When Kaci Lickteig –AKA “Pixie Ninja” – found herself with an early lead at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run this June, she wasn’t quite sure what to think.
It was surreal, because this was not how my race plan was set,
says the 30-year-old runner and physical therapist from Omaha, Nebraska. “…It just wasn’t how I envisioned my race unfolding. But I had to remind myself I was fine. I was just running my own race, and I just had to continue to do that.”
Leading early was a new experience for Lickteig, who is known for her late-race surges, as she showcased in the 2015 edition of Western States where she got stronger as the race went on, tearing through the field in the back half of the course to finish 2nd. In the end, it seemed she just needed a few more miles to be able to take the win.
But not this time. Lickteig was just too strong, and 100 miles proved perfectly sufficient for her to assert her dominance, as she was virtually untouchable from start to finish and bested her closest female competitor by nearly an hour. While Lickteig may have made it look easy out there on race day, crossing that finish line as first female on her third-ever attempt was the realization of a dream several years in the making, and fueled by hundreds of hours of diligent, calculated, purposeful effort.
Becoming a Team, and Building a Relationship
Lickteig put in a ton of work. But she didn’t do it alone. Her coach Jason Koop played an instrumental role. Koop is a renowned endurance coach with Carmichael Training Systems, who works with a variety of athletes, from mountain bikers to road cyclists, to triathletes to adventure racers., but ultrarunning is his specialty.
When Lickteig met Koop two years ago, she was still relatively new to ultras. Her running background was extensive, but she was “very much in need of guidance. I could see right away she had a lot of qualities that make for good ultra runners,” he told us.
She had that typical endurance stubbornness; that ‘stick-to-it-ness.’ And she was tough.
Lickteig had been self-coached, and she was putting in a lot of “aimless” miles: all volume, with no structure, specificity or purpose. So when they teamed up, Koop completely overhauled her training. Things changed drastically and abruptly. Every workout had a purpose, and a specific role in fitting into the “big-picture architecture.” The transition wasn’t easy.
“It was more of a mental struggle than anything,” Lickteig says. “I had to get over the fact that I had to leave the control to him, and trust in him. I had to remind myself he knew what was the best for me.” Things got easier, and Koop came to understand her as an athlete better than she ever expected. Today, she’s grateful for his consistency as a long-term coach. He knows who she is and what kind of runner she is. They are “on the same page.”
In addition to bringing structure and purpose to her training, Koop has helped Lickteig learn to listen to her body and embrace her rest days. “I’m very type-A and very driven,” she says. “I will always try to go above and beyond what I’m told, and he definitely tries to reign me back and help me understand that less is more… Once in a while I’ll still overdo it, and he’ll say, ‘Told you so!’”
Far Apart, but Well Connected
Since Koop coaches Lickteig virtually from his office in Colorado Springs, consistent communication is key, as are reliable tools for planning, tracking and managing training, analyzing data and sharing feedback.
One of the first steps Koop takes with any new athlete is to pore over their previous training logs. Typically he gets them in spreadsheets, calendars and scribbled writings on the backs of napkins. He said “This exercise of analyzing the X’s and O’s of training is a cold-hearted process. The examination of numbers, trends, improvement curves (like GAP and Strava Segments), statistics on mileage, vertical and volume can be mind numbing. This data-gathering process was a lot easier with Kaci because most of her previous training was logged in Strava. What I found was stereotypical of a new ultrarunner: all volume and no intensity.
As athletes make the transition from shorter distances, they often discount the importance of intensity and interval training and focus only on adding more mileage. Based on Kaci’s prior training data – which was much more detailed than many runners I have worked with because of Strava – my initial training strategy for her was pretty simple: reduce the overall mileage, add high intensity work early in the season, and then increase training volume (mileage) as her races drew near. Much earlier in the year I have her focus on very high intensity interval work in order to increase VO2 max and pace at lactate threshold. These physiological improvements give you the physical tools to go faster at sustainable paces during the longer training sessions closer to race day.
They communicate frequently, sharing data daily and talking several times a week through a combination of online interaction, phone calls and text messages. Strava provides unique insight and feedback into how she is doing, particularly on an emotional level.
“I like to look at Strava activity because it provides a lot more color and context into the workout,” he says. “Even simple things like how the run is titled gives me insight into how it went, how they’re feeling, who they ran with, if something happened that was memorable… It’s interesting because while the other post-workout tools exist, Strava is inherently more social, some athletes are willing to put more commentary and subjective type of feedback there.”
For Lickteig, the social component of Strava adds to the fun of training. “Strava is for my friends and for myself,” she says. “I have a training partner who does many of my runs with me. His runs will upload alongside mine so we are in-sync, and it’s really cool to be able to compare that and compare our experiences.”
A Personal Conquest
2015 brought several breakout results for the Pixie Ninja, including a 2nd place finish at the Silver State 50-miler, 3rd place at the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC), and her 2nd place Western States 100 finish. But even before the year had come to an end, the two were thinking bigger, and the focus was shifting ahead to 2016, and one race in particular: Western States.
WS 100 is Lickteig’s absolute favorite race. She loves the course, the trails, the community, and the history. In fact, she says, there’s not one thing she doesn’t love about it. In her eyes, this race “has it all.” They began working specifically on their assault more than six months out.
Ultra running is definitely a long-term proposition,” he says. “Things don’t happen overnight.
Lickteig suffered an achilles injury in January and had to rely primarily on cross training for several weeks, but from mid-February on everything went according to plan. Lickteig’s training analytics consistently showed she was on track and making clear progress, hitting her best times and best training loads heading into the race. She utilized numerous ‘B’ races throughout the year to help get ready for the big day and provide some longer training sessions outside of Omaha, where training variety is severely limited. Lickteig’s results were extremely positive, highlighted by a 2nd place finish at the hotly contested Lake Sonoma 50-miler and a win at the Silver State 50.
She was ready.
Realizing a Dream
As the race got closer, Lickteig found confidence in knowing she’d done everything she could to be as prepared as possible. For the first time, she felt like she’d really put all the pieces together. “Just trusting that was the biggest key,” she says. “I knew we’d done all we needed to do, and it was my time to just go out and execute our plan.”Her strategy was set. She knew her pace. Her nutrition plan was dialed. Her goals were finalized.
When race morning came, Lickteig wasn’t thinking about winning. That wasn’t her priority. Instead, she focused on all the things she could control within her own race, and all the little things she had to do to execute her best day possible. But on June 25, doing those things put her in position to win.
Don’t expect to see me up front [early in the race],” she’d told Koop beforehand. “Expect me in 7th or 8th.
Quickly she found herself, leading the pack, and setting a pace no other woman could match. Completely prepared, feeling great, and executing perfectly. So she carried on, running her own race, with all of Koop’s lessons behind her and progress on her side. This was her day, and she was unstoppable.
No one came close. But it wasn’t until “No Hands Bridge,” with just 3.5 miles to go, that she stopped feeling nervous about her lead and finally felt confident in knowing she’d achieved her dream.
I came across the bridge, and Koop was there, and the emotions just flooded me,” she says. “I was beside myself. It was just a dream day.
For Koop, it was a gratifying moment, but not completely unexpected. He knew what was possible for Lickteig if she had the day she was capable of, and this was it. “It’s really rare that an athlete wins wire to wire like that,” he says. “But she just went out and did exactly what she said she was going to do, and the outcome took care of itself.” And the following week she still put in a solid 33 mile effort, but was a far cry from the upwards of 125 mile weeks she was recording before WS 100.
Photography by Matt Trappe