This year’s GOATz 50K in Omaha, Neb., was a “bad one” for ultra running champion Kaci Lickteig.
She woke up on race morning with a strange tightness in her lower back. “I had never had that feeling before,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what was the reason or the cause but I figured I would stretch it out and I would be fine.”
It didn’t work.
Before the start of the Oct. 22 race, Lickteig tried to warm up but her back was still stiff. “Maybe, I’m just stiff and tense from the cold,” she thought, admitting that — even though she does not recommend it — she took four Ibuprofen before the race. “Maybe this will ease the pain.”
Instead, the Ibuprofen masked the pain.
“The first loop was good, the second loop was good, though I was getting a little sore, the third loop I began to notice my left hip was getting sore on every downhill,” Lickteig says, chalking it up to sore muscles since she had not run that far since UTMB almost two months ago. “I just figured it was normal muscle soreness, and I would just work through it and push through it.”
With about a half-mile to go, she made a move to pass another runner.
“I jumped out of the trail and landed on my left foot,” Lickteig remembers. “Instantly something popped in my left hip and it took my breath away. I thought, ‘What just happened?’ I thought maybe I ruptured a tendon or a muscle. Oh crap. But I was still moving and running. It hurt but I finished the race.
“I literally crossed the line, stood there and looked at my friend and said, ‘I don’t think I can walk.’
I never felt that way before in my life. I could not walk. It hurt so bad. I knew something was wrong, I didn’t what it was at the time.”
A slow but steady recovery
Lickteig won the women’s race and placed fourth overall with a time of 4:07:16. But her injury became a bigger concern.
It did not get better during the week so she saw a doctor and got an MRI, which showed that it was a pelvic stress fracture. It was the first injury for Lickteig, who has won various ultras including Western States, since she started running in 2002 that sidelined her.
A month into her rehab, Lickteig pauses when asked about the progress. “Very slow,” she says.
“I’m not used to having a slow recovery. I still have pain walking. Why is this painful? It’s been four weeks. It should be healing.”
As a physical therapist, she does understand that the bone remodeling process takes time but the wait can be frustrating. “It’s difficult at times when I want to go run but I can’t even walk.”
Lickteig was not allowed to do any physical activity during the first month of rehab. Toward the end of November, she received some good news.
“I am moving much better, not limping, but I still have some pain with walking,” she says. The doctor ordered four more weeks of recovery but is allowing her to do the recumbent bike and swim with a buoy between her legs to prevent her from stressing them.
If all goes well, Lickteig will move on to the elliptical and upright bike, then the Alter-G treadmill and finally returning to run outside. “I expect 10-12 weeks before I am back to running,” she says, estimating a February timetable. “This is testing my patience more than ever. I am just taking it one day at a time.”
A learning experience
In her forced downtime, Lickteig is spending more time with her family, friends and dog.
“I have a friend who has a similar injury and we’ve been hanging out and going crutching together so that’s been enjoyable,” she says. “I am just trying to stay positive. It could be worse. This is something that will heal. It’s not like I am going to be out the rest of my life. I just have to be patient and I will come back stronger.”
Lickteig has also had plenty of time to reflect on the past six months, which have been challenging.
“For me, I had a really rough summer with my grandma going through her health scare,” she says of the woman who raised her. “I wasn’t training properly or taking as good care of myself as I was in the past. After UTMB, I got back to running way too soon. I didn’t listen to my coach really well.”
She had been experiencing pain here and there after UTMB. “I can get through it,” she remembers thinking. “Looking back now, it was not normal to have very painful and swollen knees. I had a lot of patellar tendonitis going on. It was pretty ridiculous.”
During the GOATz race, the stiff back and patellar tendonitis teamed up to find the weak link, which was her hip. “It was my own fault. I found my own limits. I learned a lot.”
As she continues progressing in her rehab, she is focused. “I’m very determined and stubborn and won’t let myself give up.”
The early beginnings
That determination dates back 15 years when Lickteig first became a runner as a junior in high school. She had been a volleyball player but switched — two weeks before school started — when her best friend persuaded her to join the cross-country team.
“It was a really small team and they wanted to go to state, and I thought, ‘Why not? It’s worth a shot, and I’d get to hang out with my best friend even more,” she recalls.
Lickteig joined the team without the benefit of previous training.
“I still remember that first day when we got to cross-country practice,” she says. “We had two-a-days and I had not even run a step over the summer. It was terrible. What did I just do? I started there and I struggled.”
But step after step, mile after mile, taught her the importance of commitment.
“I finished at the last part of the team every time,” Lickteig said. “But I could see that I could better myself. I could see improvement here and there. It was a team sport, which I loved, and that was important to me. I could be giving back to them and myself at the same time. I could be getting better for myself and for the team, which motivated me to get better. I worked really hard and started to see progress. Since then it clicked and I discovered my passion for it.”
