Janelle: You're listening to, "Staying In The Game." A Plum Dragon Herbs Podcast where we have conversations about mindset and techniques for staying at the top of your game. I'm your host, Janelle Leatherwood. Well, welcome to our show today. We're so excited to have Nicole Mericle here with us today and she is...
Nicole: Thank you.
Janelle: ...an incredible OCR competitor. And we're going to find out all about the types of competitions that she's had this past year and the races that she's been. We were lucky to grab her in the offseason. Her first big race is in five weeks in Jacksonville. And last year's major accomplishments were placing second in the U.S Spartan Series, second in the Spartan, North American Champs, first in the OCR, North American Champs 15K, second in the OCR, North American Champs 3K and first place in the Spartan World Championships. And then finally, first in the Spartan Trifecta World Championships. Does that about cover it?
Nicole: Yes, sounds about right.
Janelle: That's just for the past year. We're going to post some of your other accomplishments on our blog that we'll have to go with the show notes and stuff. But I was really excited. I know a lot of people have been asking you, "How come you didn't go for that million-dollar Spartan award?" And you have a great explanation. Do you want to let people understand how that worked?
Nicole: Yeah. So in order to race at the 24 hour Spartan Road Championship, every competitor had to qualify by doing a Spartan Ultra Race. And I didn't have any plans to race in Ultra in 2019. And a lot of people questioned after I won the World Championship they thought, "Well, why wouldn't you just add one in, in order to qualify for Sweden for the Ultra Championships?" It was never in my plan. It's not something that at this point in my life I'm really like passionate about doing. I really enjoy short races. And I'll race up to like a half marathon distance or even a little bit longer but it just kind of not where my heart and my passion is. So yeah, the million-dollar challenge, I mean I was like, in some ways the closest to it but it was still a far-fetched, I don't know, goal. And yeah, when it comes down to it really wasn't what I wanted to do. I was happy to go out there and cheer on my boyfriend and my friends. And my friend Rayer, I had this amazing performance where she ran like what was it? The total amount I think was 70 miles for her, which is an insane amount of obstacles and an elevation change because it's a five-mile loop every time you go around, it's like so many thousand feet of elevation gain. So I'm very impressed by it but it's just not something that I wanted to do this year. Yeah.
Janelle: Yeah. Well, I mean, training for an all-day event versus, you know, the shorter events, it's a world of difference, you know. So it's kind of interesting that they combine all those competitions for this grand prize, you know. Do you think you'll go for it this year, or?
Nicole: I don't think so, no. I do have plans to try out my first 50K just in like a normal trail race, so no obstacles. But that's kind of the closest that I would get to pushing into the ultra scene.
Janelle: Yeah. Okay. Well, so what were some of the craziest things that you encountered on your races this year? I mean, you went in Tahoe in the snow, the freezing cold, your hands were probably numb. What were some of the craziest things that happened to you this past season?
Nicole: I would say the craziest race, the most memorable one is definitely Tahoe. It was insane conditions. I was so nervous. I've never been that nervous before a race before just because my body doesn't actually, compared to a lot of other people, it doesn't really perform well in the cold. I mean, that's something that I kind of learned from college racing, cross-country in November. I just kind of never really seemed to warm up like my teammates did. And then even like this year, I raced some earlier season races where the monkey bars were like a little frosty and I would slip off them, which was typically an obstacle that is super easy and kind of like a gimme. So I had some real serious nerves going into Tahoe and I think it made me like go through every single possible thing that could go wrong. It made me triple check my gear and make sure that I was like the most prepared physically in gear-wise than I could be. And I think that, you know, it turned out well but I really had to go through some like challenging mental times even in the fatigue after the race.
Janelle: Wow. Yes. That's crazy. So did your hands freeze up when you were in the race?
Nicole: You know, I had a pretty good amount of layers on, I would say. So I had some like Merino wool types that were windproof and I had like a good base layer and like a raincoat, like full-on, waterproof raincoat on top. And then I had these mittens that they're neoprene so when they get wet, they're so warm and you can take them off and on really easily. So you don't actually have to fully remove them to do obstacles. You can just kinda like pull them, your hands are exposed, you can move through an obstacle and you can put them right back on. So with all of that, I mean, there are definitely challenging times in the race but there was never a moment where my hands like completely froze up and I wasn't able to have like the dexterity that I needed.
