forward to. “Sometimes I try to totally disconnect from the race and think about my family and friends, different things going on in life, or about sitting on a beach with a tray of nachos,” she says. Think of it as a temporary mental escape from the harshness of reality.
Talk to yourself as if you were a toddler: This sounds simple, but it’s powerful. When you hit rock bottom in a race (or in life), you start talking to yourself. For some people, the voice sounds positive and encouraging, and for others, it’s negative and mean. In those moments, Dauwalter believes, you have to pay attention to the words you use with yourself. She likes to repeat this mantra in her head: “You’re fine, this is fine, keep going.” “Put that track on repeat,” she says. Why? Because speaking to yourself in a supportive manner is an important self-soothing mechanism.
Control what you can: The environment, the weather, and the competitors are things Dauwalter cannot control. So when the world feels big and uncertain, she recommends becoming hyper-focused on the minuscule things within your circle of control. For her, it’s eating, pacing, breathing, and staying calm. “I had no control over how the day unfolded for anyone else but myself,” she says. “I just had to be ready to react to it.” Dauwalter says the key is to consciously decide you will not freak out and worry about things that are out of your hands. It’s a waste of mental energy better spent on achieving a different goal.
Stay motivated with a “carrot” goal: In one ultra-race, Dauwalter’s goal was to complete 200 miles in 48 hours. But she had a rough race, and another competitor passed her for first place in the very last stretch. She needed to find another reason to continue pushing her body, so her new goal became: “If you’re not going to get first place, then try to finish under the 50-hour mark.” It became a new “carrot to dangle.” Same goes for everyday life. If you fall short of a goal, you can find another carrot that will keep you motivated and get you closer to the goal for your next attempt.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“I always try to find the other side of the dark patch.”
“Suffering is where we get to grow and get better. When you’re pushing your limits, it doesn’t feel great, but that’s when you can do the coolest stuff.”
“I refuse to give my physical pain any value. I shove the pain aside, focus on something different, and force myself to keep moving.”
“You’re fine. This is fine. Keep going.”
👉 If you enjoyed this deep-dive on Courtney Dauwalter, sign up for The Profile for more like this one:
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