When an inoperable hip injury crushed Nicole Mericle’s dreams of becoming a professional runner, the talented track and steeplechase athlete was forced to change plans. Her passion for climbing led her to find obstacle course racing in 2016 and, after placing second in the world at the OCR World Championships just months later (despite being a newbie to the sport), it’s fair to say she hasn’t looked back.

Last year, Nicole racked up win after win, ending the 2019 OCR season as the Spartan Race world champion, the OCRWC 3K world champion and Spartan Trifecta world champion. However, it’s climbing that’s her true passion, so we dive into this (along with her love of OCR, the training sessions she swears by, van life, and much more!) in the Q&A chat below.

Thanks, Nicole!

You were an avid climber before finding OCR in 2016. Was moving into obstacle racing a seamless transition in terms of your grip strength and hanging ability?
There’s no doubt rock climbing prepared me well for all the obstacles requiring pull-up or grip strength. These hanging-type obstacles are typically the most challenging and most-failed obstacles for newbies and seasoned OCR athletes alike. Four years of rock climbing prior to OCR prepared me to move through rigs in a “locked off” position (arms bent at 90 degrees), made me comfortable with big dynamic moves from one hold to another, and allowed me to grasp ropes and bars longer than my OCR competitors.

Having this type of pull-up strength and grip endurance was a huge help as a newcomer to the sport of OCR. I know other people who go to OCR or Ninja gyms or do dead hangs and pull-ups until their arms fall off. There’s a lot of ways to train for OCR and I’m certainly not saying those ways are wrong or ineffective, but I’ve found rock climbing unknowingly prepared me very well for obstacles and it’s what I most enjoy doing!

Were there any areas in obstacle racing that you needed to work on initially?  
Yes! When I started competing in OCR I was by far the weakest in the heavy carries. To be clear, I don’t just mean the heavy carries were my weakest obstacle. I was also the weakest and slowest person in the entire women’s elite field. A mile or two into the Asheville Spartan Race in 2017, I went into the double sandbag carry (carrying two 40lb sandbags) tied for first place. I came out in dead last and six minutes behind the leader. At the Spartan Race World Championships in 2016, I was a devastating 10 minutes slower than one of my competitors in the bucket carry. It’s safe to say the heavy carries took me out of many races in those first two years and almost pushed me to walk away from the sport entirely.

I think having such a strong lifelong identity as a competitive runner left me hesitant to give any focus to strength training. Both rock climbing and running are very much weight-focused sports and as such, the old “I don’t want to lift and gain weight” mentality was somewhat ingrained in me. For all the runners out there: strength training will not make you gain weight, it will decrease your injury risk and make you faster! When I finally devoted the time to strength training, I found I wasn’t just better at the heavy carries, sometimes I was the best. To my surprise, there were several races in 2019 in which I claimed the fastest carry times. I’ll admit the double carries are still trying for me, but I get through them just fine and with respectable times.

How did you change your training to include strength work?
Specifically, I added in 1-2 strength sessions a week. Most of these still resemble a pure runner’s strength program with a focus on leg and core exercises, including barbell squats and deadlifts, step-ups, mini band exercises, etc. Other strength sessions are a bit more focused on upper body strength and stabilizing core under greater load. These include carrying heavy sandbags, buckets and kettlebells in a variety of ways – on my shoulders, in front, overhead, and suitcase or farmer’s carry-style.

Another key element in my training has been aerobic strength workouts with kettlebells. Using one or two 25lb kettlebells, I’ll do movements like squats, cleans, snatches, presses and swings for up to 50 minutes of virtually non-stop movement. If you follow me [on social media], you’ll see me do these with my Boulder, CO “Squad” – marathoner Nell Rojas and fellow OCR racers, Dylan Miraglia and Matt Kempson.

Do you follow a structured training program or is it flexible?
I’m structured when it comes to the running portion of my training and less structured with rock climbing and strength training. Most people don’t realize just how much time is spent running in an OCR race. About 80-90% of a race is running and only 10-20% is actually spent doing obstacles. A racer doesn’t want to waste time completing penalties or retrying failed obstacles, but once you reach a certain level of obstacle proficiency, what matters most is running.

As such, my coach, David Roche, and I agree the most important part of my training is running. Everything else comes second and is built around my runs. “Everything else” includes rock climbing, strength training and sometimes cross-training with swimming, biking or ski mountaineering. David Roche programs my run training and I handle the other components.

On top of being an amazing coach, David is the co-author of “The Happy Runner” with his wife, Dr Megan Roche. The book is a fun mix of running, philosophy and humour and I highly recommend it!

I also get a lot of direction from my friends, Nell Rojas and Dylan Miraglia, for strength and heavy carry workouts. Nell is a 2:28:06 marathoner and Dylan works as a personal trainer. Their help has been invaluable and a big reason behind my success the last two years.