Janelle: Yeah. Which did happen with some of the contestants.
Nicole: A lot of people. Yeah. And that was a mixture of, you know, some people didn't have like the best gear and then some people failed obstacles in which you then got wet, potentially more wet than you would have otherwise. Or had to do, one of the obstacles in particular called a pinger, some people fell into at a deeper point in the obstacle, which meant they even like potentially completely submerged themselves. And so, then they got out of that, after failing that obstacle and had to do a penalty loop, which was a barbwire crawl through snow. And so then you're not moving very fast and you're just kind of like getting colder as you're doing this penalty loop. That was pretty critical to avoid. And that was one thing that I went into that obstacle, I... I mean, I'm kind of known for having one of the best grip strengths of my competitors. And so it's definitely advantageous to not feel things, especially when it means like, it's not just like 30 burpees. It's, you know, you're going to get more wet than you would otherwise, and you're going to have to do this like falling snow-filled penalty loop. So, I don't know. So I think there's some reasons that my hands were saved a little bit. And then also I had this really funny strategy for the swim where you had to like fully go into this pond at the top essentially. And you had to swim around and it was a very short... So I mean it was only maybe like two minutes long that you're in the water but it's just the fact that you're getting completely wet. And then having to run down the mountain where again, like you're not going to heat up that much running downhill or at least compared to if you are going to run up Hill.
So what I did was, and some other people did this as well but I had a dry bag with me and I actually took off anything that I could possibly take off. So I was down to just my pants and my sports bra and everything else. Like gloves, you know, top layers, my like running belt that I had and I think I was wearing like a little hat or something too, all of that went into my dry bag. And then I swam with it, and then I spent the next like 10 minutes, like shivering but trying to put my layers on.
Janelle: Oh my goodness. Yeah.
Nicole: That was probably the most miserable part of the race because it was very cold getting out of that water into the exposed air and having no clothes on.
Janelle: Oh my God. Yeah.
Nicole: But at least I was putting like dry layers on and I knew that there wasn't any really grip intensive obstacles in the next like I think it was... I think we had like a mile and a half or two miles at least until we really had to use our hands. So I was afforded enough time to warm up well.
Janelle: Yeah. Oh, gosh. Well, and I was watching a lot of that race. I loved how they recorded it. You were way ahead of people, I mean, especially at the end. Did you know that you were that far ahead?
Nicole: I had no idea. Nobody offered me any information. I think like the rabbit who was filming me and running with me, like he didn't know. And just kind of like how I was positioned in the race, like the viewers couldn't tell either. And so I didn't actually know until like the very end, maybe like the last like gauntlet back in the village that I had a sizable lead and I could kind of relax a little bit. But it's funny because like, yeah, most of the time I was running, not scared but just like expecting to have to like 100% push and expecting that anybody could come around the corner at any second.
Janelle: Wow. Well, I guess maybe in a way it's better not to know because that kept pushing you. Yeah.
Nicole: Oh yeah. Yeah, I think it was good. I was able to race to my potential. And I know a lot of the other women had a really hard day out there and people had like higher failure rates and were hypothermic and had some like injuries that were somewhat atypical. So, it was a hard day.
Janelle: How was Greece in comparison? Was it, guess a lot warmer?
Nicole: Oh yeah. Greece was lovely. It was first of all, shorts weather for all three races. It's fun to be in Sparta. It has like, you know, the history and the town is really excited to have us there. There's a lot of fanfare surrounding the race. There's like a parade of nations and the mayor comes out and does like a press conference with us. They make the athletes feel really special and it's just like really unique race weekend because you're doing three different race disciplines in one weekend, which is just something that... And the only thing I can compare it to is like conference track meets when I would run like the mile and the 5K and. you know, like a relay or something. And I don't know, kind of just like reminds me of that, which is kind of more fun and star.
Janelle: Okay. Well, and so tell me about what you're training for in right now, like what's the next big thing?
