Her first year running Western States in 2014, Kaci Lickteig finished in 6th place. Photo: Derrick Lytle
As Jason Koop sees it, Kaci Lickteig isn’t the most talented runner at this year’s Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Her 2:44 marathon PR is good, but not great. Others have her beat by 12 to 15 minutes. In college, she wasn’t a standout for her Division III team, which she made as a walk-on. When she began running ultras five years ago, her resume didn’t scream “future star.” Plus, she lives and trains in Omaha, Neb., hardly the cradle of mountain trail running.
Yet Koop, who has coached Lickteig since 2014, says she’s smart, tough and adaptable. Her sum is far more than the parts.
“What Kaci is able to do is really put the complete package together,” he says. “She takes every ounce she’s been given and manages a race very well.”
Lickteig proved her racing abilities in 2016, winning Western States on her third try in 17 hours, 57 minutes and 59 seconds, the fourth-best time by a woman since the inception of the storied race in 1977. The victory was the highlight of a terrific 2016 season, in which she won seven of her eight races of 50K or longer. Among her victories were the Bear 100-Mile Endurance Run in Utah and two 50-milers. She also earned the female Ultrarunner of the Year Award from Ultrarunning Magazine.
After battling injuries and illness throughout 2014 and 2015, Lickteig entered last year’s Western States healthy, fit and eager to win a race she’s wanted to win for years. Even though temperatures were in the 90s, Lickteig says everything clicked.
She hadn’t intended to take an early lead, yet found herself up front with Devon Yanko for the first 15 to 20 miles. She kept it up, grinding up and down the steep terrain en route to the finish line in Auburn, Calif. Lickteig didn’t think she had won until she crossed No Hands Bridge over the American River with a sizable lead and three and a half miles to go. She finished 14th overall, almost an hour ahead of runner-up Amy Sproston.
“The effort felt so manageable and it felt natural to be there,” Lickteig recalls of her early lead. “I just continued and never looked back. It was just one of those dream days.”
The “Pixie Ninja”
Lickteig, 30, has one of the best nicknames in ultra running. At 5-foot-3 and about 95 pounds, she is the “Pixie Ninja,” a tag applied by her Nebraska running buds years ago. It’s a name she likes, and it suits her. She’s an assassin on the course, yet is energetic and upbeat, a person who aspires to be happy whether she’s running a race, working as a physical therapist or hanging out with her two dogs, friends and family.
Lickteig believes finding happiness on the trails has been one of the keys to her success.
“If I run happy, I run well,” she says.
In any 100-mile race, there will be hard times and pain. However, Lickteig tries to exorcise negative thoughts. She focuses on the scenery and the fact she’s getting to do what she craves. She fell in love with ultras because she enjoys pushing her body through barriers. The longer the races, the better.
“I think a lot when I run,” she says. “I really take in everything around me, my surroundings, being happy about being out in nature, looking at the trees. I just feel free and alive when I’m like that. I feel like a little kid again when I used to go exploring. Just having that purity of being out there is what makes me happy.”
Koop says it’s a reflection of who she is. “She’s able to maintain that personality—that happy go lucky, I’m a happy person, I’m a happy runner—in the face of the rest of the environment, which is quite hard, right?” he adds. “It’s a 100-mile race, it’s super hot, it’s really competitive and there’s a big spotlight on it, but she’s able to be true to herself and her personality.”
Lickteig’s victory at Western States in 2016 was also the result of her evolution. In 2014, she ran 20:07:10 in her Western States debut, finishing sixth among women and 40th overall. In 2015, she was the second woman (24th overall) in 19:20:31. That first year, she hadn’t understood what she was up against.
Second-place finisher Kaci Lickteig high fives spectators on her way to the finish line at the 2015 Western States 100. Photo: Matt Trappe
“I was way naïve about the race and how much the downhills were going to affect me,” she says. “The race destroyed my quads by mile 40 and I had a really bad last 60 miles.”
From that, she learned she’d have to control her gait on descents and “not get sloppy.”
Last year, too, she was determined to run under control until she reached Forresthill, past the halfway point, where she picked up her pacer. Feeling strong, she was able to “race more” over the final 40 miles. She stayed hydrated and as cool as possible and kept the positive mantra.
“If I had any negative thoughts, I hurried up and changed my thought process,” she says.
Ahead of this year’s Western States Endurance Run on June 24, Lickteig says she’s injury free and fit. She’s running about 100 miles per week and feeling strong. She’s aiming not only for Western States, but her first international race, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), a 100-plus miler through the Alps—traversing through France, Italy and Switzerland—in August.
“It’ll be more of an experience for me to get my feet wet on different terrain, a much harder mountain,” she says of her preparations for UTMB.
Although Lickteig has been busy training for a big 2017, her thoughts often drift to her grandmother.
June Cords, 79, raised Lickteig and remains close to her. The two talk on the phone daily. Now Cords is battling cancer. Lickteig calls her grandmother her hero, and recently posted a video of her on Twitter, as she celebrated the completion of a recent round of treatment. Lickteig’s voice breaks as she talks about her.
Lickteig, who can run 100 miles over mountain passes and ignore pain with a smile on her face, says it’s her grandmother who is the champion in the family, and her inspiration.
“Her body’s weak, but she’s strong inside and she’s fighting so hard,” Lickteig says. “She’s such a fighter, it makes me want to be the best I can be. Nothing I go through will ever compare to what she’s going through right now.”