What does a typical week of training look like for you, Monday – Sunday?
Monday– Rest and recovery!
Tuesday– 8 miles easy with 4 x 30-second uphill strides. Rock climbing and hard bouldering day with hangboard workout at the end.
Wednesday – Run workout day! (9-12 miles in total) 3-mile warm-up, 5 x 3-minute hills with jog down recovery, 6 x 1-minute fast running with 1-minute recovery on flat ground, and a 3-mile cool-down.
Strength training with lifting, plyometrics and kettlebell EMOM. Rock climbing: 2 hours easy.
Thursday – 8-10 miles easy. Rock climbing power endurance day: either 4 x 4 bouldering (see Nicole’s explanation further along in this interview) with a 5-minute rest between sets OR 5 consecutive lead climbs alternating hard (5.12), easy (5.10) X 2 sets.
Friday – Rest or cross-train (easy bike, swim, or skimo). Rock climbing: hard lead climbing day. Strength training.
Saturday – Long Run: 16 miles easy/moderate with 15-30 minutes moderate/hard in the middle.
Sunday – 8-10 miles easy with 4 x 30-second uphill strides. Rock climb: 2 hours easy and hangboard workout at the end.

Talk us through the type of running do you tend to do in training?
I usually do about 40-50 miles per week. Due to an inoperable labral tear in my hip (that occurred in 2013), I run exclusively on trails and all of my workouts are adjusted to be uphill or rolling. Instead of normal flat strides, I do uphill strides. Instead of flat tempo runs, I’ll do a 3-mile tempo effort straight up a mountain like Boulder’s Green Mountain. My running training would be a little different if I didn’t have this lingering hip issue, but I work around it and it’s never bothered me in a race.

You had aspirations of a track career before your hip injury, is that right?
I ran track in high school and was fast enough to earn a full scholarship to run at Rice University, where I was a two-time NCAA South Central Regional cross country champion and Olympic trials qualifier in the 3,000m steeplechase. I wanted to continue running competitively after college, but the hip labral tear I sustained changed those plans.

From December 2013 to April 2016 I didn’t run very much, at times taking four months completely off from running in hope of figuring out my hip issue. After seeing multiple specialists and finding no conclusive diagnoses or treatment, I took it upon myself to completely avoid the things that exacerbated the hip, including running fast on roads and flat surfaces and running at night. I stuck to trails and hills, and under the guidance of David was able to work my way back up to somewhat normal mileage and racing. I did have to give up on my dream of racing the steeplechase, 1500m and any road races ever again, but what I found in OCR was potentially even more fitting for the athlete I had become. David takes a conservative, relatively (for a competitive runner) low mileage, long-term approach that has made all the difference in my health and longevity as a runner. Each year under his tutelage I have fewer injuries and I get faster.

Although I can’t regularly train on flat ground or do track repeats, the thing about hills is they’re speed work in disguise. At least, that’s what I’ve always heard and recently experienced. I jumped into a faster friend’s track workout a couple of weeks ago and was somehow able to hang with her for an all-out 100m. I was pleasantly surprised I still have a kick in me. While they are few and far between, I most look forward to the short 3,000m OCR events. Thankfully, there is something about having flat, fast running broken up by obstacles that preserves my hip.

How often do you typically climb each week?
I typically climb 4-5 days a week. I’d climb every day in an ideal world – and did when I first started. I climbed until my biceps hurt so much all I could do was hold my arms and try not to throw up. In hindsight, that might have been a bit of rhabdomyolysis. Climbing is an activity I wish had been more accessible when I was younger, but I grew up in Houston, TX, which barely has a hill much less a rock wall. I feel like I was born to climb, so I’m happy I’m able to incorporate it into my training as a professional obstacle course racer.

If I’m home (not travelling in the van or for races), I’ll try to do a hard bouldering session, a hard lead climbing session, and a power endurance session each week with easy climbs sprinkled in. When I say “hard bouldering” or “hard lead” that just means I pick out climbs that are at my max and attempt them time after time until I complete them, or it’s time to go home

Can you share one of your favourite indoor climbing sessions?
The power endurance session that I enjoy the most is ‘five consecutive climbs’. The aim is to stay on the wall the whole time. You climb a route that’s hard, but not at your maximum. Once you are lowered from that climb, you immediately get back on the wall. This time, you climb an easier route that will allow you to somewhat recover as you climb. Do that five times… hard, easy, hard, easy, hard.

Typically, you’d switch with your belayer at this point or take a full recovery, then do it again. You want to keep moving the whole time and should pick routes so that you’re pretty much able to complete the “hard” climbs, but if you fall near the top, that’s OK. This is a workout that renowned climbing coach Dave Wahl suggested when I worked with him a couple of years ago. Another good and popular climbing workout is 4 x 4s. You would pick a few climbs about two grades below your max bouldering grade. Climb four back-to-back, getting on the wall as fast as possible between routes. Then rest 5 minutes and repeat four times.

