Jennifer Lichter, a 26-year-old trail runner from Whitefish, set off for an easy shake out run in Mammoth Lakes, California in mid-June, getting her legs ready for a big weekend. “It’s race week baby!” she yelled at the camera in a video posted to social media.
The professional runner for The North Face had spent her last month living in the popular ski town to take advantage of training at high altitude while preparing for what she expected to be her biggest race of the year — the Broken Arrow Skyrace 52K.
Broken Arrow is a weekend-long trail running festival that takes place at the Olympic Valley west of Lake Tahoe. The races include a Vertical Kilometer (VK), an 11K, a 26K and a 52K.
The long course involves two 14-mile loops around the Palisades Tahoe ski resort, taking racers up to the summits of Olympic Valley Peak and KT-22 for more than 10,000 feet of vertical gain.
After the last run in Mammoth, Lichter and her partner packed up their Honda Element, which had been converted into a camper for the trip, and drove north to Lake Tahoe.
Lichter was excited to get into a competitive field and push herself over a distance she’d only raced once before. Last August she made her debut at the 50k distance by winning the Rut Mountain Runs in Big Sky, nearly breaking the course record in the process.
Since then, she has been undefeated on the trails, winning races in Butte and California while also posting speedy times in road races ranging from seven miles up to the marathon.
Broken Arrow was to be her toughest test on the trails yet, with a field composed of the top elite trail racers in the country, and a spot on the Team USA roster for the World Mountain & Trail Running Championships, an inaugural event held in Chiang Mai, Thailand in November, on the line for the winner.
On race day, Lichter’s Idaho-based coach Kameron Ulmer was watching live updates on his phone each time she passed through an aid station.
“She’s going out so fast!” he said in a phone call as she rolled through the five- and eight-mile check points well. “She’s just ripping through the course, it’s insane!”
At the halfway point of the race, however, Lichter didn’t appear to be pushing herself to her limit. She was all smiles as she called out to her partner, Nick Cornell, asking how close behind her the next woman was.
“You’re good!” he responded as he handed her a new hydration vest with full water bottles to take on her second loop.
Lichter’s happy demeanor belied a “grumpy hamstring” she was dealing with, trying to keep the muscle from cramping on her during the steep descents, but it wasn’t enough of an issue to slow her down. At the end of the first loop, she was 11 minutes ahead of the second-place woman, someone she had lost sight of after the first mile.
“I was so amped up to race I didn’t want to hold back so I just went for it,” Lichter said. “On the second lap I went into it feeling a lot more relaxed, knowing I didn’t have to dig myself into a hole to keep the lead.”
For the second time Lichter drove herself up to the tallest peak of the course before meandering along the ridgeline and beginning the descent back to the ski village.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned this weekend it’s that I’m really good at uphills,” Lichter said after the race. “But I need to work on downhill legs. They’re just too short to cover ground fast!”
Despite a lead that diminished slightly over the final downhill miles, Lichter cross the finish line a comfortable nine minutes ahead of second place, and well under the course record for the race.
“This was the race where I finally felt fit, but I don’t know if I used the full fitness,” Lichter said. “I think back to pre-2021 when I was not having fun running and wasn’t being competitive. Now I’m doing nothing but having fun and competing at the top level. It honestly feels like a dream.”
Having earned a spot to compete at the World Championships, the trail runner rearranged her goals for the year and will next be racing another 50-kilometer mountain race, the Speedgoat Mountain Race in Utah, in July. Then it’ll be back to the Rut to defend her title there and on to Thailand to take on the world’s best as a member of Team USA.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.