And when she finished a race without walking any of it, she was hooked. “It took a long time for the passion to develop — my whole first cross-country season,” Lickteig says. “Going from zero to two or three miles was tough for me. It was a challenge.”
Goals: ‘The bigger the better’
About the same time, Lickteig’s mom (shown at left running with her daughter) quit smoking and traded a bad habit for a good one: running. Her mom invited Lickteig to run with her, usually a mile at a time.
“I thought that was really fun because I grew up with my grandparents and I didn’t get to bond with my mom as much,” she recalls. “We didn’t have a lot of time together but this was really fun. We really grew together as a mom and daughter at this time. We found that we both loved it and signed up for these fun races — and never looked back.”
Even today, Lickteig and her mother race together. In fact, at the GOATz race, her mother set a PR.
“I am a Type A determined person,” Lickteig says. “I love to push myself, see what my limits are. And I found that is a really fun way to do it. I drew inspiration from others around me — like my teammates and my mom. My mom used to run and leave me in the dust during fun runs. I can’t keep up with her! I would try to keep up with her over a certain distance. And that’s part of the incremental goal process that is part of this. One goal leads to another and another goal leads to another. I am very goal-oriented and like to keep setting goals. The bigger, the better for me.”
As for the future, she is going day-by-day now to get healthier before committing to races or immediate goals. “I have some goals in mind that I really want to achieve to I want this process of recovery to work,” Lickteig says. “Keeping those outside goals there that I want to achieve are making me a good patient and keeping me from testing limits.”
Lickteig’s single ticket to Western States was not among those picked in the lottery so she is focusing on being able to recover and claim a Golden Ticket. “My goal is to heal up fast enough and well enough to race at Lake Sonoma to get a Golden Ticket to Western States,” she says. “It would be my fifth time (at Lake Sonoma). I know the course really well and love it.”
Looking ahead, Lickteig wants to run Hardrock, return to UTMB and do more of the ultra world tour. “I’ve definitely learned that I can take on a lot more than my body thinks it can,” she says. “Mentally, I am a lot stronger. Everything happens for a reason. You learn to not just rely on myself and not be so independent. I used to think I can do it all on my own. But getting help from others it’s been a good learning curve.”
Passing inspiration forward
While Lickteig’s 2017 ended on a down note, there have been inspiring stories from other well-known female runners. Fellow Oklahoma resident Camille Heron set a record in the 100-mile distance. Courtney Dauwalter won the Moab 240-mile race outright by more than 10 hours. Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years.
“It’s very important,” Lickteig says. “We’re trying to be more vocal about women can do whatever we set our minds to. We’re not weak. We’re not fragile. We can do things others don’t think we can. We’re equal.”
Lickteig draws inspiration from her mother and grandmother. “They worked hard their whole lives. They are very independent women and that’s empowering to me.”
One of Lickteig’s first running inspirations was Christy Nielsen, an Omaha-area runner and physical therapist.
“I remember the first time I ran a marathon and hobbled in at 3:51. She won the marathon and I saw her at the finish line. I just saw how empowering she was to me who was just getting into the sport of marathoning. I looked up to her and saw her dedication, hard work and passion. Since then we ended up becoming friends and training partners. She still inspires me every day.”
And Lickteig wants to pass that inspiration forward to girls, especially those starting out at zero like she did.
“Set goals, make them for yourself and see where you can do,” she advises. “Like myself, I was the last person to finish. But I found that passion and drive from being a goal-oriented person. I am not talented by any means. But it was really hard work and dedication. Know that if you love something that much and are going to work for it, it’s going to pay off. Don’t give up.
“You just have to be strong and believe in yourself.”
Name: Kaci Lickteig
Hometown: Dannebrog, Neb.
Number of years running: 15 years
How many miles a week do you typically run: 90-110 miles per week
Point of pride: Winning the 2016 Western States 100-mile race
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: A Cliff Bar (Hot Chocolate or Chocolate Chip) and Strawberry energy Crystal Light
Favorite piece of gear: I love my Nike raincoat that was made for me when I ran UTMB. I seriously would wear it every day if I could. It fits like a glove. :-)
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I listen to a wide variety of music and songs. I really love listening to something that has a good bass and instrumentals. My current favorite song is Passion by AWOLNATION.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “How bad do you want it?” and “Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.” — Hebrews 12:1
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• You can follow me on my blog that I just restarted http://pixieninjarunning.blogspot.com
• Facebook, Kaci Lickteig
• Strava, Kaci Lickteig
• Twitter, @runnerkc
• Instagram, @ultrarunnerkc