The Pixie Ninja Cometh: A Conversation With Kaci Lickteig
On Saturday, the ‘Pixie Ninja,’ as she’s been nicknamed by her hometown running club, will race the Western States 100, her third go at racing 100 miles. To be frank, I’m certain that 27-year-old Kaci Lickteig has arrived to the sport of trail ultrarunning with a clear goal in mind: to kick everyone’s behinds. She’s an abundantly warm and gentle creature, though, so I’m also certain she’ll carry that attitude wherever and however she runs. In the following extended conversation, Kaci walks us through her history with running, how she discovered the sport of ultrarunning, where she found hills in her Omaha, Nebraska hometown big enough to train for Western States, and more.
iRunFar: I want to go back to the beginning of your running. I think people have come to identify you pretty quickly as a trail ultrarunner. Your UltraSignup profile goes back to 2012. Was the Psycho Wyco 50k your first ultra?
Kaci Lickteig: Yes.
iRunFar: You came to trail ultrarunning from road running?
iRunFar: Can you tell me about your history with running? Were you a high school and collegiate runner?
Lickteig: I started on a whim. My best friend in high school, I was a junior, she just asked me to go out for cross country. I was a volleyball player previously. I decided I wanted to hang out with her more. She kind of talked me into it. It was actually the last week of our summer break. I was like, “I haven’t ran a step. I don’t even know what I’m going to do. But sure, I’ll go out with you.”
Honestly, I really sucked in high school. I probably didn’t complete a whole run until it was a flat course. I walked a lot. I was always the last person on the team to finish.
iRunFar: Were you really?
iRunFar: Okay, there is hope for all of us, isn’t there?
Lickteig: Yes. I had fun even though I didn’t do well. But finally I started to realize I was getting faster. I was actually not walking as many of the hills. I was finally making progress. That drove me to want to do better. So I went out for track that spring and [my friend] didn’t. I was like, “Are you kidding? You got me talked into cross country, and you’re not doing track?” I went ahead and continued. I ran my junior and senior year. I never made it to state or anything like that, but I ended up just making it something fun for myself—like a challenge.
Then I ended up going to college. I did an undergrad two years at a local community college to get some generals done. I just ran with my mom because she had quit smoking. She picked up running for her next little habit. She and I just jogged around and ran together and did a couple local road races and thought those were fun.
Then I moved onto Kearney and walked onto their [the University of Nebraska-Kearney] cross-country and track programs because I wanted to do something as a team. I really love that team aspect. There I actually accelerated my running. I made it to nationals for cross country as an individual. From there I started seeing I did have a little more potential if I just kept working harder and harder. Then it just kind of spawned to road racing and finally ultras.
iRunFar: At the beginning when you said you were walking a lot and you were the last one to finish, were you totally into it? Some people would say, “I don’t really enjoy it because I’m not good at it.” Did you like running?
Lickteig: No, I didn’t. It took me a long time to warm up to running. “I started something and I’m not going to quit it,” so I just kept going.
iRunFar: Wow, so not only did you keep going through the rest of high school, but you moved on to college and still did it.
Lickteig: Yes, actually once I finished basically that first year of cross country, I started liking it more. Then track was a lot of fun for me. Then, I ended up getting a passion for running. I just wanted continue to do better all the time and see what I could do and how high I could push myself.
iRunFar: That’s really cool that you stuck with it and grew. Not only did you grow as a runner, but you grew in your relationship with the sport.
iRunFar: Some people don’t give running enough time.
Lickteig: Yes. They try for a little while. It’s just something that you can really work on and find out who you are. It’s a good learning experience—running.
iRunFar: Collegiately, you did both cross country and track?
iRunFar: Do you think it was doing more regimented training that brought out the speed? Did you grow into your body and grow some muscles? How did that transition go from surviving running to doing well at running?
Lickteig: Honestly I think it was just basically being committed and dedicated. I’ve always been super short and small so I’ve never really grown into any strength. But just being committed to it and dedicated—once I found out that I was doing a little better, I would even go home and run two more miles after practice just to make sure I was doing as much as I could to get better. It’s a lot of commitment to something you love.
iRunFar: You eventually transitioned from collegiate running to road running. You went to grad school for physical therapy. Did you transition to road running during that time?
