Twenty-one miles into the Lake Sonoma Trail Marathon, Jenn Lichter stared up at the sustained climb ahead of her, her glute muscles burning.
Lichter, 25, lives and trains in Whitefish and was making her debut as a professional trail runner for The North Face and had spent much of the last two hours alone on the California trail after she eased off the pace set by the elite men at the start.
“A lot of people talked about that specific section,” Lichter said about the final five miles of the course. “After that point it was like two miles of nonstop uphill, a few downs and then just small little hills to the finish.”
She crossed the line in 3:33:42, nearly 20 minutes ahead of the second-place woman, and just 15 minutes behind the men’s winner.
“I hadn’t really been doing very much vert in my runs, basically just the 10 days leading up to the race since some trails were finally clear,” Lichter said. “I’m torn because I want to know what I could do with my fitness on a flat marathon, but also I want to know where I’ll be once I start running more hills.”
If her recent results are any indication, Lichter will be toward the front of any race she lines up for — since last summer she’s been on a veritable tear across a range of distances and surfaces.
In September, she won the Rut 50k, a grueling trail race at Big Sky Resort that sends runners up and down 10,500 feet of scree-filled climbs including over the top of Lone Peak. In her first attempt at the distance, Lichter finished in 6 hours, 14 minutes, just 59 seconds off the course record.
“I didn’t know of Jenn prior to the event, but I kept getting reports from aid stations that she was crushing it,” said Mike Foote, race director for the Rut and a North Face athlete himself. “Some of the best female ultrarunners in the world have run that race over the last few years, so for her to be that close to the course record is saying a lot.”
In October, Lichter ran another trail race, the 4.7-mile Montana Cup in Butte, and won by holding off Missoula’s Erin Clark, an All-American collegiate runner while at the University of Colorado who now runs professionally on the trails.
A little over a month later, Lichter raced again, this time on the roads. She made her marathon debut at the California International Marathon in Sacramento, finishing in 2:39:09, just two minutes off the qualifying mark for the 2024 Olympic Trials (the 2020 qualifying time was 2:45).
Following her dynamic year, The North Face reached out to Lichter, and by the end of the year she had a professional contract in hand and a new wardrobe from the feet up.
“I feel more excited and more motivated for my running this year,” Lichter said. “But I’m also more in tune with the idea that I have to take it a little more seriously. There’s a little pressure that comes with being sponsored, but I know that for me as long as I keep it fun I don’t think it’ll feel like pressure.”
Lichter was born in Colombia and came to Whitefish by way of Wisconsin, where she grew up, and Ohio, where she went to college and competed on the track for the University of Toledo.
She moved to Montana by accident. She had intended to pursue a career in art therapy in Portland when a detour on her drive west brought her to Glacier. National Park.
“My mom and I were road tripping and stopping at all the national parks,” Lichter said. “We stayed in Kalispell for two extra days because I loved it so much but we had to get to Portland so my mom could fly home.”
It took less than a week of city life before Lichter drove back to the Flathead Valley and made the mountains her permanent home.
“It was this place where I didn’t feel like I had to try, I just fit in,” Lichter said.
Lichter began working as a hiking guide in Glacier during the summer, spending each day taking visitors along the park’s most popular trails and then returning in the evenings to cover the same ground at a much quicker pace.
She attributes her affinity for the mountains to the nine years she lived in Bogota, one of the highest capital cities in the world at 8,661 feet, which may be why she doesn’t feel affected by altitude when hiking or running.
“My dad says I have a strong heart because of that and tells me it’s my gift,” Lichter said. “I was made for the mountains.”
For more than a year after her move Lichter enjoyed swiftly moving through the mountains without a regimented training schedule or the pressures she had as a collegiate athlete, but after winning a local trail race, she felt an itch to return to the competitive side of the sport.
“Something in that lit this fire in me that I wasn’t done running,” Lichter said.
“I’d thought about quitting running but I realized there was so much competitiveness left in me.”
She began working with a new coach and put down some goals — run a marathon, run The Rut, run across the Grand Canyon— and achieved them. Now as a budding professional her goals are getting loftier and farther reaching. She wants to be competitive on the international level, whether that’s in a 50k or 100 miles, or any other distance that that plays to her strengths. As a dual citizen, there’s also the possibility of competing as a member of the Colombian national team at an event like the World Mountain Running Championships.
“That’s why I’m so excited, I feel like I’m slowly unlocking the potential that I always knew I had,” Lichter said. “The big goal though is I just want to stay happy with the sport, and if I find balance, train well and race well I think I can do that. I can keep the stoke high.”
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