The moments when top runners “break the tape” at the world’s largest trail races are often the media’s primary focus, yet these moments are not where the magic really happens. Any race champion will agree, the real magic happens behind the scenes in an athlete’s daily trading grind. The day-to-day moments in life that fuel these athletes’ passions to chase their dreams is what leads them to “break the tape.” Real champions are not just winners who cross the finish line first, but those who succeed in chasing their passions day after day, despite the circumstances, and stay true to their values and lifestyle that promotes the best version of themselves.
The following interview doesn’t begin with the story of a post race victory recap (though my interviewee is no stranger to standing on the podium at some of the world’s largest stages in trail running), but instead tells the story of a real champion whose recent battle with injury fuels her fire to train and dream bigger than ever. Kaci Lickteig, 2014 and 2016 Javelina Hundred champion, 2019 Black Canyon 100K champion and 2016 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run champion, shares her experience with a recent hamstring surgery this past December 2021 that has prevented her from running. Lickteig speaks on her struggle to come to terms with being injured, tips for injured athletes to stay motivated, and overall what she’s learned from this tough experience.
[TAYTE] In the summer of 2021 you finished the Western States 100 (10th place), High Lonesome 100 (2nd place) and the Rio Del Lago 100 (5th place), yet you knew this whole time you were injured. What kept you running in spite of the constant pain and cues from your body telling you to stop?
[KACI LICKTEIG] What kept me running during my pain/injury was my passion and desire to keep doing what I loved. Also, I wasn’t sure exactly what my injury was. I could still run through it, although not without a limp, pain with every stride, and not at my typical pace. I was stubborn and didn’t get my injury diagnosed until after my racing season was over. I didn’t want to miss out on any of the races I had signed up for. I kept running until I literally couldn’t.
[TAYTE] During this summer when you ran with these injuries you wrote about your running “My love and passion was becoming my worst enemy.” Could you talk about how your relationship with running changed during this time?
[KACI] My passion for running became my worst enemy. What had always brought me happiness, joy, and stress relief was now causing me to be stressed and depressed. I would go out for a run hoping to find that joy in the flow, the rhythm, and the release of endorphins. I found only pain and agony. I kept fighting it because running is my love and stress relief, even when it hurts.
It finally came to halt when I was running my last race, the Rio Del Lago 100 mile. I struggled in the final weeks leading up to Rio del Lago, but ultimately wanted to at least make it to the finish line. I had never gone into a race so scared in my life. I ultimately didn’t know if my body (leg) was going to allow me to finish the race. I have never been in this situation where I wasn’t confident with my body going into a race. I was holding on to hope, intuition of listening to my body, and faith. I started the race and was running very conservative hoping my hamstring wouldn’t give out. I was moving along well, as well as you can expect with a bum leg. Then, I ran into a tree stump and felt a deep internal pain in my hamstring where I had been hurting for months. I continued to run, worried even more as it caused my leg to hurt even more. As I went along the trail my hamstring started to feel like someone was cutting the strings of a guitar. More and more strands of my hamstring started pulling off my ischium (butt bone) and was causing undo pain to the point where I ended up having to walk the last 20 miles of the race to finish. That was the final straw that broke the camel’s back so to speak. That was when I decided it was time to get a true diagnosis.
[TAYTE] Ultramarathon trail runners, like yourself, are arguably the toughest kinds of runners. You experience the longest courses with the highest amounts of elevation gain, as well as endure extreme levels of sleep deprivation, muscle soreness, and calorie depletion in ways that few other types of runners understand. The ability to push through pain is definitely a strength of many ultramarathon runners, but this attitude also brings risks. What has this injury taught you about the balance of being smart and being tough? How do you view these concepts differently than you did before?
[KACI] This injury made me take a step back and reflect on my situation. I had actually first injured my leg back in the early part of 2021. I thought my injury was “back” related due to the nerve pain I was experiencing and that I didn’t seem to have any muscle bruising or weakness. The MRI came back clear for my spine so I decided that I was just going to deal with the pain since I could still run. I chalked it up as some form of minor piriformis syndrome. I continued to run through the pain until one run I ended up getting stranded on the coldest day of the year on a trail, miles from my destination. The pain had gotten so severe that I couldn’t run anymore. I took several weeks off and crossed trained, did physical therapy, and tried everything I could think of to rehab my leg. I knew I needed to start training for the upcoming Western States 100, so I decided to start running again. I tested myself on a treadmill and found that if I put the incline up I could run. I found ways to tolerate the pain by using KT-tape, heel cups, ibuprofen, etc. In hindsight, I should have found out what my injury was after taking that much time off and still having pain. My best advice after going through this is that if you have a lingering injury get a proper diagnosis so you can have a plan to get it healed. It’s not necessarily fun, but you’re only going to hurt yourself in the long run (pun intended).
[TAYTE] Trail races are incredible tests of strength and courage, yet it takes just as much (or maybe even more) courage to come back from injury. How has your surgery tested your courage and what has it taught you about your own strengths?