Lickteig: I was going to run for Creighton [University], but the schedule was going to be way too much. I wasn’t going to make all the practices and it was going to be way too much of a time commitment. I decided I that I was just going to not focus on running and kind of focus more on my schooling because it was really important at that time. I did train for the local road races and got involved with those. They’re just fun and addicting and I got involved with a local running group there that I started running with, and they always did tons of races. From there I just kind of jumped in with them and continued.
iRunFar: That’s cool. As a road runner, did you start winning stuff or start podium-ing? You came to it from pretty successful college running. Was it a pretty quick transition?
Lickteig: Yeah, it did. My first big one was the Omaha Marathon. It was so much fun. I had such a blast. I got to run with another lady and learn her whole story. She had won it the previous year after her mom had passed away. It was so inspiring. I love that aspect of learning about others. It definitely started me into my running career. It was an easy transition because I loved mileage, so I just started jumping into the longer races. I really enjoyed it.
iRunFar: If you think about it, trail ultrarunning is still a pretty obscure sport. How did you discover it?
Lickteig: The running group that’s here in Omaha, there are a few of them that had run Leadville. When we would run, they’d talk about Leadville, how awful it was and the buckle. I just started picking their brains on it and from there on it’s like, “I want to do something like that.” I just didn’t know when and where. I was kind of scared about it. Obviously I got talked into it just like cross country. It’s easy to talk me into things.
iRunFar: So you just did it? You just decided to do it?
Lickteig: Yes. I was like, “Let’s do it.” It was a cold, hard race. “First 50k? Why not? I’m going with a group of friends. Let’s just have fun with it.”
iRunFar: You not only had fun with it, you won it. Were you surprised? Was it hard?
Lickteig: It was hard. I didn’t know what I was doing. That was my really big… I’d only run a five-mile trail run before that. That’s all I had experienced on trails. So when I went into it, I had no idea what I was doing. “Okay, I’m going to run by feel and make sure I’m going to complete this.” I had the time of my life. That’s what really drove me into the passion of trails.
iRunFar: It sounds like a lot of running and trail running for you is people. I hear you talk a lot about people.
Lickteig: Yes, I just love the fact that trail running is such a selfless sport. Everyone is really out there for each other. It’s so awesome. I love that aspect of it.
iRunFar: You have a local community backing you. When you started coming on my radar, for instance, you had a lot of people who were already cheering for you. It was like you had your own little nation behind you.
Lickteig: I have the greatest group of people here.
iRunFar: They are very vociferous in sharing their love about you, your friends and your cheerleaders out there.
Lickteig: I’m very blessed, I really am, to have such great friends. It’s been amazing.
RunFar: I watch your running on Strava. You have a very faithful running companion. You have someone that seems to run with you on tons of your runs, and that’s in addition to your dogs.
Lickteig: Yes, one guy, Miguel [Ordorica], he’s my training partner. He’s been so great to be able to be flexible and run with me all the time.
iRunFar: Tell me about him. You must have similar lifestyles and schedules. Your paces must be pretty close. How did this companionship come about?
Lickteig: It was really random. It was a little over a year and a half ago. We have these Taco Tuesday Trail Runs [with my running group]. Everybody meets at this park [Tranquility Park] and we just run trails. I ran into him and he had one of the Psycho Summer shirts on. I was picking his brain about it. He had just finished running Sawtooth 100. I was like, “Oh my gosh, this guy has run 100 miles. I’ve got to talk to him. This is incredible.”
Since then, we started meeting up on those Tuesdays and still running. Finally we figured out that our schedules were almost identical, so we could get off and run together. Ever since then, we’ve done almost all of our races together and trained together. It’s been wonderful for both of us to do better and have that accountability.
iRunFar: The accountability has to be huge. You’re a pretty high-mileage runner. There have to be days when you’re feeling worn out until you get going.
Lickteig: Yes, and on really cold winter days, it’s so nice being able to run with somebody and complain about the cold together.
iRunFar: I suppose he’s going to be a part of your support crew at Western States?
Lickteig: Yes, he’s going to be my pacer for the last 38 miles. We’ll probably be singing some random songs.
iRunFar: You both must know the best of each other and the worst of each other by now.
