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Jan. 12, 2023

Courtney Dauwalter | Bandera Reflections, Career Trajectory, Pain Cave, Motivations

Courtney Dauwalter | Bandera Reflections, Career Trajectory, Pain Cave, Motivations
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Courtney Dauwalter returns to the podcast to talk about Bandera, the moment she went all in on ultra running, whether she’s interested in returning to Barkley, and for the hometown listeners here in Salt Lake City, whether she will race the Wasatch 100 one day.


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  • (2:00) - whether racing and the pain cave ever get easier, more routine
  • (4:56) - challenges at Bandera
  • (6:29) - whether improvement is felt in training in addition to race results
  • (8:03) - racing intuitively
  • (10:52) - Salomon discussion
  • (13:06) - what she attributes leveling up in 2016-2017 to
  • (17:39) - driving force to go full-time as an ultrarunner
  • (20:54) - mentorship
  • (22:12) - reducing training, racing load in recent years
  • (25:01) - UTMB
  • (27:42) - whether she will return to Barkley


Additional Episodes You May Enjoy:

  • #174 - Courtney Dauwalter | 2023 Bandera 100K Pre-Race Interview
  • #54 - Garrett Heath | Switch To Trail Running, Pro Lifestyle, Running Teams, Brooks Beasts

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Finn: First sub nine hour women's victory at the Bandera 100K. You broke the course record, I believe by roughly eight minutes. You took down a pretty stout, Stephanie Howe course record. I'm curious, does this racing experience ever get easier for you, or at least routine? Like does it get easier to experience that quote unquote pain cave that you've patented?

Courtney: Oh man. One cool thing is that Stephanie Howe and I have known each other since we were like 12 or 13 maybe. We both grew up in Minnesota and our teams raced against each other. We did all the same sports, so we were lining up with each other quite often throughout middle school and high school, which is, yeah, I don't know. It's just so fun and feels like such a small world where then we’re ultra running in our thirties, we're back, you know, running together and getting to share the same sport again.

Finn: That reminds me. We had Garrett Heath on the podcast about six or seven months ago. Did you go to high school with him and compete with him as well?

Courtney: We didn't go to high school together, but he was just down the road. Our schools competed also all the time. And yeah, such a small world. I actually, I was just sitting outside a cafe in Chamonix this summer and drinking a beer with my husband, and he walks by and I was like, Garrett! It was the craziest thing to happen because it was just like the timing and the place of it all. And so another small world experience there. But yeah, growing up in Minnesota was really cool. And now to, you know, share it with all these people still is special.

Finn: Is it easier to access the pain cave in a race nowadays?

Courtney: I think like in the past couple years, I race less frequently, and so it just feels really special, like a special opportunity every time you pin on a bib to like get the most out of yourself for that day. So it's not easy, but I guess my attitude about the pain cave is that you can't summon it. You know, at will, you don't get to snap your fingers and suddenly arrive at it. You have to be working to get there. And so whenever I get that opportunity to put in the work and get to the cave, actually I wanna embrace it and go all in on.

Finn: When you crossed the finish line on the live stream, Leah Yingling had the microphone next to you and I think I heard you say quote, that was such a hard course. What were the challenges you faced in this one?

Courtney: Oh, I got it worked. Everyone going into it was saying it's a second lap race. Like, don't mess up on the first lap. Have some legs for the second lap, and if you can minimize, you know, the time difference, then it's a good day. So I knew it in my brain, but yeah, that second lap just like kind of ate me up. It felt so hot and I was just not prepared for that feeling yet being, you know, in January in Colorado. And my legs were just like getting toasted. So it was definitely a visit to the pain cave. And I was definitely using my brain as hard as I could to power my legs to keep moving even when they felt like we were just slogging through molasses.

Finn: Zooming out just a little bit from Bandera, and I wanna come back to it in a moment, my colleague Brett and I were talking on the live stream and he noted, I think in both the preview episode and during the broadcast, that you're seemingly only getting better as a runner from a results standpoint. You're winning the biggest race as you're setting course records. I'm curious, does it feel that way in training too? Like do you experience more flow these days? Better execution, better recovery? Do you notice in the training day to day that things are getting better?

