I adore Chamonix. Thousands of people cram into the tiny streets of this French village to watch the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 106-mile (170-kilometer) event that is the ultimate manifestation of a real monster.
UTMB, which circles Europe’s highest mountain and crosses three foreign boundaries, is considered one of the world’s most competitive ultra-marathons. This weekend promises to be especially intense, with a carnival atmosphere and a total height gain of 10,040 meters, which is more than 1,000 meters higher than Mount Everest.
UTMB: Get up close and personal at the largest and most intense trail race in the world
The throng is pulsating with excitement. The air divides with a faraway roar. It grows louder as it approaches stealthily. There’s a flash of yellow. The throng advances, nearly swallowing the runner in her loose shorts and slightly big T-shirt.
She has won three UTMB titles. An incredible summer of dominance. an unheard-of triple crown of the main events in the sport. Here she is, the ultrarunning queen.
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An aid station was where Courtney Dauwalter sat by herself, depressed, just over a decade prior, following her withdrawal from her first 100-mile race, the Run Rabbit Run, external in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
There was no straightforward route out due to the distant location. Before the aid station closed and she could catch a ride to the finishing area, she would have to sit for hours watching others go by.
“When it started getting physically difficult, almost immediately my headspace went really negative, and I just whirlpooled down into it,” Dauwalter relates.
“Any runner will tell you that a ‘did not finish’ is a crushing experience. I couldn’t believe I’d given up so quickly and quit something I’d started.”
Feeling alone and in pain, she observed others persevering and tried to find some inner strength.
“I decided I was going to be a person who could finish 100 miles. I just had to make a new plan and figure out how. Later that day I signed up for a 100-mile race one year from then.”
Since that disheartening day in 2012 on a mountainside, Dauwalter has reached the pinnacle of ultra-running.
Her victory in Chamonix completed an unprecedented feat: winning the UTMB, Hardrock 100, and Western States 100 all in the same summer. For every event, she also has the course record.
That was only this summer, though. For the last ten years, Dauwalter has dominated women’s ultrarunning. Since 2019, no female runner has defeated her. She completely destroyed the competition, including men and women, in the 2017 Moab 240, a brutal 238-mile trudge across Utah’s deserts, defeating her closest competitor, Sean Nakamura, by ten hours.
It provoked inquiries, discussion, and study into the possibility that ultra-endurance distances are among the few sports venues where the genders’ playing fields are truly leveled.
During a training run, Courtney Dauwalter puts lip balm on.
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Dauwalter in May during a training run in Colorado
Running was still Dauwalter’s side project at the beginning of 2017, before everything changed. Dauwalter worked as a full-time biology teacher in Colorado.
“I majored in biology in college and thought I would do something medical or in sports medicine, but I quickly figured out that that probably wouldn’t be a good fit for me. So after college I decided that teaching would be a cool way to spread my love of science to others,” Dauwalter explains.
She ran frequently during her time in school and college, frequently beginning her days with a jog in the morning and fitting in the occasional 5 or 10 km run just for fun and as a healthy Saturday morning pastime.
“I loved how it made me feel. I loved that I could push exactly as hard as I wanted during a race or training, and I loved that feeling of exploration and amazement at where my feet could take me,” Dauwalter says.
Though she received a cross-country skiing scholarship to the University of Denver and was a four-time Minnesota state champion in Nordic skiing, not much about her early running ability was known.
“At the start line of my first marathon, I was texting goodbye to family and friends, saying my legs are going to shatter – I’m going to be a heap on the side of this road somewhere. But I finished it. I couldn’t believe it,” Dauwalter recalls.
“It triggered this whole domino effect. I thought running a marathon was impossible – but it wasn’t. So I thought, what else is there that could be the same sort of challenge? And that led me to the ultra-running world.”
She had an excellent first 50km and then a successful, although tired, 50-mile race.
“So I decided the next logical step was to try the 100-mile distance.”
2012’s Run Rabbit Run did not end well. Dauwalter today counts that as one of the most significant moments of her running career, but every person who passed the aid station after she had dropped out served as a terrible reminder of how she had failed at what she had set her mind to.
“I was officially out of the race, but I had this front-row seat for evidence of what it takes. Look at all of these people who are clearly hurting, but they’re finding a way. I kept asking myself, do you want to be a person who tries this again and figures it out?” Dauwalter says.
The next bit of action was spectacular. She split her time between teaching and ultrarunning for the next four years. Her performance skyrocketed, and by 2014 she was a dominant force, taking home seven significant 50-, 100-, or 24-hour races.