Lickteig: Yes. We can pretty much say whatever to each other and nobody takes it personally.
iRunFar: You mentioned you went running with your mom when she took up running as a hobby when she quit smoking. Does she still run? Does anyone else in your family run?
Lickteig: She’s the only one in my family that runs. She will actually be toeing the line at Black Hills to run the 50 miler soon.
iRunFar: Oh, no way!
Lickteig: Yes, I’m so excited for her. She’s ready to see what she can do.
iRunFar: Did you turn her into an ultrarunner or did she find it herself?
Lickteig: I talked her into it. I started her off. She started with marathons. Then I was like, “Oh, come do a 50k with me. Come on!” She’s game for it. Since then she’s made it to 50 miles. She’s done one other 50 mile. So far she loves them.
iRunFar: What is your family structure like? Do you have siblings?
Lickteig: I have two half sisters and they’re both older than me. One is 14 years older, and she lives in Australia. My other one is seven years older and she lives back in my hometown in Dannebrog, Nebraska. We weren’t really close at all. I pretty much grew up with my grandparents. I was kind of like a single child.
iRunFar: Families and ultrarunning—either families get it or they don’t get it. Has your family figured it out yet?
Lickteig: My grandparents are trying to understand it. They just don’t understand why I keep going farther and farther. “Why can’t you just be happy with a half marathon?” I had to hide that I ran the Black Hills 100 last year from her. Somehow she ended up finding out. She was not happy. “You’re running 100 miles? You’re going to kill yourself.” She understood after I told her I did really good; I was fine; I was healthy; I was walking. I’m like, “I’m not dead, Grandma.” Then she understood. She’s trying to understand. It’s tough for that generation, I think, to really grasp that people can do that and have fun.
iRunFar: And have fun, right. Do you think you’ll ever have her out to one of your races to see firsthand?
Lickteig: She’s actually been out to… I think the biggest one is maybe a half marathon. I don’t want her to be out there for very long because she is a worrywart. I think she would just be fretting the whole time, and then I’d be worried about her fretting about me.
iRunFar: I want to ask you about your dogs. Your dogs show up on your social media quite a bit. Who are they?
Lickteig: They are my babies. I have three of them. I have Jaida, Mia, and Molly.
iRunFar: How did they come into your life?
Lickteig: Molly is my oldest. She just turned 14. I’ve had her ever since I was in high school. I’ve had her since then, so she’s grown up with me. She’s a Brittany Spaniel mix. The other two are rescues that I just adopted a little over 2.5 years ago.
iRunFar: Are they siblings or were they there together?
Lickteig: No, they’re not related at all. I got one in May and then the other one in September. One’s a Greyhound-Vizsla [Jaida] and Mia is the Border Collie-Aussie mix.
iRunFar: So, a full-time job, high-mileage training, and three dogs—is that basically life?
Lickteig: That is life.
iRunFar: Dog people know that choosing dogs is a lifestyle, especially when you have three of them. What inspired you to in part center your life around these canine creatures?
Lickteig: I love dogs. I’ve grown up with them. I live alone, so I want company. Cats just don’t do it for me. I want something that’s going to be active and something that I can spend some time with outdoors. I’ve always wanted dogs. Finally, I got my own home so that I can adopt them and have them here. So that’s how I found my duty.
iRunFar: Some people joke about ‘cat ladies.’ You’re the ‘dog lady.’
iRunFar: Do they get to run with you? How often do they get out?
Lickteig: When it’s cooler, especially like this fall and winter, they would go out and do 20 miles—not Molly, but the other two. They can do up to 20. They can do back-to-back-to-back days. They do great. This summer, they have to be in the cool. It has to be at least under about 75 or so until I take them out. They love it. Usually 10 miles is their sweet spot. Mia will go forever. I can’t tire her out.
iRunFar: You’re becoming known for your high-mileage training. A lot of women can’t sustain for long periods the miles you do. The mileage you have sustained for years is more typical for a dude. You must be durable.
Lickteig: Yes, I haven’t had any injuries that are running-related. I’ve had maybe a strain here and there after races or something like that but nothing that is actually running-related taking me out.
iRunFar: Does it help that you are a physical therapist and that you know all the preventative stuff or are you just literally really durable?
