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Inside the Mind of an Ultrarunner with Courtney Dauwalter

Have you ever wondered what it’s like inside the mind of an ultramarathon runner? How do ultrarunners train, what do they eat, and what goes through their head mile after mile on an arduous course? For those of us who dreaded running the mile in PE class, maybe you can’t even fathom the idea that someone could actually enjoy running, let alone run over 26.2 miles. It certainly piqued our interest here at Kodiak, so we sat down with Kodiak Athlete and ultramarathon champion, Courtney Dauwalter, to discuss the details.

Tune in to get the run-down of how Courtney discovered ultrarunning, her preparation before a big race, what she thinks about during her long runs, and much more. Folks, her answers were not only inspiring, but also unexpected. 

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Will you introduce yourself for those who might need a little refresher?

 My name is Courtney Dauwalter. I am a Kodiak Athlete and I run Ultra Marathons. So, anything that is just… really far.


You’ve been running for a long time, but how long have you been running professionally?

I went full-time ultrarunning in 2017. Before that I taught 8th grade science.


With your background in cross-country skiing and running, at what point did running become something you did for fun on the side, and how did that transition into your now career in running ultramarathons? 

I grew up racing on our cross-country and track teams. That definitely planted the seed for my love of running. I had fantastic coaches who taught us how to work really hard; I had amazing teammates who made it a blast all the time; and I found that I loved how I felt during and after runs.

In college I was just running on my own because it made me feel better for the day. That continued after college too; I’d get up in the mornings and run because I felt like a better person after running and like the day went smoother. Slowly, I started signing up for road races and, eventually, found the ultrarunning world where I fell in love with running for just a really long time.   

So, yeah, it was kind of a build up over many, many years.


Were you doing a lot of regular marathons before you signed up for your first 50k? 

I did two road marathons, and that was just a challenge. I couldn’t fathom how people ran 26.2 miles with their feet — it sounded insane, so I was like “I have to try this and see if I can survive!”

 So, I did two of them, survived them both, and then wondered what else was out there that I could try to survive. And that’s what led me to the ultra-running world which I didn’t even know existed.


What were those first few miles of your first ultra like? Did you ever think “What have I done?” Or were you just ready to go thinking “Let’s do this!”? 

Yeah, I was on trails through the woods in Texas near where I lived at the time. And I remember thinking how chill it felt! Everyone was out there just chatting, eating snacks, and frolicking through these woods and I thought, “This is pretty cool!”

But yeah, it was hard — it was hard to run 31 miles. But I finished, couldn’t believe I had made it, and had to figure out what else was out there.


And how did that first race go for you? Were you a top finisher?  

That one was pretty good! I made it, but the next couple years of signing up for ultras I was just really getting to finish lines. I was surviving them and making a ton of mistakes along the way. It wasn’t like instant success for sure.


How do you get past that mental roadblock of needing to finish the race vs. “I need to finish first”?

I don’t know, it just kind of always felt like a cool personal challenge. There’s a culture in the ultrarunning community where people are just psyched to be out there. When you finish, no one really asks you your time. They don’t care about your mile splits along the way. They just want to hear about your journey out there; what kind of crazy things happened, animals you saw, or snacks you ate. No one cared so it was really easy to just be in this community of people just trying to push themselves and see what they can do on that course on that day. It was less about podiums or times or any of that.


What does race day usually look like for you? Do you have a morning ritual?  

Race times are always unusual for ultras. Sometimes they’ll start super early in the morning, sometimes in the middle of the night. But I’ll usually wake up a few hours ahead of time and have some coffee, for sure. Then, depending on the race length and what I’m feeling like, I’ll eat a pancake cup, a handful of cinnamon toast crunch, or maybe just have coffee depending on what kind of day it is.

And then, I always call my parents just to say, “hey,” and to hear about what their plans are for the day because then I have something to think about during the race like, “Oh, they were going to go have dinner at this one place,” so I can picture that ya know? So, yeah, and then just get to the start line in one piece with all of my gear.