Courtney Dauwalter became well-known in 2017. After giving up teaching to pursue running full-time, she gave two memorable performances.
Although Dauwalter had previously triumphed in Run Rabbit Run the year before, so banishing the memory of her defeat in 2012, her triumph in 2017 is a source of ridiculous legends.
She was comfortably dominating the race going into the last twelve miles when her peripheral vision started to fog. In ultrarunning, temporary visual distortion is not unheard of; the strain of running so hard and for so long might cause the body to struggle to refill the fluid in the eyeball as normal. It’s a medical issue called corneal edema. However, Dauwalter’s situation was very dire. It got worse as she went on near the finish line, to the point where she was practically 90% blind.
“I was all alone on this trail in the Colorado mountains. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but I could still see my toes,” Dauwalter recalls.
Dauwalter staggered forward, falling from time to time and once bruising her head on a rock, barely a few miles from the last aid station.
“Luckily, I knew that section of trail; I had run it many times before in training. A calm came over me – a computer mode asking what I could do. Well, I can look at my toes and keep moving forward as best as I can,” Dauwalter explains.
“This is my situation – here’s the problem I’ve been dealt with. And then it was just figuring out my options and how to get out of this.”
Dauwalter arrived at the aid station, but rather than giving up, she made use of a volunteer to lead the way, providing commentary on the scenery as they ran. In 20 hours, 38 minutes, and 09 seconds, a bruised and bleeding Dauwalter became the first woman to cross the finish line that day. Five hours later, her vision returned to normal.
Though many would have been traumatized by the event, she went on to win the 50-mile Bear Chase in Colorado three weeks later, besting the closest guy by almost two hours.
Dauwalter has a big smile on his face and frequently stops to talk to spectators and volunteers along the way, but it takes something fundamental to compete, much alone win, over such distances. the capacity to subdue the beast that cries out that it is impossible. to persevere even when your body gives up and your eyesight fails. Under the upbeat façade is a tenacious survivor.
“The number of problems and types of problems you can get in ultra-running are abundant. My process is just to start repeating a positive mantra to myself in my head,” Dauwalter explains.
“I believe that just calming down all of my systems helps. If I can repeat in my mind the very simple affirmation, ‘You’re fine. This is fine. Everything is fine. Keep moving,’ the rest of me can begin to process what’s happening and what I can do about it.
“Have I ever encountered something like this before? What have I previously attempted? What might I attempt this time?”
She uses a mental technique she refers to as her “pain cave” when things really get hard.
“When I physically feel like I can’t walk another step, I retreat to the agony cave. My ability to endure more hardship and maintain mental toughness during trying times is enhanced by this mental image of a region in my brain that I access with a chisel, according to Dauwalter.
“You have such a strong mind. I keep signing up for these incredibly difficult tasks because I want to keep pushing myself to learn how to use both my body and my mind.”
During a training run, Courtney Dauwalter yells to the heavens.
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Fans have grown to love Dauwalter because of her signature baggy shorts and easygoing approach to nutrition.
Dauwalter kept her race ambitions in check prior to the event, but five weeks after her tough Run Rabbit Run victory in 2017, she entered the Moab 240, which was by far the furthest she had ever run. Five weeks later, Dauwalter crossed the finish line in first place overall, and she didn’t see second-place finisher Nakamura for more than ten hours.
Before Dauwalter and many times since, women had won ultra-endurance races; nonetheless, her accomplishments in the Moab 240 prompted a wave of more study and media interest, and maybe more crucially, it demonstrated what was possible.
In 2019, Maggie Guterl became the first woman to win the Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra, a 4.16667-mile loop that must be completed once every hour until there is only one person left, running 250 miles in 60 hours. Two other women placed in the top 10 that year. Jasmine Paris won the UK’s 238-mile Spine Race outright.
READ: The strangest race you’ve never heard of is Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra
For years, Camille Herron has been the undisputed leader in ultrarunning. She is the only competitor to have won the Comrades and Spartathlon ultra marathons, as well as the 50K, 100K, and 24 Hour events at the road world championships.
According to research, there is a decreasing difference between men and women the longer a race takes, whether it be running, cycling, or swimming, until women eventually overtake men.
Women are, on average, 11.1% slower than men in professional marathons. When ability levels are taken into account, women will always finish behind men over this distance, barring a long shot. However, at 50 miles, the difference is only 3.7%, and at 100 miles, it is just 0.3%.