Lickteig: I think it’s a combination. I really am intuitive with my body. Then knowing the background of it I can tell, Is this something I could run through or is this something I need to cross train or rest? So I really pick up on anything that could be potentially detrimental.
iRunFar: How did you come to be a high-mileage runner?
Lickteig: I really love running. I just love being out there. So I would find myself increasing my daily miles and before I knew it, I was running consistently 100-mile weeks. I wasn’t breaking down. I was feeling good. That’s where I’m happiest where I’m just running as much as I can and keeping healthy while doing it.
iRunFar: Awhile ago you started working with Jason Koop as your coach. When did that come about?
Lickteig: It started after I finished the Rocky Raccoon 100 in February.
iRunFar: Did you decide, Okay, I’m actually really good at this, but I want a little more help? How did you decide to get a coach?
Lickteig: It was through Pearl Izumi. Scott Jaime contacted me and said, “Hey, look into Jason Koop. He’s been training Dylan Bowman and Dakota Jones, and he would be somebody I think you would mesh with really well.” So that led me to getting a hold of him. I really like his philosophy. He’s one of those coaches that really practices what he preaches. He’s somebody I can look up to also as inspiration.
iRunFar: What coaching philosophy of his aligns well with your perspective? Why did you choose him?
Lickteig: Basically his background and seeing what he’s done for others. His coaching clients have done phenomenally with him. He’s very personable. He’s an easy, laidback person and very flexible with scheduling. It’s been really great for me. His personality really meshes with mine.
iRunFar: How has your training changed in the time you’ve been working with him?
Lickteig: A lot more structured workouts. I was just basically running whatever I felt whenever. He structured it more so that I was doing key things and give me the reasoning behind it. I am doing more tempo and some lactic-threshold things and cutting my easy days shorter than I usually would. That was an adjustment. It’s been great.
iRunFar: Can you share an example of one of your peak weeks of training for Western States—what it looked like in terms of your daily mileage, maybe describe a workout you did, how you managed to get some vertical in there?
Lickteig: Oh boy, let’s see. Basically I’ll do something really light on a Monday just to recover from the weekend. Then I’ve had maybe two back-to-back days of trying to find the biggest hill in Omaha and then run up and down it for… warm up and then run up and down it 45 minutes as hard as I can (marathon effort) and then finish out a run for 2.5 hours to complete that one. Backing it up the next day with a two-hour run and the same essential type of a workout of maybe 2×30 minutes of hard hills and then finishing out the run. Backing it up with 10 miles until the weekend. There was one weekend where I did five hours and the next day I did three hours, back-to-back long runs. Kind of structured on high miles but yet getting some intensity in also.
iRunFar: When you started working with him, did he back off your mileage just a little bit to add in the intensity or were you able to handle both mileage and that structure?
Lickteig: It really didn’t change too much. I maybe dropped down into the 90 miles/week for awhile just until I transitioned. Then I just got back up into the 100’s without anything problematic.
iRunFar: That week that you just described, was that about 125 miles?
Lickteig: That week I got 133 miles.
iRunFar: Was that your highest-mileage week training for States or was there another one?
Lickteig: I think that was the highest if I remember right.
iRunFar: Here I am putting you on the spot. Training for a mountainous race in the hills of Nebraska—what is the biggest hill in Omaha?
Lickteig: Well, there’s a few. There’s one that is 0.7 miles long I always go to because it’s nearby my home, so I can run to it. That’s the one I’ve been using. I call it the ‘Pacific Hill.’ I just run up and down that sucker for awhile. It does a pretty good job.
iRunFar: Is it a road or a trail?
Lickteig: It’s a sidewalk.
iRunFar: Are you running past houses or businesses? Paint a picture of Pacific Hill for us.
Lickteig: Alright, when you come up to it, you cross a couple stoplights. I always start at the end of a stoplight so I don’t have to go across. Then it’s basically wide open, a wide path because there’s a school up on top of the hill (Millard North). On the right is basically corn fields the whole way up. The other side is the street. It’s completely wide open. You just go all the way to the top. It’s 144th Street that you’ll hit. Then you turn back down and dive on down. It does the job. I’ve even seen bikers walk up it and I’ve been like, “Yes! This is a hard hill!”
iRunFar: That’s fantastic. Do you know how much climb is in that 0.7 miles?