Nicole: So a couple of changes have happened with the Spartan season and they've introduced a 5K. So the distances have been adapted slightly to kind of match like the running world. So the sprint is now 5K, the super is now a 10K and the beast is a half marathon. And they've decided to introduce a 5k sprint to the national series races. And so that's actually the first race in Jacksonville is going to be a 5K sprint, which is significantly shorter than we've ever raced before, at least at like one of the topmost competitive races. I think it's going to be really exciting. I'm hopeful that everybody will make their spear and it'll like, keep everybody in the race close together and it'll be a really exciting finish.
But that's one thing that's like, I think people are kind of nervous about that any failed obstacle in a sprint will just be like a major kill to the time. Because like a one and a half or two-minute penalty if it's burpees would significantly hinder you in a race that could potentially only be like a 25-minute race.
Janelle: So what are the like areas that you feel like you need to work on to, I don't know, like is it carrying heavy loads or what are the things that you're going to be like focusing on in your training right now?
Nicole: I would say that I always have to be working on my heavy carries. That's something that I have historically struggled with. And while I've gotten significantly better at it, the double carrying, in particular, are still very, very taxing. Like, 80 pounds at once is a lot. So that's something that I'm going to be incorporating a little bit more strength into my training both to cater towards like being ready for the heavy carries but also just kind of like as injury prevention and trying to be a little bit stronger of a runner. I've just started kind of implementing like a different strength program that my friend, Nell Rojas and my PT have put together. So I'm excited for that. I think that it should help with not only my running, like economy and my strength but also just kind of being a little bit more durable and like preventing injuries. So kind of focusing on that. And then I actually have a few trail races that I'm going to be doing this year and some of them are a little bit different, like the 50K that I mentioned. It's pretty far for me. It's like twice the distance of my longest race ever. So that's different and new and it'll be exciting to train for something like that. And then the other one that I'm also going to be kind of like the other top trail race that I'm going to be doing is the Mountain Running Championships, which this year are in Oregon. And that's like a short mountain running race. It's like six miles. So that'll be kind of different too.
Janelle: And how has running been for you? Like, because you liked going to the obstacle course racing because it wasn't just straight running and you were able to like avoid running injuries that way. So this will be all running, right? The trail run that you talked about?
Nicole: So the 50K, The Mountain Race and then also Broken Arrow, which is a race I did last year too, the 26K, those will all be straight running. So yes, a little bit different than what I've focused on in past years. And it's something that when I first started obstacle course racing I was still very much dealing with a hip injury, which I still have limitations from now. But my pain and a lot of the problems that I was having have gotten better and better over the years. So I'm like lucky then I'm like I'm at a point now that I don't have to have a race that's broken up by obstacles necessarily so that my body can handle the running. I feel pretty confident in being able to handle like an 18 or even like 30-mile race. So yeah, it'll be exciting, I think. Just like kinda nice to throw something different in there and well, like I love obstacle racing, it's like super fun and it kind of keeps me focused. I have like a little bit of a scatterbrain sometimes and it's nice to have like something to focus on every like half mile or so. But it's also nice to kind of come back to like my roots, which is just like you're running. So, yeah.
Janelle: Yeah. Well, how do you feel like you were able to strengthen yourself from those injuries? What do you attribute to being the greatest cause of that?
Nicole: I had some like poor motor patterns that were going on and like a lack of mobility. And then also just like lack of like hip strength as well. So was kind of been like a combination of things, working on like my perception of my balance and one-legged strengths and hip mobility and hip strength in general. There hasn't been like one thing that was like, "Oh yeah, like that was it." And it's something like I have a labral tear in my hip. I have one on my left and I have two on my right. And it's not atypical for runners to have real labral tears. It's actually very common and some people have surgery on them and some people are able to run without surgery.Some people have labral tears and then they don't even have any symptoms. So it's definitely not like alone in my way, but my symptoms are a little bit atypical and so I have had to be a little bit creative with the things I do. And one of those is just that I do have to avoid running on roads. Flat roads it's just something that my body does not tolerate and I don't quite know if it's the consistent terrain and like when I have a consistent stride that aggravates the care or if it's when I run faster and I get into more extension in my stride, that's the issue. But whatever it is that is just like kind of like an absolute no-go for me and I avoid it at all costs.