[KACI] This surgery has tested me harder than any injury I’ve ever had. With other injuries, I’ve been able to find ways to cross-train, move without assistance, and do normal daily tasks. This surgery took away almost all of my independence, thus relying on others for everything. I needed help with things like getting dressed, driving me to appointments, getting groceries, house cleaning and simple tasks we take for granted. I have to be on crutches for 6-weeks, partial weight bearing, and keep my foot flat when “walking”. The incision is right under my glute which makes me unable to sit normally. I also can’t bend forward without making sure my leg is extended behind me. It’s been quite the learning curve. This has truly been harder and tougher than any ultramarathon I have ever done.
[TAYTE] What do you miss most about running?
[KACI] What I miss most about running is the feeling of freedom and enjoyment of exploring the world by foot. I miss being outside, getting fresh air, feeling the breeze on my skin, and being one with nature. I miss the endorphins, adrenaline, and pure happiness released from running. I miss the rhythm my body has uniting with the earth. I am counting down the days until I can run again. The day I will be able to run a loop around Lake Zorinsky and to run on the Wabash Trail. Beyond that my heart is focused on getting back on the Western States Trail and seeing my “family” there. That community and trail has a way of healing both my body and mind.
[TAYTE] As a passionate runner myself, I believe nothing can replace the feeling of running. However, when faced with times when I’m unable to run, I’ve discovered new activities that I’ve enjoyed in different ways and also become very passionate about. Have you made any such discoveries?
[KACI] So far in my recovery, I have been very limited on my activity. The key to this surgery is to rest the newly repaired hamstring and not have it contract. I have made friends with the arm bike and just recently started swimming using a pull buoy so my legs stay still. These are two activities I have never done before this surgery. They have tested my will power and exposed my weaknesses. Upper body strength is not one of my strong suits! Otherwise, I have found other non-exercise activities to enjoy. Those include reading books, coloring, putting puzzles together, playing board games, and spending time with family and friends.
[TAYTE] What is something you’ve become skillful at during this process that you never could have imagined?
[KACI] Something I have become skillful at during this process that I never could have imagined is skillfully maneuvering on crutches in ways I never thought possible. I have learned how to be efficient using them for helping me not only move, but also for picking things up, and helping me get my pants on. I have found that grabbers can be used for so many different things. I’ve learned to use the grabber to “mop” my floor, pick up my dog’s dishes to feed them, and to use a sock and pant aids. These devices are amazing and I recommend them for everyone! Haha!
[TAYTE] You have made it your goal to be on the start line at UTMB-CCC and the Western States 100. Why is it important to you to set race goals when you’re injured? How do you feel goal-setting changes your perspective on your current injury?
[KACI] I am a goal oriented person. I have to have a goal and purpose to focus on in life. It drives me to do my best and to make sure I stay focused. Having Western States and CCC as goals to focus on will keep me dedicated to my recovery and return to running. It will keep me diligent about not having any set-backs. Without those goals, I would feel lost and hopeless. Now, I feel empowered to do my best to be at my best for both of those races.
[TAYTE] Many runners tend to stay quiet when they get injured. It can be daunting to talk about such a difficult topic as injury, yet you have been open in sharing your injury process on social media. Could you explain your decision to be open about your injury?
[KACI] I felt like it was important to open up and share my injury, surgery, and long road to recovery with others because I hope to help others in similar situations. I want others to know that we are all human and we will get through tough times and injury. I also feel like sharing this time in my life stays true to who I am. I believe in being authentic, exposing those vulnerable times, and sharing my struggles and triumphs in life. I want to share the light that comes at the end of the tunnel. I want to talk about my injury/surgery to share my feelings and emotions because it has healing power. Otherwise, if we keep our emotions bottled up it can lead to toxicity that isn’t healthy.
[TAYTE] Similar to training, coming back from injuries is all about small incremental gains. There is no one magic “workout” or magic rehab exercise that can outdo the gains of consistent practice. How has this injury process changed your perspective on the importance of doing “all the little things?”
[KACI] This injury has opened up my eyes to all the things I have neglected to do in the past. There is no excuse as to why I haven’t kept up on the little things. I should have continued a strength program, cross training, and stretching routine. Instead, I let myself get lazy and let those go. I will be incorporating those into my life again. I also will be more aware of getting adequate rest and focusing on a healthier diet.
[TAYTE] Many elite runners have talked about the importance of having a team or people in their corner. This team helps these athletes in recovery, race crewing, nutrition advice, workout pacing, strength training, mental training, and overall gives the athlete the confidence and support they need to run at their best. Do you have a “team?” If so, what has been their role during this injury process?
[KACI] It is so important to have a team in life. Injury and recovery included. We all need extra support when we are in a time of struggle, injury, and loss in life. It is in times like these when we find out who our biggest supporters are. These are the people who stand beside you through the good times and bad times. My team is larger than I would have ever imagined. My team consists of my faith in God, my family and friends, my coach, and my fans near and far. My sponsors who stand beside me even when I am not performing at my best deserve mention: HOKA ONE ONE, Drymax Socks, Squirrels Nut Butter, Leki, CTS, Sprints Hats, Honey Stinger, and InsideTracker.
I am extremely grateful. I never realized how many people care about me, Kaci, and not just the runner Kaci. It has filled my heart full and helps me during bad days. I have found strength from others and their messages. I am so blessed to have such a huge team behind me and it makes me so excited to work hard during this recovery phase to get back out there and do what I love again.