Lickteig: I think it’s probably around 100 or 150 feet or so. It’s not huge, but it gets the job done.
iRunFar: You run up and down it over and over? You accumulate a fair bit of vertical by the end?
iRunFar: When we interviewed you before Lake Sonoma, you cited the hills as your biggest challenge there. Did you change your training at all after that to try to work on what challenged you? How are you addressing that?
Lickteig: Yes. I went from doing phases of more lactic threshold to more hill training for the final phase of training for Western States. Basically I was out on hills probably 70% of the time I was training just trying to find as much vertical in Omaha as I could.
iRunFar: Do the people who live near Pacific Hill or take their kids to school at Millard North, do you recognize people? Are they waving at you as you’re driving by?
Lickteig: It’s more the cars that will honk and I’ll see stickers of my friends from GOATs [Greater Omaha Area TrailrunnerZ], it’s the running group that’s here, and the Endorphins group. I’ll hear them honk and wave. It makes me laugh. It’s like, “Oh gosh, they’re just watching me go up and down this hill.”
iRunFar: They’re probably thinking to themselves, Man, she’s so dedicated to do this hill over and over again.
iRunFar: Western States is, in my understanding of your ultrarunning background, going to be your most competitive ultra to date. Lake Sonoma was pretty darn thick with fast women, but I think Western States is going to be more competitive. It’s really difficult to race other people in a 100 miler. You kind of have to race yourself. What’s your mental approach going into this race?
Lickteig: For me, it’s just going out and doing the best I can for my ability. I will be happy with whatever happens. I’m really just going to be my own competitor. I want to push myself beyond limits that I don’t think I can. If I end up being 5oth, I’m 5oth. It is what it is. I’m really just going to focus on my race and making sure I’m doing the best of my ability. These women are amazing. I’m just so fortunate to toe the line with them. It’s so cool. It’s like a big ultra party.
iRunFar: It will be. How are you literally going to tell yourself to race your own race when it’s this really wild starting line and the shotgun goes off and you blast up this hill into the dark? How are you going to control yourself and race your own race from the start?
Lickteig: I’m actually really good about going into myself. I really check my breathing and my heart. If I can feel my heart in my chest pounding, I’m going to be like, Oh my gosh, I’m not running my race. I’m really intuitive with my breathing and how I’m feeling and if my legs are starting to feel like I’m really pushing it too hard to tone down. If I’m at the back of the pack at the beginning, that’s how my race is going to play out. I’m really good about making sure I don’t run somebody else’s race.
iRunFar: That’s a definite check in the road-to-success column. At these really excitable events, it’s really easy to become equally excited.
Lickteig: Right. For me, knowing that the first part of that course is mountainous and that’s not my strongest point, if I want to get to that sweet singletrack where I will be in heaven, I want to make sure I feel good for that part. So as long as I can do a bit of control until I get there, I’m going to be happy.
iRunFar: This will be your third 100, correct?
iRunFar: I think both of your previous 100’s went pretty well. You had a good result. For example, I think Rocky Raccoon was one of the fastest times in the very long history of the race (post-race interview). It went well. It probably wasn’t 100% flawless from your perspective. Are there takeaways, things that you’ve learned, This is one thing that I really need to focus on, or this is my weakness in 100 miles?
Lickteig: Probably just being smarter on the hydration. My first 100, I’d never carried bottles before like the small little water bottle. I remember going to the little turnaround point which was at the 50-mile mark. There’s seven miles to it. Within the first two miles, I lost all my water. It spilled out. I will never just have one measly little water bottle. I really practice on making myself aware—Yes, you’ve got to keep hydrated. Other things? I’ve really found that when you have bad patches, just push through it because in another five to 10 minutes it’s going to change. Just learning that aspect of it.
iRunFar: What do you use as your motivation to get through those bad patches? Some people call upon stuff from their past or mantras or things like that. What’s your way of coping?
Lickteig: A lot of times I’ll just think, I’ve had bad patches in other races before so you have a goal in mind and my goal is always to get to the end. I’ll get there one way or the other. The only way to get there is to run faster or give it up. Also, if I have bad patches, I will pray and talk to God and just have Him give me the strength and the will to get through. All my friends that are backing me up, just thinking about them and how much support I have—that really fires me up to push those demons out of my head.
iRunFar: There are a couple demons on the Western States course. There’s some decent altitude in the beginning; there are gnarly canyons with big descents and climbs out of them; there’s heat. Have you been visualizing or coming up with a strategy on how you’re going to deal with the course’s greatest challenges?