Janelle: Yeah. Okay. So that's good. Good to know. For somebody else who might be struggling, you know, with running on roads to try trail running or, you know, maybe try some other types of race, like obstacle course racing. So what other tips do you have for people who are training? Maybe they're not elite athletes but just trying to get healthier, get fitter. I'm sure you have lots of friends who like say, "Oh, I could never be like you." Or whatever but what do you tell them to encourage them just to try something?
Nicole: Yeah. You know, I think that one way that I've had success in my training is that I pick out you know, the things that I need to do in order to accomplish my goals, which/or for obstacle racing you have to focus on running, you have to focus on kind of like pure strength and then also this element of like grip strength and like obstacle specificity. And for me, like you can accomplish those in a variety of ways and there are a lot of different ways to train for obstacle course racing. But for me, I try to approach things in a way that I'm doing things that I really enjoy doing, that I really love to do, that kind of like inspire me and are not hard to get motivated to do. I have like the luxury of having this as my full-time job now. So I can devote, you know, two hours to rock climbing four days a week, which some people can't do that on top of maybe wanting to run an hour or two, six or seven days a week. And then also needing to get into the gym like twice a week too. You know, does that make sense like you got to work within your kind of time constraints. The more things you can do that bring you joy and don't feel as much like training, I think the better.
Janelle: Yeah. Yeah. What do you like to do to just relax and unwind and make sure you're not overexerting yourself and training all the time?
Nicole: That is something that I kind of struggle with. And part of it is actually because like, you know, I enjoy climbing and sometimes like that to me kind of is a little bit more relaxing because it's not like a big like cardiovascular effort at least. But I kind of have to remind myself like, no, like even if I'm climbing easy for an hour or two like that's self-training also. So, you know, I try to go to relaxing yoga classes, which again, like yoga it's somewhat of like a stressful activity. But especially if I can find like relaxing ones that are more like slow, like stretching poses. I incorporate those into my weeks. And then like short sauna sessions too, which can have both benefits to training, but also I find that to be really relaxing, especially if I'm like alone in the sauna, it's like very like peaceful and quiet. Yeah, that's kind of those.
Janelle: I've heard that sweating is supposed to be really good for you. I don't quite understand all the science around it but yeah. Whether you're working out or just sweating in a sauna, it's supposed to have health benefits. So, yeah.
Nicole: Yeah. I have to keep it in check in the summer because I tend to get kind of too sweaty if you're like running out and then jumping into sauna for too long. I'm definitely working on like relaxing more and whether that's just like reading time or going on like an easy walk with my dog.
Janelle: Do you do meditation? I know I'm putting you on the spot but I'm sure, yoga is a form of meditation too.
Nicole: Yeah, I think probably yoga is like closest that I've recently been like gotten to meditation. And I do like, I try to like focus on like my breath in yoga and kind of like, you know, any thoughts of like the day that popping into your head, you kind of like try to let them go and just kind of be in the moment. I haven't tried meditation in a long time. I did a little bit of meditation and visualization when I was in college and it was something that was actually really beneficial. I probably should incorporate more of that now.
Janelle: Well, you've got a lot going on, so, but I understand. I know we all could benefit from meditation. Do you feel like there's a particular mindset that helps you as you're trying to get through the races?
Nicole: I would say most of my approach to racing is kind of focus on trying to relax the first part of a race. And that's kinda the things that like I will say like my inner dialogue and always about like being smooth and relaxing and whether that's like specific cues like, okay, like let your shoulders hang down lower and like unclench my hands. Or if it's just kind of like a general feeling that you know, like, oh, if I see somebody going out harder than me and, you know, not letting that make me anxious, like trusting kind of in my race plan and my ability to like sense where my like effort level is and where it should be, which it comes with racing and I think it's something that I do have a good sense for. There's a race, I forgot, I think it was the 15K in Europe where there is a couple of girls who went out really hard. And I was back in like fifth or sixth place and I ran up on one of my friends, Becca. I could tell like she was also I think giving maybe a little bit anxious about like, "Oh, there's these girls ahead of us." And I just told her. I was like, "Don't worry, we're in a really great place right now. Those girls are going out too hard. Like, they're going to come back don't worry." And that's kind of the same thing that like I'll say to myself. Yeah. So it's kinda funny. I feel like most of the time, at least the first half of a race, I'm kind of focused on relaxing, which is somewhat the opposite of what you would think. I don't need to like pump myself up a lot, I guess. Like nerves and like, race jitters are always there. Like my body is, yeah, kind of. It historically when I was like really young too like I had a lot of nerves around racing and so I think I had to work on calming myself down before races and then on myself down at the start of a race as well.
