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Winning Minn. native ultrarunner believes 'we have not found our limits'

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Courtney Dauwalter at mile seven of the Sean O'Brien 100 km race in Malibu.
Courtney Dauwalter at mile seven of the Sean O'Brien 100 km race in Malibu, California on Feb. 3, 2018.
Howie Stern

Courtney Dauwalter expects to wear through at least 10 pairs of shoes this year, maybe more. She averages 100 miles of running each week — without anyone chasing her.

The 33-year old Hopkins native is an ultra-marathon runner. 

Ultramarathons — also called ultraruns or ultras — are runs longer than the marathon's 26.2 miles. The most common distances are 50k (about 31 miles), 50 miles, and 100 miles, but they don't stop there. 

Last year, Dauwalter won the Moab 240 Endurance Run (which is actually 238 miles long), which involved running (or moving forward however possible) for 58 straight hours with one 20-minute sleep break. 

She finished ahead of everyone else, including the men, by more than 10 hours.

She also ran races where participants run for 24-straight hours to see how many miles they can complete. Dauwalter set the record twice in 2017 by with 155 and 159 miles, respectively.

After a wildly successful 2017 season, Dauwalter has another jam-packed schedule this year on the ultramarathon circuit, which will include her first-ever Western States Endurance Run in California, the oldest and most prestigious ultramarathon in the world.

Courtney Dauwalter racing in Annecy, France at the Maxi Race 110 km.
Courtney Dauwalter racing in Annecy, France, at the Maxi Race 110 km. on May 27, 2018.
Courtesy Maxi Race

"I'm loving it, trying to see what's possible," she said in an interview this week from Colorado, where she has lived since college. "Ever since I jumped into this ultramarathon world, I've finished a race and wondered what's next. What else is possible?"

WTF, you ask? And by that, you would clearly mean, "Why That Far?"

"I think, in general as humans, we have not found our limits; we don't know what we're capable of in any realm," said Dauwalter. "I try to contribute to that search for what are humans capable of by running absurdly long distances.

"Physically, it's going to hurt to run that far and there's a whole piece of your brain you can tap into where you can push past the physical pain." 

That push has drawn notice in the ultra world. "I'm incredibly impressed. How could you not be?" noted Karl Hoagland, publisher and editor of UltraRunning magazine, which named Dauwalter the second-ranked ultrarunning woman in 2017. "She's really at the top of the sport."

Most of her family still lives in Minnesota, and for those who knew Dauwalter growing up in Hopkins, it's no surprise to hear that she excels at an endurance sport. She was an integral part of a Hopkins girls Nordic ski team that won three consecutive team state championships in the early 2000s, she won individual state titles in 2002 and 2003, and she also played soccer and ran cross country and track. 

She went on to compete on the University of Denver's storied Nordic ski team in college. After graduation, she found herself looking for a new sport. She ran a few marathons, decided to try longer distances, and away she went.

Courtney Dauwalter on a training run.
Courtney Dauwalter on a training run.
Courtesy Courtney Dauwalter

Her first wins were in 2016 at the Run Rabbit Run 100-mile race in Colorado and the Javelina Jundred 100k race in Arizona. 

The next year, in addition to the Moab win and setting the 24-hour record, she either won outright or was the top woman finisher in three other ultra races. At the 2017 Run Rabbit Run, toward the end of the race her corneas swelled, meaning she ran essentially blind for a few miles. She crossed the finish line with blood running down her face from a fall.

Think about that: She. Ran. Blind. She didn't believe it was permanent, so she kept going.

"I'm trying to trust my gut, and if it feels like a temporary thing and all you need to do is keep moving, I'll do that," Dauwalter said. "I have not found that point yet where it felt unsafe — where I needed to stop  — otherwise there'd be permanent damage." 

That's not to say she doesn't doubt herself. "It can get pretty dark out there," she added, with a laugh. "You start to question every life choice you ever made that brought you to that point."

Dauwalter now runs full time and hopes to make 2018 an even more successful year. She has qualified for the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile race in California that brings competitors from around the world because of its storied history as the first 100-miler ever.

  This could be peak Dauwalter. "It takes so much out of your body that people at top have only been able to sustain for 1-3 years and she's in that window right now," noted Hoagland. "But I hope it lasts for her for a while."  

People who have run marathons picture races along wide-paved city streets or trails with cheering crowds alongside. Ultras are trail, or off-road, runs. Western States, for example, starts at a ski resort in the Sierra Mountains around Lake Tahoe and goes down into canyons and through woods. Runners also have to ford the American River at one point and pass through mining ghost towns from the gold rush era.

Western States has another notable Minnesota connection: Proctor native Scott Jurek won the race a mind-boggling seven consecutive times in the early 2000s.

Like traditional road races, there are break stations, but they offer more than just water and power drinks. All types of food, including pizza, quesadillas and mashed potatoes, are available. Runners burn a lot of calories running 100 miles, so they can eat what they want. Sleep stations also are available, as participants run for consecutive days. You can get a sense of the race in this video: 

Ultramarathoning is a small, niche sport that has seen steady growth. Last year marked the first time there were 100,000 finishes across all ultras, according to UltraRunning magazine.    In a sport that has never more popular, Dauwalter is determined to stay on top. "The cool part for me is trying to not set any limits and trying to push myself to go farther."

"Our bodies and brains combined are so incredible. I think if we give ourselves more credit and don't set those limits for ourselves, 238 miles is not impossible. We are totally capable if we just go and keep moving once we're out there."

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