Women in running is a historical point of contention. Only several decades ago, women weren’t allowed to compete in U.S. road races, partially because of the opinion that women were too weak and frail to push their bodies to such extremes. In 1967, Kathrine “K.V.” Switzer was the first woman (hiding behind a gender-ambiguous entry name) to officially enter the Boston Marathon, and a male official attempted to forcibly remove her from the race. Creating an uproar, women were finally allowed to compete in American road races in 1972.
Women’s track and road running has come a long way, and ultra running is certainly in the midst of its own female revolution. In ’78, Pat Smythe was the first woman to finish Western States, the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race. Ann Trason then dominated the scene, dusting the Western States women’s field 14 times, and becoming a legitimate contender for the overall win.
Today, while women are widely accepted as capable and competitive athletes, getting “chicked,” or, in runner vernacular, having a lady runner beat a non-lady runner in a race, is certainly something to avoid. More and more women, however, are changing this stigma, and Courtney Dauwalter is one of them.
With a background in endurance sports, Courtney decided to train for a road marathon after college. “I didn’t know if I would survive it - 26.2 miles seemed almost impossible!” After successfully “surviving” the marathon, however, she wanted to see what else she could do. From there, it has snowballed, and she continues to ask, “what else can our bodies and our brains do?”
Courtney’s running career hasn’t always been completely smooth sailing. In 2012, she dropped out of her first 100-mile race at 60 miles. Realizing how easy it would have been to have convinced herself that she wasn’t cut out for that distance, she says, “I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t accept that DNF as my future and worked really hard after that to figure out the 100-mile distance.”
Since then, Courtney has flourished into an absolute ultra-ultra-ultra running machine. She won Western States in June, and from 24-hour all-you-can-run events to races upwards of 200 miles, she is no stranger to pushing her body beyond its “normal” limitations. In 2017, she won Moab 240 (technically a 238-mile race) outright, beating the next runner by ten hours. She’s beginning to prove, race by race and mile by mile, that she’s not just “good, for a girl.”
Most recently, Courtney raced the Big Backyard Ultra, a last-person-standing kind of race, where runners repeat a 4-mile loop every hour until they can’t possibly fathom the completion of another dang loop. Courtney ran almost 100 miles more than the next woman (with whom she ran side by side for 36 hours). She covered a hard-to-actually-imagine 279 miles, coming in second place overall behind Johan Steene, who squeezed out one more lap than Courtney.
Ultimately, she said, “During the second night I was really struggling to keep my eyes open as sleep deprivation was hitting pretty hard. With the format how it is, though, there is never time to get in a solid amount of sleep. The third night was tough as I was in a downward spiral towards my race ending. My battery was headed towards empty and I couldn’t seem to get it to recharge quickly enough to stay in the race any longer.” Perhaps due to short term memory loss, but more likely due to the ability to look fear in the face, Courtney is already excited to return to Big Backyard in the future to claim the win.
Next, we’ll watch Courtney chase more miles and continue to change the trajectory of female ultra running at the Desert Solstice 24-hour race in Phoenix, AZ on December 8th. If nothing else, we hope to help her get through her miles chafe-free!
Photos courtesy of Courtney Dauwalter & Sarah Cotton