By Maggie Guterl
The Only Guarantee is Unpredictability
Things went right and things went wrong, like they always do when you run the line you risk it all. And when you are as dialed and determined as Courtney, only the things out of your control can stop you.
If you are reading this, you probably already know the outcome of Courtney Dauwalter’s FKT attempt on the Colorado Trail. After an astonishing pace for 108 hours, Courtney’s crew convinced her to get checked out at the Leadville ER. She had developed a nasty cough and wheezing somewhere during the third day. I believe she only agreed to go because she partly thought the doc would say, “carry on.” She would appease Kevin, her husband, and they would be back on the trail before the sunrise on day five.
That was not the case. They admitted her to the hospital with a pulse ox of 70. I am no doctor, but that is very bad. She would ultimately be diagnosed with acute bronchitis and spend the night in the hospital. She did confirm with the doc that she couldn’t continue when she got out. She thought that might be an option? (Intentional question mark.)
In the coming days, you will surely hear Courtney’s side of this adventure. Each of her crew knows bits and pieces of what she went through and what she might have felt. Even though I’ve known her for a while and know the kind of person she is, it was truly remarkable to witness that single minded focus and steely determination firsthand. As part of the crew, we all had a single-minded focus as well, and that was getting Court to Waterton Canyon, the end of the Colorado Trail, 490 miles from Durango.
Courtney began her Colorado Trail FKT attempt on August 5th at 2pm on a partly cloudy but hot day in Durango. The CT starts at the Junction Creek Trailhead just 5 miles from downtown Durango, the headquarters of Tailwind Nutrition. I was to join her for the entirety of the attempt as extra crew and pacer.
Just about 10 minutes before her start, Dale Garland showed up to see Courtney off. Dale Garland is a Durango resident and Race Director of the Hardrock 100. However, more relevant to this story is his achievement as being the first finisher of the Colorado Trail when it was completed in 1988. It took him and three friends 17 days to complete it. The current FKT record is held by Bryan Williams at 8 days and 30 minutes.
Courtney tackled the first section solo, a 21 mile, mostly uphill trail (7,000 feet of gain), in a mind boggling 4.5 hours. I was waiting for her at Kennebec Pass to pick up the first pacing duties. From here on out, she would have one or more pacers at all times for safety and company. Over the next five days, I would be nomadic, hopping from one crew person or pacer’s vehicle to another.
The First Night
The next section was unreal. It’s 20 miles to our next crew spot, and the sun set shortly after we started off. We run up and along a ridge which is also dubbed the Highline Trail. That golden hour before sunset lifted our spirits and gave Court relief from the heat that she dealt with climbing out of the canyons from Durango. It was going to be a good night. We turned off our headlamps at one point during the dark hours after sunset and before moonrise. The number of stars we saw were staggering. Finally, the moon rose over the mountains in the general direction the CT eventually heads. Court was going to run to the moon!
Our next destination was Hotel Draw (42 miles). Before we reached it, my headlamp caught a glimpse of two large, round, green eyes. Low to the ground and unflinching, they disappeared silently and reappeared near another tree. We were about 50 yards away. Hoping the insanely bright Kogalla light around my waist would deter it from running towards us, we slowly backed away talking in a moderate volume. In that last 1.5 miles before Hotel Draw, I must have turned around 20 times to just be sure no large green eyes stealthily followed us. We safely reached Jennifer Vaniston and the crew.
Jennifer Vaniston was one of three critical crew vehicles involved in this logistical dance. Piloted by Steff from Salomon, it maneuvered rocks and potholes like a champ until the time it didn’t. From Hotel Draw it was 12 trail miles to Bolam Pass (mile 53). Patrick left with Courtney as a fresh pacer and would stay with her all the way to Molas Pass (mile 73). We hopped back in the car to meet her and Patrick at Bolam. Followed by Jamil Coury in his large white Suburban, Jennifer Vaniston led the way as the driver giggled with delight at all the giant rocks and steep switchbacks. The amusement died quickly as the switch backs seemed endless.
We arrived at the pass under a moonlit sky with intermittent clouds. The moon shimmered off the lake and we felt the chill. More hurry up and wait. Not too long, Courtney arrived. The same rinse and repeat will continue on for days. Check in with Court, feed her Rebuild and other foods, load her up with Tailwind Endurance Fuel and other necessities and send her on her way. She continued on with Patrick to Molas Pass. The first night was done for us, and we would see her in the morning. I got a hard one hour of sleep. Courtney, of course, got zero.