I can imagine there’s a lot to think about on these runs — so a lot of time with your thoughts. Are you mostly just thinking the whole time? Do you run with music? What are you normal “during the race” vibes? 

The races I do are usually very, very long. So, there’s a lot of time for all of the things. Sometimes it is thinking about my family, friends, memories, or the world. Sometimes it’s just soaking in the views and enjoying the silence. Sometimes I have to think about every step, so, just focusing on putting my next foot forward because it’s gotten really difficult to do that. For the most part, I’ll go no music, no podcasts; occasionally I will put in headphones to try and change the tune in my head or distract myself a little bit.


In these long distances, when you’re like mile 120 out of 240, does it ever get lonely?

Umm…. No… I think I love it for that. Part of the appeal for me is to be out there by myself and just enjoy nature and enjoy the sound of my breathing and trying to keep moving forward. I think in those moments that I have been alone for hours and hours and hours it feels special because that’s so rare.


As for benchmarks in your head like, “Ideally at this time, I’d like to be at this mileage or I’d like to have this split,” what goals do you set for yourself going into the race? Do you always try to be first? Do you go for time?

I’m trying to compete always. But, my end goal is to always make sure that when I cross the finish line I feel like I left everything out there - on that day - that I could. Whatever the circumstances were, whatever the problems were that arose, I navigated them as best I could that day and gave it everything I had.

I don’t like to attach myself to times or splits or paces. I like to just go by feel and ride the roller coaster as it goes.


Kind of pivoting to what might be our favorite part… the nutrition, the snacks, the food. When it comes to nutrition, something that might be kind of surprising to someone that first starts learning about the ultrarunning community is the types of snacks ultrarunners might choose to eat during their run; and we’re not talking about what some listeners might expect, we’re talking about the nachos, quesadillas, or on mile 82 eating pancakes. What does race nutrition look like for you? 

Yeah, I mean, during these ultras – especially when they get really long – I will eat anything. During a race I’ve had pancakes, French fries, left over pizza, cheeseburgers with extra pickles… you name it, I’ve consumed it during a race. For me, my mentality is just that food is fuel, and it keeps you moving so it’s perfect because of that. And also, I just like to enjoy life and not think too much about some of those details and instead just eat what tastes good and what lets me keep doing what I love. I don’t dwell too much on my nutrition in normal, everyday life, or during races.


And is that just you? Or is it the ultrarunning community too?

Yeah! I think it’s just like how diverse everything in the world is. People have their different preferences so there’s people in the ultrarunning community who follow very specific diets, and there are people in the ultrarunning community who eat anything that’s put in front of them.


What is your favorite long-distance food during a race?

Oh, well quesadillas or pizza. I don’t know, anything with cheese and carbs is good.


Do you use any supplements to help with recovery?

I’m partnered with tailwind® nutrition which makes a recovery drink. So, I will have that because it’s loaded with protein to help right after exercise or right after a race. But otherwise, I try to just tune-in to what I’m craving because I think our bodies tell us a lot. If I’m craving ground beef on everything, a bunch of greens, a stack of pancakes, or whatever it is I just try to tune-in and eat that so that I’m hopefully helping my body get what it’s asking for.


How to you determine how far you can push your body’s limits? And at what point do you maybe decide that you need to stop and will just try again another time?

I think you have to know a little bit about yourself and how you tick in order to know how far you can push yourself. For me, I know that my gas pedal is just always down. So, if I start to get flags going up telling me something is wrong or that I need to take a break, I really try to listen to those because they usually aren’t popping up.

But for each of us as individuals, we have to know what kind of engine and motivation we have so that we know that if certain flags are going up, is it because it’s hard and our body is just trying to take an easy way out? Or is it actually an injury or your body asking you to “just please stop for a moment?” 


You have a pretty big support system while you’re out there on race day. How much do you lean on your support system to help you determine when it’s time to rest and when you’re just in your head?

That’s another really cool part about ultrarunning is it’s this individual sport, it’s just my feet going these distances, but it’s definitely a team effort. You can have your crew and your support people there meeting you at different points in the race to give you an extra boost of encouragement, or fill you up with snacks, or whatever. I rely on them a lot and, for me, with my husband and I, every finish line is ours together because I couldn’t do it without him. Working together to get to those finish lines is really special.


