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As fashion accessories go, it’s hard to imagine an accoutrement more hard-won or more proudly worn than the chunky bauble that Kaci Lickteig will most likely be able to cinch her jeans with later this month. Barring the unforeseen—and since standing between Lickteig and said bauble is a 100-mile trail footrace through the high country and canyons of the Sierras, the unforeseen is always a distinct possibility—she will leave the Placerville High School track in Auburn, California early the next morning with a silver belt buckle more precious than a jeweled tiara. This bit of wild-west swag will look beyond dandy when added to the heap of buckles Lickteig has already carted home to Omaha, especially as this one will signify that she is a ten-time finisher of the Western States Endurance Run, (WSER) the most famous (and famously difficult to get into) ultramarathon in the world. Only a handful of runners have accomplished the feat over the race’s fifty year history. When whittled to women who have run the race ten times in under 24 hours, the number rests at six. If we count the women who have broken 24 hours ten years in a row, the number is two. If all goes as planned, Lickteig is about to join a very exclusive club.

The two women who have added that particular trophy to their cases are the legendary Ann Trason, who set world records at various ultra distances and won Western States a stunning fourteen times, and Nikki Kimball, who in addition to winning States three times, was champion of the Marathon des Sables multi-day stage race in Morocco. Lickteig, a 38 year-old physical therapist, originally from the tiny town of Dannebrog, Nebraska, would seem an unlikely candidate to join such a crew.

For one thing, there is geography.

No one will hear the word “Nebraska” and immediately picture jagged peaks and soaring vistas. Fields of corn, soybeans, and cattle, interrupted by shallow, muddy rivers lined with Cottonwoods are what will more likely come to mind, (and of course, iconic white football helmets with a red N on the side, but I digress) which is entirely accurate, but anyone who has ever suffered through Brainard, Nebraska’s Bohemian Alps Endurance Run, with its punchy, quad-destroying rollers, knows that using the term “flat” to describe the Nebraska landscape should come with an asterisk. It is these relentless, tiny monsters, and ones like them, that have given Lickteig the quads and lungs to subdue to mighty Sierras.

Spend any time at all with Lickteig, though, and it will become obvious that the secret weapon behind her ultrarunning exploits is not her mighty legs and respiratory system, nor her font of Cornhusker pluck, but rather her seemingly bottomless reservoir of joy.

“I like running 100 miles!” she recalls thinking after winning the Black Hills Ultra in 2013—her first—finishing only five minutes behind the first man, and setting a course record that still stands. Listening to Lickteig describe her running career, one would think it was all dew-dappled romps through the meadows of a unicorn farm, where the rivers run with electrolyte drinks in the best flavors and sports gummies dangle from the trees, which is most definitely not the case, of course, but why dwell on injuries and thirty-mile slogs through blizzards, which are a given, when one can talk about Stacy?

“I was all set to go out for volleyball in high school,” said Lickteig during a recent conversation. “Cross country had never crossed my mind, but my friend Stacy was pretty convincing.”

“I don’t run,” I said.

Stacy said, “We need one more girl to have a complete team.”

“I don’t like running,” I said.

Stacy said, “We’ll never make State.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

Two weeks later the team ran its first meet and Licktieg was on it.

“I was like, okay, I’ll do it, but I never asked for any details. I ended up having to walk in that first race, and I was the last person to finish, but I loved the team, and…I loved running!”

Soon after, Lickteig’s mom started running. They became training partners, even carbo-loaded together for a short local road race, “because that’s what runners do.”

Before long, after a stint in college and grad school with little running, the girl who had to be guilted into going out for cross country, was qualifying for the Olympic Marathon Trials, then winning her first ultra, the Psycho Wyco 50k in Kansas City.

“It was so cold! It was February. I wore three layers of pants, four jackets, two hats…plus I knew nothing about singletrack or trail shoes, but I ended up feeling better and better as the race went on, until the guy I was running with said, ‘You look great, get going.”

Take off she did, winning the women’s division by almost an hour. Lickteig set the current course record at Psycho Wyco in 2017 and holds four of the all-time top seven times on the course. I had to look that up, because Licktieg wanted to talk about the man who encouraged her, not how many times she won the race.

Are you seeing the pattern here?

Licktieg didn’t tell stories of high school glory; she talked about Stacy. She didn’t talk about road race victories; she talked about her mom. And even as the victories got bigger the stories stayed the same: the “really awesome” volunteers at Rocky Raccoon, where she finished second and secured the “Golden Ticket” that got her into her first Western States, how incredibly nice Magda Boulet, the 2015 WSER champion was. (Lickteig finished second.)

Even when talking about the 2016 race, which she won, Lickteig is all about friends and family, sponsors and race officials and volunteers. It’s not that she is not proud of her accomplishments, that she’s not a fierce competitor who wants to win. It’s just that she understands she has never gotten to a single finish line alone, and she loves sharing the joy and satisfaction that comes from running long and hard with everybody who has played a part in making it happen.

When asked what her dream race looked like thus time around, other than a quick nod to a top-ten performance and a return trip to WSER in 2025, it was more of the same. “I just want to celebrate the whole journey with my friends and family. I hope to see some of my fellow RAD rabbits. I love seeing them at races: ’Hey, it’s my team!’ What a great thing to be connected to!
“And hey,” she adds, “If you can, tell everyone who might be in Auburn to come down and run that last mile through town, or just run around the track, all of us together, celebrating.”

Maybe she’ll even show you her buckle.

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