Courtney chose to start with the notorious and beautiful San Juan mountains partly because of logistics. The crew vehicle was an RV, occupied by her main crew: her husband Kevin, her long-time friend and regular crew member, Stan, her buddy Mike and last but not least, a Physical Therapy Assistant, Patrick. Patrick helped Courtney get up and running again after a hip injury last year, and he’s also an accomplished ultra-runner. The RV couldn’t make it to all the road crossings during the journey. The CO Trail is rough and rugged as are some of the roads that lead to the trailheads. Using Steff and I as backup rough-road vehicles, a plan was hatched by Kevin long before Courtney began. As I mentioned before, I am vehicle-less, so Howie Stern (friend and photographer) completed the crew with his Toyota Tacoma.
The section from Molas to Stony pass is littered with avalanche debris, making this a particularly challenging and slow area. After she climbed out of the Elk Creek drainage, Courtney was running at a high elevation under a strong, hot sun. This is the first section where she slowed a bit. I waited on the rocky jeep road in the blazing sun with Meghan Hicks from iRunfar, Court’s next guest pacer. I forgot to apply sunscreen that day, which would later result in my trail name of “Hue” due to the “interesting” hue of my face the following days.
Despite the challenge of that stretch, Courtney arrived in great spirits and quickly took off for the final two sections of the San Juans. Meghan was in tow to protect Courtney from the notorious sheep dogs on this section. Meghan had spent the week practicing yelling, “Go back to sheep!” Luckily, she never needed to use this command.
This next story is a second-hand account, since I was shuttling Meghan’s car to Spring Creek in a giant horseshoe route north through Montrose and down through Lake City. It felt weird and lonely to be suddenly driving a car on normal paved roads away from the mountains. All those cars just going about their business oblivious to the epic-ness that was currently taking place. “Normal life” seemed trivial and I wanted to get back to the crew. It was a very long four and a half hours.
After a mid-way stop at Upper Carson (mile 110), Courtney arrived at Spring Creek (mile 127) around midnight. We quietly cheered her from our sleeping accommodations, whether that be a car or a sleeping bag on the ground. She took a shower, ate, and got about one hour of sleep before she headed back out into the night for a very long section with Patrick. She said goodbye to the San Juans and began her next 27 miles into the La Garita wilderness.
The dirt roads in the La Garita mountain range were generally kind to us. However, the day was hot and there wasn’t much shade. The seldom explored area was a mystery to us, being less popular than the Sawatch range and ignored by residents of the San Juans.
One of the coolest things to witness while we waited at each section was the thru-hikers’ enthusiasm for what Courtney was doing. They all seemed to know she was out there and were hoping to cross paths. In true Courtney fashion, she would cheer each thru-hiker on like they were the only ones out there.
While we waited, we all tried to nap on the ground or in our vehicles. The sun was strong and no one rested well. After the Saguache Park Road stop (mile 168), we head to Hwy 114 (mile 182). This aid spot was the end of the third day. I don’t know about the rest of the crew but from here on out, each night/day seemed like four. Upon arriving at mile 168, Courtney reset for the long night with no rest as far as I can remember. She headed out with Stan as the sun set over the highway. We lingered for a while and chatted with a friendly thru-hiker who shared our stoke for Courtney’s goal.
Deprived of cell service for most of the day, we all went into the small town of Saguache to rendezvous with the RV that had left earlier. We find them parked at a gas station in front of a giant cargo box with the words “NO OVERNIGHT PARKING” spray painted on it. No worries. We will only be here for part of the night.
Everyone rested listlessly in their vehicles; the night became chilly. Somewhere close to midnight we left the gas station and headed to Sargents Mesa (mile 202). The RV stayed behind because of the rough road. Kevin and I were up next for pacing.
The road ended shy of the CT, so we hiked the final .5 miles in to wait for Courtney. Before she reached us, we got a message from Stan (who is still pacing) on the Garmin InReach that she was in desperate need of coffee; Jamil volunteered to run as far as he could to meet them with hot coffee. This was the night that Courtney began to really feel the effects of fatigue and develop a severe cough.
According to Jamil, Courtney (who was very grateful for the coffee delivery) insisted that this has happened before. She has been having numerous episodes of déjà vu. Apparently it was her new hallucination. No leopards in hammocks… just lots of very convincing déjà vu.
When Courtney reached the end of the segment, Steff, Esther, Kevin, and I were there waiting. We were at an elevation of 11,616 feet, and there was a slight breeze in the chilly air. The Perseid meteors were flying over our heads. It was peaceful. Courtney was in desperate need of a nap, so she napped right there on the ground. We talked in whispers and waited. This trailhead was one of my favorite moments. Steff captured it perfectly here.
When it was time to move, Courtney got up with some help. She never skipped a beat, she never begged for more sleep. She was exhausted but consumed by her goal. That was a long night for all three of us. Kevin, Court and I move steadily forward. Over the next 6 hours Courtney’s pace slowed significantly.