Courtney: Each year and each season for sure. I'm understanding more solidly what the core of my training looks like and what I like to do, no matter what race I'm training for or what I'm doing. Like the core of it stays the same. And then maybe, you know, I’ll get a little specific on some branches out of that core. But I’m understanding more what I like that core to look like. So feeling like there's a good base there, but I also really view it as like a puzzle and tinkering with those pieces and figuring it out and trial and error and failing. You know, I think that's all a really fun part of it. So with the core set. I like to like play around then with new stuff it’s like - I heard about this thing, or you know, I wanna try this sort of run or whatever. And inserting new things all the time just to see what that's like.

Finn: One of the things that we talked about last conversation, is just how intuitive you are when it comes to racing, and I wish I had followed up with this question when we last spoke, but I wanna ask it here. Where does your ability to not overcomplicate things come from? Is it a personality-based thing? Or is this something you've worked towards over the years?

Courtney: Probably a combo, I guess. In general, I view running as not that complicated. So just keeping it simple and not stressing about every little thing or even any big thing. You just can do what you can do and that's it. But also I grew up in Minnesota with really fantastic coaches and so I think by just coaching me through all my years of athletics there - that built into me what training looks like. And so to me that's how it is. You know? I have this like really good base to go off of because I had these fantastic people leading the way for me for so many years.

Finn: Is that something that you enjoy? I know in other sports it's common to have like a rolodex of recovery people - your coaches, your nutritionists, etc. In your situation, like with Kevin, for example, do you like surrounding yourself with other people that can think critically about, you know, certain parts of your upcoming races?

Courtney: Kevin's a huge part of the team. So for sure having him and his type of brain is really useful. And he's way more logical and spreadsheet oriented than me. And so the things he'll think of beforehand or when we reflect after will be, you know, different than where my brain goes. But I think the combination can be useful. And I think mostly then just surrounding ourselves with people who like to have fun with it and aren't too serious, but are happy to like spitball and, you know, lob ideas out if they think of something else. So yeah, it's collaborative for sure.

Finn: It reminds me if you think about all like the latest recovery tools and recovery protocols and the science, and I'm thinking a lot in terms of like the NBA and the NFL and the NHL, and even like with the Breaking 2 Project with Kipchoge and those guys. When you think about your partnership with Solomon, are they interested in providing you with similar experiences just beyond gear and funding for travel to like UTMB and stuff like that? Is there someone in the organization who you get to stay in touch with around like how to train or how to think about nutrition or anything else on the cutting edge of performance?

Courtney: Salomon has been such a fantastic partnership for me. Their amazing people and their gear is incredible and giving feedback and getting to do workshops with them on that gear has been, yeah, just really cool to see all of the thought going into that stuff. I would say they stay out of like training or nutrition unless asked to help with it. So they're not like trying to give advice on that or insert themselves in that in any way. We do have, like if it's a race where a large portion of the team is going to it, they'll bring a physio - someone to do some body work that week of the race and make sure, you know, we’re as straight as possible, the joints are connected like they should be, and that's really useful. And then I would say the other piece is the nutrition or coaching - yeah, gathering as a team for a training camp in the spring happens every year with the Solomon team and that's like, you know, huge and just training together, getting to give and get feedback from each other. But nothing as far as coaching or nutrition necessarily.

Finn: This is a little bit more about like how your career has progressed over time. I was looking back at your Ultrasignup and you started dabbling, according to that platform, in ultras back in 2011 and you had success immediately off the bat. But it seems like your breakthrough moments, like your national class and world class results started to happen in 2016. That was five years after you got into the sport and it seems like it all started to happen in your early thirties. What do you attribute that leveling up to?