Janelle: So are there people who have influenced you at points in your training that like kept you going, would you say? Or have you just kind of had your own drive to keep trying and keep winning or keep trying and keep competing?
Nicole: Yeah. I would say I definitely had a few points, especially in the first couple of years that I was racing in 2016 and '17. Where there were a lot of aspects of obstacle racing that I really enjoyed and I really loved and I thought were like reasonably challenging activities. But then there were certain races like the heavy carries just completely destroyed me. And I did. I really had to... I thought about quitting the sport for a while. There's definitely a couple of races that made me like really second-guessing, like, "Oh, like it's that I want to do. It's something that I think I can improve. Like, can I actually improve my heavy carry strength." And there were a lot of women, a lot of guys that were also kind of like had more experience in Spartan racing that were really encouraging. And it just kind of took me some time to figure out how to adapt my training so that I actually could make improvements. So yeah, I would say like there are a lot of people that were already established in the sport that really inspired me. And being able to see that there are women that were like my same size. I'm like 5'3, I'm not like super muscular. At least like I wasn't when I started racing. And part of it was, I think I initially just thought like, "Oh, I'm just too small to do be able to do this." I'm just like, "I'm never going to be able to carry 80 pounds, because that's like a big percentage of my body weight." But I looked at the girls around me, and sure like some of them were definitely taller and had like broader shoulder, just more body mass, like put the sandbags on and were like obviously like came from a crossfit background or like, you know, incorporated more lifting into their training. Then other women were like exactly my size. And they were excelling at the heavy carries. And so I think I drew a lot of confidence from that, that like, "Oh well, like she looks like me and she can do it." So I think like, I just have to work harder. I just have to figure out what I'm doing wrong in training and then I'll be able to get there.
Janelle: Right. Well, and going back earlier in your life, I mean, what got you into OCR in the first place was overcoming a major setback in you're running. Could you just kind of recap what happened there for a minute?
Nicole: Yeah. Like, I grew up as a runner. I've been a runner my whole life. I went to Rice University on a running scholarship and I had some success there. After college, I had plans of running competitively. So I trained with a group in Boulder, where I was planning to go back to the track and race the steeplechase again and hopefully make the Olympic trials again and kind of like try to continue pursuing running. But I had an injury to my hip and just completely derailed my training. I went through physical therapy for a year and nothing changed and it was really frustrating. I saw two different surgeons. I saw a back specialist, a nerve specialist. I had a 3D gait analysis done.
I kind of like checked off every single thing that it could be and kind of just heard the same answer from doctors, which was like, "Everything looks pretty good. We're not exactly sure why you're having these symptoms. Like we know you have this labral tear but your symptoms are a little abnormal for labral tear injuries." And the big kicker was that the surgeons that I saw, they didn't really advise surgery. One of them was like, "If you really want to do it, I'll do it." And I was like, "Well, that's not what you want to hear from your surgeon."
Janelle: Yeah, exactly. And nor do you want to hear that they can't really figure out what's wrong. It's all very frustrating. Yeah.
Nicole: Exactly. So I was kind of in a very like questioning state and I had put so much effort and so much time toward running and I had so much like passion for it still that I really wanted to do it. And so when I decided to stop running on the roads, it really felt like I was giving up. I mean, it's even kind of hard to still see it as not like somewhat of a failure but it's something that like I really had to like completely walk away from that in order to be able to run at all. And I would never have found trail running and obstacle course racing had I continue to just be like be super stubborn and like, you know, just continuing to like try to run on the roads and, you know, like maybe I would've eventually I had surgery, I don't know. And there's not always great results with labral tear surgery either. So even you know, in a case where a surgeon is like questioning me having surgery, even if it was like the best-case scenario where they really want to do surgery, it's not always a great outcome. So I think that was really hard for me to process and just because I kind of have always grown up thinking like, you know, if you work hard enough at something that you can overcome certain challenges and you'll like, meet your goal. And sometimes like you're just not able to, there's certain limitations. And I think being able to like adapt your goals because, you know. I mean, the body is only so resilient and mine seems to be doing well right now but... Yeah. I don't have any doubt that if I was still trying to run on the roads I would have been in a similar situation.