Lickteig: I guess basically just visualization of just powering through. I can only do as much as I can. I can only train as best as I can here. Just knowing I can get through things I don’t think I can is what’s really helping me.
iRunFar: Have you created a set of goals for yourself like Plan A, Plan B, Plan C? Is it just go out there and see what happens?
Lickteig: Yes, I have goals. I want to make goals that are realistic for me. I don’t like failure, so I will make my goals really lenient.
iRunFar: “My goal is to wake up on race morning. Yes!” So what’s your C goal—the easiest goal to achieve? Being happy? Finishing?
Lickteig: Definitely finishing. That’s the number-one goal for me—always finish what I start. Finish being smart. If something happens and I’m not being smart about it, then not to push through where I’m going to be out for who knows how long. Just being smart about the race and not getting overzealous. Just being within myself and knowing that I am doing the best I can.
iRunFar: Looking at your Facebook page, I think you got a neat send-off from your trail running group?
Lickteig: Yes, it was amazing. They tricked me. My training partner was like, “Oh, let’s go walk the dogs at Taco Tuesday.” I was like, “We’re going to drive all the way over there just to walk the dogs?” He was like, “Oh, come on!” Finally I was like, “Alright, sure.”
So we get over there and we walk the dogs and then one of my real good friends, Ron, he actually got picked in the lottery to run Western States, he was like, “Oh, come over to where we have the tacos. I’ve got to show you something.” It’s a funny story that he got picked because he had made a bet with someone that he didn’t think he was going to get in. So he said, “Okay, if I get in, I’ll wear a tutu with skulls on it for the race.” Low and behold, he got chosen. So now he has to hold to it and he has to wear a tutu. They were going to surprise him and give it to him last night. That’s how he tricked me into going over there for that.
So I went over there and he had made a poster. He had contacted all my friends, family, relatives, everybody. He had gotten a hold of them and they had all made signs and given him pictures of the signs and he had put them into a collage and gave it to me last night. It was the most amazing thing and the most thoughtful thing I’d ever received. It was so incredible. Like I said, I’m so blessed with amazing friends.
iRunFar: This is like a big poster?
Lickteig: Yes, it’s huge. He framed it. It’s going to go up into the living room so I can see it daily.
iRunFar: I guess it’s too big to come to States with you?
Lickteig: Yes, it’s huge. It’s half my size.
iRunFar: Maybe you can bring a picture of the collage?
iRunFar: The Western States course is a pretty special course. Have you spent time in that part of California before? What are some things that you’re really fired up about getting to experience out there?
Lickteig: I am really excited for getting to the singletrack. Otherwise, I want to see how I can do in the altitude, in the mountains, and the high country. I think for me it’s something new. I’ve never done an ultra in the mountains. It’s definitely going to be a learning experience. I’ll just do what I can do and hope for the best.
iRunFar: You have a pretty solid history of perseverance. You started high school and you said you kind of sucked a little bit, but you persevered and then you were good. It seems like you have one of the key personality traits for ultrarunning success.
Lickteig: My grandma always tells me, “You’re just driven. You’re going to do whatever until you finish.” I’ve always been dubbed as a driven person.
iRunFar: Do you think she means stubborn?
Lickteig: That, too. She always calls me a stubborn German.
iRunFar: A stubborn German! [laughs]. One last question, how did the last name ‘Pixie Ninja’ come about?
Lickteig: Oh my gosh. It actually started as ‘Ninja.’ One day I was running and it was really windy. I had this zipped up really tight jacket on and black tights. One of my friends came running toward me and said, “You look like a ninja!” Then my training partner was like, “You’re like a pixie because you just kind of dance around on the trail.” So they combined them. I’m now known as the ‘Pixie Ninja.’
iRunFar: You need some t-shirts for your crew that say that.
iRunFar: Everybody has come to know you by your nickname. Even strangers, too, because of social media. “There’s the Pixie Ninja!”Best of luck to you at States. I will look forward to seeing your ninja moves.
Lickteig: Thank you very much.