Courtney: I love the word dabbling, so thanks for using that. I mean that accumulating five years of just stacking tiny Legos on top of each other and understanding more about the sport, gaining some endurance, all of those pieces are hugely valuable. I think something like running in general, but ultra running specifically takes time. I definitely started to put in more time right around then where I just wanted to see like if I, you know, could do a little bit more or dedicate more of my weekend or getting on the trails more frequently, what could happen. And so that probably factored into it.

Finn: Where did that curiosity come from? Was there anybody that you were particularly inspired by at the time? What was the spark?

Courtney: Probably wanting to try to see if my feet and body could get me to finish lines a little bit more quickly? I think it was 2015 Run Rabbit Run where I spent hours in aid stations, just like it was a survival mission and I was in really bad sorts and just wanted to finish. And I think after that I probably felt a little bit like, maybe I can control some of this. You know, maybe if I do my part more, I could not sit in an aid station for hours, you know, sipping tiny sips of soup, like every 30 minutes. I don't know. I would love to time travel back and like actually see, you know, what the gears were doing in my head to make me start putting more time into it.

Finn: If you think back to when you were competing against Stephanie in high school and you know, in college, and what you did even in your twenties, just from an endurance athletic standpoint, were there any moments in those years where you could point to and say like there, like I totally got the best outta myself there? I've self-actualized as an athlete? Or was there a sense that like I haven't quite tapped into what is possible yet?

Courtney: I hope to always feel like I haven't quite tapped into what's possible yet. There were years of, like cross-country skiing for example, where my only goal was to stay upright and to crash fewer than 10 times in a five kilometer. That was like my big accomplishment on cross-country skis. And then, we decided after a few years of doing that and just like snow plowing and face planting all over Minnesota, like, I would like to try to not do that. So, you know, what are the steps? It was more training, more time experiencing, you know, this motion and this feeling, and then like putting all of the pieces together. So that would probably be like a similar journey.

Finn: It seems right now there are two camps of pro runners. On one side, you have folks like, I'll use Jeff Colt as an example, who like to balance their running with another job. And then there are folks like Abby Hall and yourself who do this full-time. If you reflect back to the moment when, you know, maybe this is 2016 or 2017, when you had the choice to either keep your previous profession as a teacher or to be a full-time athlete, what would you say was the driving force to go all in on this instead of, you know, hedging and keeping another job?

Courtney: I think it was a lot of conversations with Kevin. I guess we started to understand that we were the drivers of our lives and that you don't have to stay on the main road that you're currently on the whole time and you get to take the side roads if you want to, and just explore, you know, what's over there, what would it be like if we turned off this exit? And so through those conversations it was like, man, when we're 90, we don't wanna wonder what if about this running thing, so let's just try this. I was just newly added as an ambassador for Solomon at that time. So it wasn't choosing a career in running. It was just choosing the side road to see where that took us and knowing like if you don't like the side road, you can always turn back. You know, there's always ways to get back to a main road again. And yeah, we just decided to go for it. But we didn't know what was down this side road. We didn't know if we'd like it. We didn't know if it was sustainable. But we figured why not now and why not try.

Finn: Do you think that your career would've been substantially different these past four to five years if you hadn't taken this full-time path, like from like a result standpoint?

Courtney: It feels like, yes, but it's impossible to say. But I would say with the flexibility of my days now, I am able to do much better training and to do all the little things as well. So there's time to, you know, do the strength work or do some recovery or do some cross-training. Like all of those pieces now can find a space in the day. And that combined with like loving it so much and really enjoying the lifestyle is I think valuable.

Finn: I didn't realize that you had taken such a leap of faith to go at this full-time. I had always assumed that, you know, there was this like, not Tom Brady style contract, but like a fair bit of job security before all the results came in.

Courtney: Nope. I mean, Kevin had a job, so we knew we could keep the lights on and we could buy a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and like the rest. We were like, we'll just figure it out and see what happens.

Finn: Have you had any good mentors along the way, or at least people that you regularly go to for guidance in this journey?

