It’s a bit of an understatement to say the Western States 100-Mile endurance run is not flat. Before runners cross the finish line in Auburn, California, they must climb a total of 15,540 feet and descend 22,970. Over two thousand of those vertical feet come in the first 4.5 miles.
Omaha, Nebraska, on the other hand, is flat. Yet that’s where Western States female winner Kaci Lickteig lives and does most of her training. Training for a hilly ultra in America's flatlands would seem like a disadvantage, but the 29-year old’s winning time of 17:57:59—nearly one hour faster than the second female finisher—proves otherwise.
“Basically my training is all on either asphalt or paved bike paths,” Lickteig says. Take a look at her Strava and you’ll see that in order to get her requisite 90-to-120-mile weeks pre-Western States, she ran the same exact loops around Omaha’s Zorinsky Lake day in and day out; a 10-miler there nets her a whopping 236 feet in elevation gain.
“I grew up in a town that had a three-mile loop trail on asphalt and I would do that multiple times—that’s how I trained,” she says. “I’m used to doing things over and over again and it doesn’t bother me. I just enjoy running.”
Once a weekend, she likes to venture across the Missouri River to Hitchcock Nature Center, a 1,268-acre park with 10 miles of trails and some "decent vertical," as Lickteig put it. Asked to clarify what decent means, she says, "225 to 250-foot climbs."
Three weeks out from Western States, she ran a marathon there with a commendable 5,561 feet of elevation gain for a rare weekly total of 10,282 feet. But compare that to Western States men’s runner Jim Walmsley, who consistently logged 10- to 15,000-foot weeks in Flagstaff, Arizona, in the two months leading up to the race, and you’ll realize just how unique her training really was.
“For me it’s about getting as fit as possible,” says Lickteig, who ran a 2:48 at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials. That entailed long runs that she finished faster than she started, shorter ones at around 6:00 mile tempo pace, and competing in everything from road marathons to halfs and 10Ks. “[Shorter races] help me train and get into that mental state of competition—it’s good for nerves, taking the edge off.”
Lickteig ran Western States the two previous years as well, finishing sixth in 2014 and second last year. But the difference this year: consistent, injury-free training, and a permanently upbeat attitude. “One of my goals was to stay positive and to smile, because it can trick your brain into being happy,” she says. And she stuck to it. “It was a dream come true. From wire to wire I was just in the zone, happy the whole time. I’ve never experienced a 100-miler like that.”
Lickteig says she will definitely return to Western States in 2017, but she has her mind set on a new goal: punching her ticket to Southern Colorado’s Hardrock 100. Elevation gain: 33,050 feet.
“No matter where you live, where you train, you can definitely accomplish your goals.” Lickteig says. “Set ‘em, then chase ‘em.”