By Becky Wade
Mud pits, barbed wire, fire jumps, frigid lake dips… sounds like torture, right?
Apparently not! Since 2010, Obstacle Course Racing (OCR)—the umbrella term for competitions such as Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, and Savage Race—has shifted from “relative obscurity to the No. 1 mass participation sport in the world.” So big is the movement, in fact, that International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach included OCR in his list of 40 recommended additions to the 2020 Olympic Games.
This past weekend, some of the best OCR athletes in the world gathered in Lake Tahoe, California for the 2017 Reebok Spartan Race World Championship. The course, which is always a gamble, was especially grueling this year: a mountainous 16-mile, 40-obstacle route at high altitude that included elements such as sandbag carries, spear throws, and something called the “Olympus,” a tilted wall that racers must shimmy across while clinging only to small grips, holes, and chains. Did I mention that competitors are punished with 30 burpees—an enormous effort and time drain—each time they fail an obstacle?
Boulder was well-represented at the Spartan Race World Champs by professional OCR athlete Nicole Mericle, a collegiate distance runner-turned-obstacle-course-racer who’s been on a tear since entering the sport about a year ago. A gritty performer, lifelong runner, and stockpile of strength bundled up in a petite package, Mericle entered the race as a title contender, having recently finished as top American in the 2017 Spartan US Championship Series and won both the 3K and 15K titles at the 2017 US OCR National Championships. But as obstacle course races are known for, this one threw some gnarly twists her way on Saturday.
“This one felt like an exaggeration of any Spartan Race I’ve ever done,” Mericle said just days after the race. After hanging with the leaders for the first three miles, she entered a rough patch that included two failed obstacles (read: 60 burpees) and some heavy carries, her self-described weakness. At that point, Mericle found herself disconnected from the group she felt she belonged with. But true to her nature, she regained her composure and rallied hard to make up ground in the second half of the race. Ultimately, she gutted out a 7th place finish in a time of 3 hours, 34 minutes, and 55 seconds.
“I was pretty disappointed right after,” Mericle conceded, having gone to Tahoe with the goal of winning. “But then I gained perspective on my progression from last year, and I know that some things you just can’t foresee.” Beyond the competition itself, she got a lot out of the whole event. With upwards of 40 countries represented in the championship, it was the closest that OCR gets to the Olympics (for now). From her fiercest female competitors down to the elite males she blasted by, Mericle was full of praise about the OCR community, calling her peers “really great, really encouraging.”
She’s only been back home in Boulder for a full day, but Mericle has already shifted focus to her next big test: the OCR World Championship in Canada in two weeks. Who knows what elements will stand in her way there. But speaking as her former track teammate, what I do know is that Nicole Mericle should never be counted out. Fueled by last weekend’s challenges, she’s probably rigging up obstacles or barreling up mountain trails this very moment, doing whatever she can to turn weaknesses into assets.