You’ve been competing in some way since your childhood. Does this mean you’re totally accustomed to race day or do you get nervous?
All throughout middle and high school I felt [an] expectation to win races. One surprising thing that helped me manage those expectations and nerves was a close friend I had on my team who was very negative. This friend was so visibly anxious and verbally negative – talking about feeling poorly and the “what ifs” that could happen to her race – that it made me become the queen of positivity. I ignored my own body’s feelings of lethargy or little niggles. If the weather was bad, I made up reasons why it was good. Poor workouts, asthma, competition – any worry that came up in my mind was replaced with some positive thought. Both internally and verbally, I drowned out my anxious friend’s chatter with overly positive thoughts. I didn’t realize I had already been implementing tricks of the trade until sitting in a college class about performance psychology.

I still get nervous before races, but it’s a feeling I expect, and I welcome. I know it’s my body preparing for the event ahead. When it comes to particular worries, I acknowledge and run through everything ahead of time, making note of what I can control and prepare for and what I can’t. The things I can’t control I forget about and replace those thoughts with overly positive talk and mantras. I’ve also found it useful to take some time before races to visualize the upcoming race and the particularly hard parts.

Do you use any mental strategies in racing and/or training in general?
Days before the race I’ll sit in a quiet place and mentally walk through the race (visualize the event going well!). The day before the race, I do a run in the morning and if I can, I note different mile markers on the course. Usually, I like to know when I have 800, 400, 200 meters to go, for instance. I’ll try to spend time with friends keeping my mind off the race and I usually have a glass of wine at dinner to also calm my nerves.

The day of the race I’ll have a couple of mantras picked out to repeat to myself. I always use “Relax” for the first part of a race and cue relaxing my hands, arms, and shoulders while I run. Further into the race, I might pick a mantra for a particular spot – maybe it’s a long climb or a heavy carry where I repeat “Just stay” or “Keep moving.” I’ll also use “I am  ____” statements often. I am quick. I am strong. I’m a beast. To be even more OCR specific, sometimes I spend a good chunk of the race repeating “I’m going to make my spear throw.” Mantras are definitely part of keeping my calm and focus.

Rumour has it that you were hoping to compete in some skyraces this year, is that right?
I would LOVE to do more trail races and have really wanted to incorporate more skyraces into my schedule, but it can be hard with such a full OCR season. I was planning on doing Madeira and Hochkonig Skyrunning World Series races and Broken Arrow Skyrace. Unfortunately, I think all of those have been cancelled. The main championship races for OCR are typically in the last half of the year, so I don’t think I will have time to fit in many more trail races, although I do plan to do the US Mountain Running Championships in Oregon this August.

Away from racing, you own a converted van. How are you enjoying van life?
I love life in the van! I’m pretty low maintenance when it comes to needing makeup, clean clothes and frequent showers. Don’t get me wrong, I insist on having a mirror in the van, I still like to wear dresses and skirts and I do need a shower after five days or so. I can adapt workouts on the fly pretty well and get by doing strength sessions out of the back of the van with two 25lb kettlebells, a 50lb sandbag and some mini bands. It may not be possible or ideal for everyone, but I find the van to be cosy (it does have a queen-sized bed), I get to bring my dog, Benji, everywhere, and I love how it allows for so many adventures I would otherwise not be able to have.

Last year, I spent May to September in the van pretty much fulltime. I went to California – Big Bear, Malibu, Yosemite, Tahoe – to Utah to Wyoming to Boulder to Tahoe. I then travelled to Europe for races and since coming back, I’ve been renting a room in Boulder, CO. The van only recently had a heater installed, so it wasn’t very liveable in the wintertime. I plan to hunker down in Boulder until the pandemic subsides and I can responsibly travel again.

What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
For training:
Shoes – HOKA ONE ONE Torrent or VJ Shoes Maxx.
Clothes – Craft’s new vent line is amazing! I love the vent racing shorts and vent mesh SS tee.
Hair ties – Those plastic curly ones. They don’t dent your hair or pull your scalp back. It’s an amazing invention for hair and women and man-buns, I imagine.
Sunglasses – Goodr for daily, stylish, no-stress use. Roka for times you need a higher quality lens.
Snacks – Honey Stinger Gluten Free Cinnamon waffles. There are tons of flavours and non-gluten free varieties as well. They are all amazing.

For racing:
Shoes – Salomon S/Lab sense SG or VJ iRock shoes.
Clothes – Craft shorts and sports bra, Bleggmitt gloves for cold races, Darn Tough endurance crew sock.
Fuel – Honey Stinger Gold energy gels.
Belt – Salomon Agile 250 belt.

Who are you sponsored by right now?
Honey Stinger – A Colorado-based company making tasty performance fuel. Gels, bars, gummies and waffles.
Darn Tough Vermont – Durable, guaranteed for life, made in America socks.
Alt Red by Sur – They are a science-backed betalain supplement for performance and recovery. Also, they are certified Informed Choice Trusted by Sport – tested for quality and banned substances.
Spartan Race – super-fun obstacle races!
Inside Tracker – Blood and DNA testing specifically for athletes.

You can follow Nicole’s racing, training and workouts via www.instagram.com/nickeldm and www.facebook.com/mudrunmericle.