Courtney began to cough a lot, stopping her in her tracks. Kevin was becoming concerned. Courtney’s need for a quick rest became evident when she asked for a nap for the second time in an hour. We proposed a longer nap this time (her last one was 3 minutes). She agreed to six. Kevin curled up next to her, I propped myself against a comfy tree, the moonlight bathing my sunburnt face. “Hue” glows in the moonlight. Courtney coughed for 30 seconds straight and when she was done said, “Start the six minutes over.” I looked at my watch and the math was easier to do for seven minutes so I said, “Okay.” Seven minutes later, I woke Kevin and he touched her shoulder. She didn’t stir. “Three more minutes?” Kev agreed.
Sunrise came and Courtney was moving a bit better. The RV was waiting at Marshall Pass (mile 217) and Courtney agreed to a longer rest break when we arrived. Herds of elk broke the stillness of the forest as they crashed through the wildflowers and down across the trail. Cows scattered in the fields as we ran by, slowly making our way to the bustling Marshall Pass stop.
Courtney entered the RV and the crew took over. She was having a rough morning. The crew was becoming concerned the cough could be a sign of something more serious, so Patrick consulted a doctor friend. It was decided that when Courtney emerged after her rest break, she would hike her way with three pacers to Monarch Pass and reassess there. Patrick grabbed a joke book for the segment. Because of course.
Monarch Pass (mile 228) was also bustling, not only with tourists, but with new pacers and baked goods for Courtney. Paul and Meredith Terranova were there, and Paul would pace along with Cameron Hanes. Courtney arrived faster than expected, and I believe she violated the hiking only rule. She was feeling good.
With two new pacers in tow, her spirits seemed high. She was moving well and things were looking up. Onward to Boss Lake (miles 239). Courtney wouldn’t see the RV again until Cottonwood early the next morning. She was committed now. No rest for the weary.
Courtney, Cam, and Paul left Boss Lake before sunset. Jennifer Vaniston and the Suburban would meet her at Tincup.
Tincup (mile 255) was described on the crew sheet as a “rough 2WD.” That was a giant understatement. It was steep and rugged. Steff giggled as Jennifer Vaniston screeched over each sketchy bump. We were all so exhausted at this point, and I had a long night of pacing ahead. I hoped Jamil, Stan, and Steff could get rest at least. Courtney arrived around the time expected. She laid down in Jamil’s car for a short nap. Paul talked loudly about the various climbs we will face and read off the altitudes of each peak. We asked Paul to use his inside voice but realized that he only has one volume.
Eventually, it was time to get Courtney up and moving. Into the night went the motley caravan. Led by Paul, who narrated the entire night, Courtney, Cam and I followed.
Eventually Courtney was again in desperate need of a nap. And so was I. Up to this point, over 86 hours in, I had slept less than 6 hours. Courtney had slept about 3 and ran almost 271 miles. I tried to imagine how she felt. I honestly had a hard time fathoming how she was still moving forward. It was incredible. I felt a little pathetic having to lie down as well, but I felt I could be more useful with just a bit of shut eye. Cam and Paul timed a 3-minute nap. Paul continued to talk throughout the entire 3 minutes. I later gave Paul the trail name, L.A.P. – Loud And Proud. He loved it!
Sunrise was glorious. We wound our way up and down to Monarch Pass where the whole crew was waiting. Courtney took a short reset break and was ready for day five.
Finally, on day five at 12:30pm in an undisclosed location in Leadville I lay down for a “nap.” Six hours later, I awoke feeling like some weird dream had ended and I was no longer controlling my body from a tiny seat with levers deep inside my brain. Good as new and ready for night five!
Night Five – The Unexpected End
With the whole crew at Twin Lakes, we watched as the headlamps bob towards us from afar. Courtney took a rest break here. Only a couple hours, but more than she has agreed to the past few times. We all went to our vehicles to rest. Everyone fell asleep hard and when we woke up at dawn the RV was gone; we figured we had missed Courtney continuing along the trail. About an hour later, Cam McCleod discovered Courtney’s Instagram post by Kevin. Our cell service was shotty and none of us had received the texts from Kevin. After 309 miles of pure grit, Courtney’s attempt had ended. Completely out of her control, she had developed acute bronchitis, and it had become dangerous. A pulse ox of 70 is life threatening and there were no more options.
We were sad for Courtney and felt lost. We headed into Leadville to regroup. After we got word she would be ok but staying in the hospital overnight, we decided to do the one thing Courtney might do. Climb a mountain. As a group we headed up Mt. Sherman just a short drive from downtown Leadville. Exhausted but euphoric, we celebrated on top of Sherman. We witnessed our mutual friend push through five nights of extreme fatigue and in the process became fast-friends ourselves. The whole experience was as hilariously ridiculous as it was inspiring. We all can’t wait to do it again!
Courtney, we are ready when you are.