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Get In The Boat: A Story of The Western States 100
Sitting On The Edge
It’s slightly after 10 p.m. and Kaci Lickteig is in tears, sitting on the edge of the American River at the Rucky Chucky Campground, 78 miles into the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Last year, she’d finished just before 11 p.m., winning the women’s race by a margin of almost an hour. But this year has been rough, and the front of the race is far out of her reach. A raft comes to take runners over to the other side of the rushing river where the race continues, but she doesn’t get on. It ferries a group across and then returns to Kaci, but she still doesn’t want to get in. She’s exhausted. On the other side of that river, there’s still 22 miles between her and the end of this race. Or it could all be over now. Then Stephanie shows up.
Stephanie Case hasn’t run Western States before, but she’s done plenty else. She works as a human rights lawyer for the UN and has lived on every continent except Antarctica. Or Australia. “I dated someone from Australia, but that doesn't really count,” Stephanie added.
Stephanie ran her first 100-mile race in 2009 and fell in love with the ultra community. When her work brought her to conflict zones in the Middle East, she continued to train within the confines of the secure facilities she lived in. In other words, she wore out the motor on her treadmill. “I did Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in 2012 when it was shortened and then 2013, and both of those I did off of training in Afghanistan,” Stephanie said. “So they were pretty tough.That was a lot to take on from just treadmill training.”
In addition to her legal work, Stephanie founded a charity called Free to Run which helps women and girls from conflict-affected communities empower themselves through sports. The organization helps athletes of all levels, from facilitating the construction of Afghanistan's first ice rink, to putting together a team for the Marathon de Sables, a 250 km race across the desert in Morocco. Stephanie’s commitment to giving back to the community and her support of athletes of all kinds is why Strava decided to give her our entry into the Western States 100.
“You know, this is my one shot,” Stephanie said about the entry. “I don't know if I'll ever get the chance to run it again.”
But Stephanie’s race almost didn’t happen. While snowshoeing to see the sunrise on New Year's Day, she fell 100 feet down a steep slope before slamming against a tree. She broke 6 ribs, punctured a lung and lacerated her liver. She had to be airlifted off of the mountain and was lucky to be alive at all.
“I was told that I wouldn’t be able to run for nine months and racing was out this year,” Stephanie said. “One of the first things I thought of was Western States. This is my first year living outside of war zones in five years and this is supposed to be my big year for racing.”
Stephanie refused to back down. Her first Strava activity is a half mile walk, two weeks after her accident. And once she was back home in Switzerland she sought other medical opinions and found a doctor who told her it would be OK to start running again after about four weeks. But it was going to hurt like hell.
“I wouldn't say I have a hard time accepting limitations,” Stephanie said. “I would say I don't accept limitations.”
After her commanding victory last year, Kaci was a favorite to win. But the course conditions were tough. There was snow in the mountains near the start that transitioned to slush, mud and debris in the first 18 miles.
“If you're running smart, it's going to slow you down, but if you're not, you might do too much and burn yourself out early,” Kaci said. “My approach is to run my own race, to run within myself. I trained as much as I can to run the best race I can.”
Kaci started off strong, hanging close to the lead women. But the Flyby reveals that at mile 54 her race started to fall apart. The snow in the mountains had given way to air temperatures above 100 degrees in the canyons. When she came through the Forest Hill Aid Station at mile 62, she’d lost almost an hour to the leader. And then it took her over four more hours to cover the 16 miles between Forest Hill and Rucky Chucky. And then Kaci sat on the edge of the American River, watching the raft come and go.
Making The Most of It
Stephanie’s race started like so many others this year: slowly. She worked her way through the snowy mountains and by the time she got to the canyons they were hot. The heat affected her digestion and by the race’s halfway point she was throwing up constantly. After everything she’d overcome to make it to the starting line, Stephanie’s primary goal was to make the most of the race. And when we saw her at the Forest Hill Aid Station, her smile only disappeared when she was puking. Stephanie was struggling physically and her secondary goal of finishing under 24 hours was in jeopardy. But she left Forest Hill and headed towards the river as positive as ever.
Get In The Boat
Stephanie left Forest Hill (mile 62) an hour and a half after Kaci did, but when she arrived at the Rucky Chucky crossing (mile 78) Kaci was sitting on the edge.
“I came in, I was kind of dry heaving, throwing up like I had been all day, and looked over and Kaci was there,” Stephanie said. “I've been following Kaci on Strava for the last year, and she just trained so consistently and so hard, and she's so positive. She's been a bit of an inspiration for me. She just looked so deflated. I was like, ‘Kaci …’
“There was a reason she hadn't dropped. She was sitting there, and I know that feeling. She was sitting there because she knew that she could do it, and I was like, ‘No one cares what your time is. You're such an inspiration. Everyone loves you. Just go out there and see what happens.’ She said, ‘Oh, I don't have a head torch.’
“I had two, so I took off the light I had on my waist and I just clipped it on her. It was like 10 sizes too big, but I said, ‘You've got a light now. No excuses.’”
No, You're an Inspiration
“I was dropping, at that point,” Kaci said. “I was done. I had no fight left and then she comes in super bubbly and so positive. It was amazing because she just sat beside me, we kind of chatted and she's like, ‘You're not stopping. You're not stopping.’ And she kept talking, then she grabbed my hand and said, ‘Come on. You're going with me in the boat. We're going to the boat.’
“And I'm like, ‘I'm stopping at Green Gate then.’ And she's like, ‘Okay if you want to stop. But you're going to go with me in the boat.’ And she put her light on me and I was like, ‘What am I doing? What am I doing?’”
“Apparently she'd been sitting there for an hour,” Stephanie said. “We were able to get her up and ... It took a couple of minutes, but she came in the boat with me, and she's like, ‘I'm going to drop out at Green Gate.’ I was like, ‘That's fine, just see how you feel.’”
“I didn't want to stop after that,” Kaci said. “I was going up to Green Gate and I told my pacer, ‘We're finishing. That's it. We're going to finish this.’ And we walk in and we finish. And it's because of her, getting me up and moving and just how positive she was and she kept saying, ‘You're an inspiration to me.’
“And I'm like, ‘No, you're an inspiration to me because of this and because of what you've gone through and your story.’ I mean, it takes power and positivity to get you off of that chair.”
It's Not About The Buckle
After crossing the river, Stephanie rallied. She clawed back time and finished the race in under 24 hours, with less than two minutes to spare. She earned the coveted silver belt buckle that reads, “100 Miles. One Day.” Kaci came in at 24 hours and 2 minutes, more than six hours slower than her winning time last year. But this year’s finish meant way more to her than a trophy.
“I gave every ounce in my body to finish,” Kaci said. “You have those great days and everything clicks like last year and then you go through days like this and it's just like ... You just remember what you're grateful for in this community and that’s why you finish.”
“This has been on my list since I started ultra running,” Stephanie said after she finished. “It's so historic, and just so special, the atmosphere, everything. To be able to get a spot from Strava was like a dream come true. I feel just really lucky, and to be able to do that because of my connection to my charity, Free to Run, that was really special because they provide a lot of motivation when I'm out on the trail. I think about the women I've been working with in Afghanistan and the refugees we work with, and ... what we're voluntarily putting ourselves through over 100 miles is like nothing compared to what they're forced to go through on a daily basis.
“Just have confidence in yourself and give something a shot. If you're constantly just staying in your comfort zone, then you're really limiting yourself. Just go all out and see what happens.”