Courtney: Not, I don't think anyone's specific. I think we're always trying to soak up everything, any wisdom and any, you know, life nuggets along our paths that we can, but no one specific. I will say partnering with Solomon was really great because I mean, I used to race like a lot. I would sign up for every ultra, any ultra to fill my weekends up. I want to be pinning on a bib as often as possible, and they were great influence on like, you're not made of titanium. You can't sustain that. Like, don't you want this to be a lifelong thing? Like, the focus on health and keeping our bodies happy was forefront of their mind, not the number of races. And so I think that was a really important message for me to hear because in my early days it was like, I mean, over 12 ultras a year at least.

Finn: In those scenarios, in the moments when you were having those big race schedules and you were executing, did it feel sustainable in the moment?

Courtney: It just felt fun.  And I didn't wanna think about, you know, if it was good or bad or anywhere in between. I just wanted to sign up for things because I loved going to races. I loved hanging with the community and I loved pushing as hard as I could. But for sure over the years of doing that, it was starting to be where, like by the end of the season I was just like, woof, I need a minute. And that feeling made it where it was like when I heard the messaging of like, you know, this isn't sustainable, I was like, oh, you're right. I feel that and I understand that and I am happy to, you know, pull the reins in a little bit and race less.

Finn: Well, I know you mentioned in our pre-race interview that you took, I think, a full month off in November, and that this whole training block for Bandera was pretty abbreviated. Is that month off a relatively new part of your season long program?

Courtney: For sure probably in the past couple years just understanding that our bodies need it, but also that our brains really need it to fully reset, fully recharge makes it so heading into a new season, I feel just as fired up as ever to do it again. And I think it's fortunate that there's ultras all over the world, so you can race all year long if you want to, but I feel lucky to be in Colorado where, you know, November, December are starting to get snowy. It's the holidays, like all of these pieces adding in where it's like a reminder to just take a breather and do some other stuff for a change.

Finn: Also, in our last conversation, we talked a bit about your plans for a Western States - Hardrock 100 double later this summer, and I was kicking myself because after the fact I realized, I forgot to ask, what about UTMB? Could UTMB be on the table next year? Do you have any thoughts about that?

Courtney: I mean, everything's on the table. I don't know. This specific Western States - Hardrock combination has me feeling really excited. It's something new that I've never done. They're silly close and very, very different in the types of races they are. So that's what I would like to focus on this year and just put my energy towards that double and see what happens with it. For sure though. It's been really fun over the years to switch out my schedule a little bit and to find different ways to challenge myself. And so I'm not ruling out a triple ever but it's not on this year's list.

Finn: Are you somebody that likes to plan out your entire year in advance? Like if I asked you what you're considering for September, October, November, December of next year, do you have any sense of what that might be?

Courtney: Yeah, you can ask it for sure. I am a half planner and a half like fly by the seat of my pants. And our first step was for sure, just trying to get this double on the calendar. I'm curious how recovery after Hardrock will go in July and like how much time off I'll take, or how my body and brain will bounce back from those weeks of racing. So we're kind of like leaving a little bit of play in the year. And then we'll see. I’ve got some like projects, just some trails that I would like to do at some point. So that could be an option. There's some fun, you know, late fall races out there that I'd love to try. So we'll see what happens.

Finn: I’ve always wanted to ask you about Barkley. I have always thought you're a prime candidate to not just get a fun run there, but to do all five loops. Is that a mission, to any extent, for the remainder of your career to go back there and, and try to do it?

Courtney: I am absolutely still intrigued by Barkley. I would love to give it some more goes and to see if I can get some more loops. I have done it now, I’ve started it two times and both times been foiled by navigation. So I think like I need to put in more time to learn to navigate better and yeah, it's such a cool challenge. I'm really excited. Like last year, Jasmine Paris, finishing a fun run which was huge. So I'm excited to see what she can do on a course like that. It's just, it's insane out there in those woods. If you imagine, whatever you're imagining is is probably like, um, a few levels below the amount of crazy that's actually out there.

Courtney Dauwalter

Courtney Dauwalter is a professional trail runner for Salomon based in Leadville, CO