Something you’ve described as “fun” is the suffering of ultramarathons. Can you elaborate on how you find joy and happiness in the “pain cave?”

I just think it’s so special to go into that place where, by choice, I’m choosing to make myself better by pushing a little bit harder and being a little bit more uncomfortable for a little bit longer. So, the pain cave for me is a place of celebration because we don’t get to just snap our fingers and arrive there, we have to be doing something pretty cool and working at it pretty hard to get to that entrance. When it’s framed like that I think, “Of course it’s fun. It’s such a unique place to get to visit and I think we should enjoy it while we’re there.”


What are some fun mantras or sayings that help you stay positive?

So, “You’re fine, this is fine, everything is fine,” is one that I use all the time. I’ll just repeat it to myself for a couple reasons. It’s a saying that makes it so your brain can think about anything else because it’s occupying that “think space.” And, also, because it reassures you. It’s a positive mantra to keep all of your systems calm so that you can actually address whatever might not be fine. Moving forward and problem solving is what ultrarunning is all about and, staying calm through all of that is huge.

I also think that smiling and just thinking positive things domino effects in a very physical way. Our brains can help us keep our bodies moving when it feels impossible. If I’m really, really tired, maybe I try to smile through it or think positive things in my head because it makes my legs follow suit — suddenly they think they’re okay and we can keep on pushing hard.


Are you naturally a positive person? Or have you kind of had to train your brain to be this way? And has there ever been a time that you maybe experienced a less than positive attitude in a race?

I think maybe it was naturally already a little bit of me, but ultrarunning for sure has taught me a ton about the power of our thoughts and our brains. My first 100 mile ultra that I attempted I let the negative thoughts just like grow and whirlpool in my brain. I ended up quitting that race at mile 62 because I’d convinced myself that I couldn’t make it because my head had gotten so negative that it just like festered. So that experience taught me that what we tell ourselves IS really important and that our brains are a key part in running even though it just feels like this physical motion — it actually involves a lot of other things.

Negative thoughts still creep in for sure. It’s not like just rainbows and cotton candy in my brain during a race. But when the negative thoughts creep in I try to, very specifically, say something positive even if I’m gritting my teeth and I’m not feeling positive at all, I just try to flip the script and change the narrative for myself.


We’ve talked a lot about goal setting in a way. Setting goals to be positive, to train your brain to keep pushing yourself when it’s hard, and to find joy when it’s painful. How do you think setting these goals and expectations for yourself have helped you problem-solve obstacles in past races?

I try to just learn something from each one and build this file cabinet of experiences and problems that I’ve encountered, and ways that I tried to solve it in my brain. Then, the next time I encounter something difficult, or a problem comes up, I can go through that file cabinet in my head and look for possible ways I can solve it.

I think that this works for ultrarunning, but also in life. We gather all these experiences, and from those experience we can try to navigate forward more smoothly when they come up again.


What is your advice for someone who’s a recreational runner and might be setting their sights on their first race? Whether that’s a 5k, or 100 miles—what is your advice to someone just starting out?

“Go for it!” Why not? There’s nothing to lose in trying. If you set the goal or you have this idea of the race you want to finish, put it down on the calendar and make it real — sign up for the thing, write it down in sharpie, and then start building up towards it patiently but consistently. Stacking tiny blocks up will suddenly make this huge tower, ya know? You don’t have to change things drastically and suddenly do a 20-mile run. You can just start stacking the tiny blocks.


What would you say are the three most important qualities you have to have to stay really mentally strong?

Patience, problem-solving, and having fun with it! It’s supposed to be fun so make it an adventure or put the watch away — do whatever thing makes it feel fun again if you’re in a rut.


What do you have coming? What can we expect from you in 2022?

I’m still figuring out next year, but for sure I’m most intrigued by the really long races. So, I’ll be looking to sign up for more hundred milers or more adventures to just test myself and see what I can figure out by putting myself in that pain cave.  

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