According to Jovana Subic, head of research at Run Repeat, a website that analyzes running shoes and the sport in general and published a State of Ultra Running Report in 2020, “it seems 195 miles is the magic number where women become faster than men.”
Beyond this distance, statistics indicate that women are, on average, 0.6% faster.
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Another female athlete defying convention is Camille Herron, who placed third overall in the 153-mile Spartathlon competition in October.
More studies are needed, but it’s possible that women surpass men at some point when their larger distribution of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which gives them more resistance to fatigue, starts to work in their favor. Ultra-endurance athletes also don’t always need to peak at their maximum output capacity—that’s where men excel—but rather focus on peripheral conditioning, oxygen efficiency, and mental toughness.
Other reasons might be that women typically maintain a more consistent pace during lengthy races and burn fat more effectively than males do.
“Women burn out less and are 18% better at keeping an even pace,” Jovic states.
Exercise scientists at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, such Dr. Nicholas Tiller, argue that “endurance distances are the great equaliser.”
While Dauwalter may have dominated the men in 2017, that doesn’t mean she does it every race; at the UTMB in 2023, fellow American Jim Walmsley finished nearly four hours ahead of her. This is a point that Dr. Tiller is often eager to emphasize.
A further point to consider is that the data for these findings is limited, as they are based on niche events where female participation decreases with distance; conclusions based on averages can easily become skewed; broad generalizations are challenging when a small number of elite female runners are matched against a larger number of men of more varied ability; and we will have a better idea of any gender-linked advantages when participation levels match up.
A number of disadvantages affect women, including a reduced capacity to carry oxygen, a higher frequency of gastrointestinal distress, and the effects of sex hormones on cellular function and injury risk (Tiller, external report, ‘Do Sex Differences in Physiology Confer a Female Advantage in Ultra-Endurance Sport?’).
Although there are advantages and disadvantages for women in comparison to men, it can be reductive to try to simplify the case for Herron, Paris, Guterl, and Dauwalter because they are women who succeed because of extraordinary dedication, hard work, and fierce resilience.
There’s no hard and fast answers, but there’s a case to be made that in sports, the farther you go, the more like a fair playing field you are.
Fans are greeted by Courtney Dauwalter near the UTMB finish line.
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Dauwalter welcomes supporters near the UTMB finish line. She finished more over 40 minutes ahead of the next female competitor and in 25th place overall out of 2693 participants.
Most mortals can’t push their bodies over such distances, or so we believe. But the number of such people, especially female ones, is steadily increasing.
More people are considering the question, “Why not give it a shot, take a risk, and see what happens? Being a woman in ultra running at this moment is great since the sport is expanding rapidly, according to Dauwalter.
Only seven women completed the inaugural UTMB in 2003; but, twenty years later, 188 women crossed the finish line in Chamonix. Time records are also falling: Kristin Moehl covered 153 km in 29:38:24 in 2003, but Dauwalter ran an 18 km circuit in seven hours faster in 2021.
Dauwalter’s race number that day, appropriately, was one. On September 1, 2023, she navigated the delirious crowds in the French town and crossed the finish line in a time of 23:29:14. That race concluded an incredible summer in which she dominated the field, winning three of the most difficult 100-mile ultras in the span of just 70 days.
Even though she is 38 years old, the Queen of ultrarunning seems to be getting stronger.
And Dauwalter still has a carefree attitude toward her sport; she enjoys pizza and beer, loves sweets and cheese quesadillas, and averages about 100 miles a week without following a strict training schedule.
“I’ll just head out in the morning and run however far I feel,” Dauwalter declares. Dauwalter frequently exudes the air of a grownup who never outgrew her skateboarding period in a world of disciplined, straight-faced sports where players sacrifice delight in the search of tiny benefits.
“I want to consume whatever seems appetizing. “I want to spend time with my loved ones and challenge myself by participating in 100- or 200-mile races,” she declares.
Dauwalter is dominating her sport in a way never seen before, yet she refuses to exchange a full, rich, and rounded life for the assurance of competition success. Given her success, who’s to say it’s not the right approach?
“My spouse and I are making an effort to truly experience this life. My goal is to gather as many memories and special moments as I can so that, when I’m elderly and sitting on my rocking chair with my spouse, we can look back on these times and laugh and smile,” says Dauwalter.
“We only get one chance at life. Thus, let’s make the most of every single part of it.”