Janelle: Yeah. Who do you feel like encouraged you to adapt your goals? Was it yourself or someone in your life at the time?
Nicole: What it came down to was that I still had the goals of competing at a high level and I miss that competition. I just like, I really like competition. I think it's not like, you know, necessarily to be like head to head with another person but just like I challenge myself physically and their ways. And so I just miss that aspect of running. But even without that in the picture, like that was like kind of long gone. I just miss being able to run, period. And I was at a point where I just like, I really couldn't even run for just like the joy of it. And so that's when I like sat down and I made a list of everything that I thought would make my hip feel better and everything that made it feel worse. And I just made a decision that I would commit to only doing the things that made it feel better. And I continued to try to see different doctors and like try different PTs and chiropractors that could help me with like mobility and strength work and everything. I don't know, it was kind of just like this like desire to get back to even being able to run for the joy it.
Janelle: Yeah. Well that's so great. You stayed the course and you were able to find something else that you love and now you're back to what you first loved. Like you said, doing more running competitions and stuff. And you said you're going to go climbing. I need to let you go. Is that what you said, you're off to climbing tonight?
Nicole: Oh, yeah. I will do some climbing today.
Janelle: Yeah. Oh, that's great. Well, anything else that you'd like to share with our listeners about staying in the game?
Nicole: Yeah, I don't know. I just think that it's important to kind of be, you know... I know this can be a hard concept to accept but sometimes you have to be kind of gracious with your body's limitations. And I think that as athletes especially, you know, we expect a lot from our bodies. And it's just, you know, like there's power to rest and there's power to altering training and altering your goals. And you can still reach like similar goals or a high level if you are a little bit more gracious with your body.
Janelle: Yeah. Well, I know, I think it's really important for people to not give up and to, you know, adapt, like you were saying earlier, and to find what works for them and works for their body and stuff like that. Just real quick. Do you have any like special routines that you adhere to outside of your strength and your endurance training? Do you have any nutrition habits or any other health practices that you feel have helped you?
Nicole: Yeah, with my nutrition I kind of have the philosophy that I try to eat well, I try to eat whole foods. I try to get everything I can just from like quality ingredients and limit like processed foods and additives. But I still have a sweet tooth than I still think it's important to like allow yourself to kind of like, you know, indulge in desserts and yummy tasting things and eat and until fullness whenever no matter what. Even when you're injured it's really important to, the fuel that's like, it's even more important sometimes. Yeah. So I don't have like a very strict practice when it comes to my nutrition. I think that's kind of important and kind of key actually to success. Yeah.
Janelle: Yeah. So a little bit of moderation there.
Janelle: Yeah. Okay. Well, we're excited for your year. It's a banner year. You've got a lot of things coming down the pipeline. And what's the best way for people to follow you and what you're doing?
Nicole: I mainly post on my Instagram, and that's Nickel, N-I-C-K-E-L-D-M, and I have a Facebook as well that it's connected to it, I think. That's the best way. Yeah.
Janelle: Well, we'll direct people to go check you out on Instagram and cheer you on on some of your competitions and your training and they can find out more about what you're doing to stay fit and stay active. And I like your posts. So we'll go ahead and do that with show notes, and we sure appreciate your time.
Nicole: Well, thank you so much. It was great talking to you.
Janelle: Yeah. And you have a great day and have fun on your climb tonight.
Janelle: Okay, thanks. Take care. Bye.
Janelle: To learn more from Nicole Mericle, be sure to visit us at plumdragonherbs.com. We will post show notes, a transcript, and ways to connect with Nicole. And if you liked what you heard today, we hope you'll send us some love back by subscribing to our show on YouTube, iTunes, or wherever you like to listen. Be sure to leave us a comment and let us know what you think. Until next time.