THIS RUNNER NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION, but I’m going to do it anyways. Kaci Lickteig, also known as “The Pixie Ninja”, is a powerhouse ultrarunning beast, with both a Western States victory and an Ultrarunner of the Year title under her ninja belt, among other accolades. The kicker? Kaci has only been in the ultra game for 5 years. A self-proclaimed “happy runner”, Kaci has taken the ultra running scene by storm, encompassed in a 5 foot 3 inch 95 pound tornado of positivity and grit out on the trails. Kaci is a new addition to Altra’s Team Elite, and recently shared with me a bit about her journey, her struggles, and her plans going forward, including Western States this year. Here we go… Can you remember your first memory of running?
My first memory of running is actually something I was told by my grandma, who raised me. She told me that once I learned how to crawl as a baby I was on the go all the time. She remembers that the day I tried to walk for the first time that I actually ran. I didn’t even fall. She said that from that day forward I was running all over the place! I kept her on the move! 🙂
When did you first run competitively?
I first started running competitively when I was in high school as a junior back in 2002. I started with cross country, and I struggled to finish those races and walked a lot. I found a passion inside me that loved the sport. I loved being on a team and working towards a common goal. I also loved pushing myself and my limits. And since then I have only grown to love the sport more.
Can you talk about Western States a little bit?
Western States is the race that I have truly fallen in love with. Once I had finished my first 100 mile race, the Black Hills 100 in 2013, I instantly knew I wanted to find a way to run Western States. I was unsure how to go about it, but with a lot of thought I decided I would take a shot at it by running one of the Golden Ticket races. The top two men and women at these races gain you entry into Western States. I looked at the list and decided to go in full force and run my second ever 100 mile race and enter the Rocky Raccoon 100. I did not have a coach at this time and only used my knowledge to come up with a training plan. I was so focused and remember that I was going to do everything I could to give it my best and see what happens. I shocked myself and came in 2nd place for women and earned that Golden Ticket! It was such a surreal moment.
So how have your experiences at Western States differed over the years?
I have now ran Western States four consecutive years and each being such a different experience. In 2014, I had no idea what to expect. I had never been on the course so it was all new to me. I remember I blew my quads and hip flexors by 40 miles. The last 60 miles was such a painful struggle, but I had come across Nick Clark at the second Cal-Street aid station. He was having an off day too. We both pushed each other out of the aid station and then made a pact together to finish no matter what. And that is exactly what we did. It was a struggle that I will never forget. I finished 6th place for women, earning an automatic entry to 2015!
I grew and learned a lot about myself at Western States in 2014. I knew I had to make many changes in order to not have the 2014 experience happen again. I made myself stay patient and steady at the beginning in order to save my legs for after the river. This worked and soon enough I made my way to 2nd place. It was a great feeling knowing I had nailed my race plan and executed it exactly how I wanted.
Then 2016, the perfect race. I had taken everything into account from the prior years and just made them a little better. That turned out to me having the best possible race in my life. I was on cloud nine all day. Happy, smiley, feeling physically and mentally on top of the world. It lasted throughout the whole race and I ended up winning! It was the most glorious day I have ever had.
"So, to sum up what Western States means to me...it is what gets me out of bed in the morning, what I focus my training on, and what I think about constantly. It has now become a part of me and I will always want to be a part of it."
Then last year happened. It was the worst experience I have ever had at any race. It started out great being able to run with Magdalena Boulet and Stephanie Howe. Then slowly I started having physical and mental issues. My mind started going to dark places, as I was worried about my grandma back home who had been recently diagnosed with cancer. I felt selfish for leaving her and running this race. It started to compound on me more and more, mile after mile. Finally, it all came to head and it blew up going up the second canyon after Devil’s Thumb about mile 50. I became so distraught, physically ill, and mentally checked out. It continued on until I reached Foresthill at 62 miles. I rebounded a little getting to my pacer and seeing my crew and coach. Then starting down to the river crossing I had a huge fall out after running into a tree. My emotions overtook me and I wanted to quit. I walked to the river and sat and had a huge pity party for an hour. Then Stephanie Case, bless her heart, came and sat by me. We chatted and the next thing I know is that she grabbed my arms and pulled me up to walk to the river and cross it. I found a new inner-strength and made my way to the finish, earning my first ever sub 24 hour buckle and 16th female. And I am the most proud of that finish than any other. I learned more about myself during that race than I have in any other race. I will never forget that day(s).
What does Western States mean to you?
So, to sum up what Western States means to me…it is what gets me out of bed in the morning, what I focus my training on, and what I think about constantly. It has now become a part of me and I will always want to be a part of it.
If you could give 3 pieces of advice that have made more difference than anything else in your career, what would they be?
Three pieces of advice that has made a difference in my career is first off getting a coach. I would not have known how to properly train for my races, been disciplined enough to rest and recover, or challenged myself like I have since working with my coach, Jason Koop. A second piece of advice I have discovered is that health and nutrition go hand in hand. It is vital for training, recovery, and overall wellness to make sure eating is a form of training too. I’ve had to learn the hard way, but have made changes and now have a dietician to work with. The last bit of advice I have is that you can always do more than what your mind lets you think you can. The body is amazing and it can do more than you think is possible. I have learned that when I think I have no more left in me, I just have to give myself some time and then miraculously I can do the ‘impossible’. It’s literally mind over matter! Just have the right attitude and you can do anything you set your mind to.
What success are you most proud of in your career up to this point?
I would have to say I have a tie for what has been my most proud successes so far that I have made in my career up to this point. They are winning Western States in 2016 and finishing Western States in 2017. Both of those experiences were night and day different yet, both resonate with my heart for those different reasons.
Can you tell us a little bit about your future goals?
My future goals include running Western States 10 times to earn that 1000 mile buckle. I want to race Hardrock 100 and be part of the Hardrock community. I also want to explore more overseas and race internationally. I have a lot of big dreams and goals that I can’t wait to chase. Here’s to a bright future! Happy Trails,Kaci
And there you have it folks. So much good stuff in there. As I’ve followed Kaci’s running journey, the one thing that stands out more than anything to me is her overwhelming positivity – a light in her eyes and a smile on her face. As a practitioner, competitor, coach, and student of the sport I am constantly trying to identify variables that make a difference in athletic performance. Of course lots of different elements play a part, but it seems that the mental positivity that Kaci mentioned above, may be one of the most important factors in whether an athlete is able to reach their highest performance potential on a given day.
Think about some of the most successful and iconic endurance athletes of all time – Chrissie Wellington, Haile Gebrselassie, Scott Jurek, Meb… Let’s add Kaci in there as well. One thing that all of these greats have in common is their smiles. In a world where people assume that a serious, even hostile game face is necessary to perform your best, these athletes show us time and time again that positivity, not aggression is key to success. Perhaps these events are too challenging, too grueling to be fueled by hostility. Perhaps the secret – the real form of sustainable energy – is in the smile. Love, light, gratitude, and positivity.
I think Kaci may be onto something. Actually, I know it. Science does too. Every year, more and more research emerges from experts in the fields of sports psychology and sports physiology supporting the idea that a positive mindset, even a forced – yet sincere- smile can dramatically improve your athletic performance. Give it a try. You might surprise yourself. Worst case scenario, you’ll make the world around you a better place.
Thank you Kaci for being so open and for sharing your thoughts and heart. We’ll all be pulling for the Pixie Ninja this year at Western States!
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