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Courtney Dauwalters golden hat-trick

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Published in Athletics
Monday, 27 November 2023 03:23
Adrian Stott writes about an extraordinary trio of race wins which have moved the ultra distance runner to a new level

Under normal circumstances, Courtney Dauwalter securing her second victory at the classic Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) race at the beginning of September would have been noteworthy enough on its own. Placed in the context of her year, however, the achievement becomes truly remarkable.

This was the Americans third 100-mile event in 10 weeks and her third victory. To top it off, two of those wins came about thanks to course record breaking performances.

Before 2023, the 38-year-old from Colorado had already established herself as one of the best of the current generation of ultra runners. This summer saw her move into new territory.

The first race in the treble was the Western States 100 on June 24. The course, in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, is by far the most runnable of the three, with 5500m of climb. Western States is a well-established ultra with 328 entries and 311 finishers in 2023, 68 of them women.

Courtney Dauwalter (Getty)

Dauwalter had run 17:27:00 when winning in 2019. Illustrating just how much she has progressed since, this time she improved by over two hours to 15:19:33. In the process, she lowered the 2014 mark of 16:47:19 set by former Comrades and World 100km champion Ellie Greenwood by one hour and 18 minutes.

The second race on Dauwalters list was the Hardrock 100 on July 14. Of the three races, it is the smallest with a family feel and only 146 entries and 111 finishers in 2023. It is also arguably the hardest as not only does it feature a massive 10,360m of climb, but going up to a high point of 4281m (14,048 feet) over three times higher than Britains tallest mountain Ben Nevis means that altitude is also a factor here. 

Dauwalter had broken Diane Finkels long-standing 2009 record of 27:44:35 with 26:44:36 when winning the 2022 race. Three weeks after her Western States record, she lowered her own mark by 30 minutes to 26:14:12.

The UTMB, meanwhile, is the longest event of a week-long series involving over 10,000 runners in over seven races. It has 2814 entries. At 171km/106.5 miles, it is the longest of Dauwalters treble and involves just under 10,000m of climb.

Her mental race plan was to erase the previous two 100 milers and let the race unfold. She had company in the early stages but, once she took the lead, she was never overtaken. 

It was not all plain sailing. In post-race interviews, she talked of battling total body fatigue, but still her winning time of 23:29:14, although 50 minutes slower than her 2021 record of 22:30:54, is impressive enough to rank fifth all-time on the UTMB 100-mile list. 

Only her compatriots, the 2022 champion Katie Schide, plus two-time winner Rory Bosio, have run faster, albeit the UTMB course has varied between 169-171km due to minor route changes each year.

So how has Dauwalter been able to complete this extraordinary hat-trick?

Firstly, the double of Western States and Hardrock was planned from last winter as a credible challenge. It wasnt until two to three weeks after Hardrock that she felt, although still not 100 per cent in mind and body, that adding in the UTMB was possible. 

Post-UTMB interviews relate how, from 60 miles on, she felt she was running on empty with little more to give, but her inner resilience, honed over 10 years experience of running 100-mile events, kept her moving. 

Experienced ultra runners know a 100-miler is never plain sailing. There will always be a rough patch you have to get through. In many respects, it is what you sign up for. The knowledge that this could last a few minutes or a few hours, comes with the territory of finding out just what you are capable of. People talk of a Pain Cave, but runners of all abilities learn the art of problem-solving on the run to enable them to reach the finish line.

Dauwalter has learned how to do that and to respond to signals from her body. She has a very close-knit support team, too, who work together to ensure she is well prepared. Chief among these is her husband, Kevin Schmidt. 

He is known to prepare elaborate spreadsheets with information and splits before major races. Dauwalter, though, tends to race like she trains. A guideline plan is never concrete, as she has learned to listen to her body while training and racing and adapt to how she is feeling. After a couple of DNFs a few years ago due to stomach issues, she now pays extra attention to this area and works with a nutritionist.

Perhaps above all else, beyond the cerebral science of any training or nutrition plans, she exhibits an almost childlike enthusiasm for her sport and, although a full-time pro athlete, it seems like each day she is just going out to play. 

Dauwalters treble

June 24
Western States 100
(100.5 miles / 161km / 5500m climb)

July 14
Hardrock 100

(102.5 miles / 163km / 10,360m climb)

Sept 1
(106.5 miles / 171km / 9963m climb)

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