Courtney Dauwalter has learned to embrace the “pain cave.”

The next time you’re in a 5K or 10K race, or maybe a half-marathon or even a marathon, and you feel fatigue and pain setting in, take a moment and think about ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter. A few weeks ago, Dauwalter completed the ultimate triple-crown of ultra running, winning and setting course records at Western States 100, Hardrock 100 and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc—the latter run through the Alps of France, Italy and Switzerland. Kilian Jornet, widely considered the greatest ultrarunner of all time, is the only other person to win all three, though he did not do it in one summer.

All three races, besides being 100 miles, are off-the-charts difficult, running through mountains of 14,000 feet or more. What drives this former high-school cross country runner to achieve such seemingly impossible feats? Or maybe a better question is: how does she handle the fatigue encountered in a summer of records setting ultras?

The answer is contained in what Dauwalter—who trains up to 130 miles a week, calls the “pain cave.” It’s something she’s learned to embrace. This past June, at mile 60 at Western States in California’s Sierra Nevada, Dauwalter said she entered the pain cave.  Running the remaining 40 miles, Dauwalter stayed in the “cave,” chipping away at the pain. She visualized exploring deeper into the cave’s far reaches. During those treks, she imagines all kinds of post-race rewards, nachos and ice-cream-topped brownies among them. It’s the ultimate delayed gratification. Unbelievably, she says that during her sojourns within the pain cave, she remains  focused on every step.

What’s unique about Dauwalter’s approach, is that she understands that you can’t randomly summon the pain cave. It only happens after a prolonged, almost unimaginable effort. That’s what makes it special, and not necessarily in a bad way. Dauwalter has learned to welcome the pain cave, exploring new tunnels within it every time she races 100 milers, knowing that ultimately she’ll be a better runner from her forays into the cave.

In many ways, it’s like when you’re running a half or full marathon and you encounter a bad patch. But you know from experience that you’ll come out the other side of it and finish strong. That’s what Dauwalter’s learned. There’s no question that she digs deep, deeper than the rest of us. And she has the ability to push through incredible discomfort to get the best effort possible out of herself.

And there’s no question Dauwalter, who has been running ultra’s since 2011, possesses near  unbelievable mental toughness, a characteristic she hones throughout her daily life: not making any excuses, taking on challenging tasks even when tired (which she admits she is a lot of the time). But she always pushes further, deeper.

Think about that the next time you feel fatigued during a 5K.

Upcoming races: Saturday, September 23, 8:00 a.m. the Luau 5K, 10K, & Half Marathon at Pfennig Park in Pflugerville. Saturday, September 23 at 8:00 a.m. the Jameson 5K at Southwestern University. Saturday, September 30 at 8:15 a.m. the Lockhart Kiwanis 5K Stampede at the First Lockhart Baptist Church in Lockhart.