Former Rice star runner turned ultramarathon champion
Think, for a moment, about how far 45 miles is. 15 times the distance around the outer loop. Almost the distance from Houston to Galveston. Not only did Rice alumna Nicole Mericle run 45 miles at the Grand Traverse Run Ultramarathon on Sept. 5, but she also won the entire female race in her first-ever ultramarathon race.
An ultramarathon is defined as any race longer than 26.2 miles, the traditional marathon distance. In order to train for the ultramarathon, Mericle said she amped up her weekly miles, running for four to five hours at a time and practicing in the mountains and altitude.
“Initially it was pretty far out of my comfort zone and something that I never thought I would do,” Mericle said.
Before this race, Mericle’s longest race had been 18 miles long, and the farthest she had ever run at one time was 30 miles.
“I’ve always preferred the shorter distances,” Mericle said. “I went into the race with the mindset of trying to experience the ultra distance and focus on my own race … not the perspective of winning or placing well.”
That attitude is relatively new to Mericle, who has been running competitively for most of her life. She began playing sports at an early age. She learned quickly, however, that her strength lay in her speed.
“When I played soccer … I realized that I was a good runner because I was always the fastest or one of the fastest on the team,” Mericle said.
Mericle quickly found success; she remembered fondly that at times she was the fastest on both the girls and boys teams. Before long, she was one of the premier runners in the state. After setting numerous school records in high school, Mericle continued her racing career when she joined the Rice women’s cross country and track and field teams.
As an Owl, Mericle excelled on the race course and the track. During her time at Rice, won multiple large meets, received All-Conference honors and even qualified for the National Championships in 2007. She is the only female athlete from Rice to ever win an NCAA Regional Cross Country Championship twice in her career. Mericle also qualified for the 2008 Olympic trials in the 3000-meter steeplechase (a long race, with water pits and other obstacles such as wooden hurdles).
Mericle said that her favorite memory wearing the Rice Owls singlet came during the 2007 cross country season. Her team traveled to the University of Notre Dame Invitational and, despite overwhelming odds, won the race.
“Nobody knew who Rice was,” Mericle said. “Nobody expected us to win the whole meet.”
After a troublesome injury to her labrum during college, Mericle began doing more trail running post graduation. The trails were a type of terrain that would not cause pain and allowed her to run longer distances in beautiful settings. This, combined with a new love of rock climbing, led her to obstacle course races.
These Spartan Races are races of distances anywhere from 2 miles to 20 miles with strength obstacles scattered throughout the race such as crawling under barbed wire, climbing walls, carrying heavy weights and even a spear throw. Mericle is no stranger to success in obstacle course racing, with numerous top finishes and victories in her racing career.
“I found a new way to do what I love: run and compete,” Mericle said of Spartan Races, adding that the races, with obstacles breaking up the running, were beneficial for her hip.
On the day of the Grand Traverse Run earlier this month, Mericle planned to start the race slower and controlled, as to prevent injuries or wearing out too quickly. Early in the race, Mericle was passed by two women.
“Normally this would have made me nervous in a race,” Mericle said. “But I tried to put the whole thing in perspective and know that eight hours of running was a long [time].”
Mericle took the lead after 12 miles, around the high point of the race at 13,000 feet of elevation. At the very start of the descent, she began to have hamstring tightness and sharp knee pain. This was particularly worrisome, considering she was only 16 miles into the race.
On that 5-mile descent, she slowed down to ease the pain until she arrived at the middle aid station. Aid stations are set up along the race route, where athletes have access to their drop bag containing nutrition, water and new running gear.
For the next 20 miles, Mericle was running blind, not knowing where her competition was in comparison to her. As the miles rolled by, Mericle reached the last aid station at mile 39. She had run out of water three miles prior, and because of the unusual heat of the day, she ended up drinking one and a half liters more water than she expected to over the course of the race.
Another problem Mericle encountered was the true distance of the race. Though it was measured at 43.5 miles by the race organizers, Mericole said it was closer to 45.6 miles. This made the final stretch of the race even harder.
The last 7 miles proved to be the hardest part of the race for Mericle. Fueling became harder because of the heat and pain. With three miles left, there was a point in the race where Mericle began to worry about running the wrong way.
“I’m running, and I don’t see any markers or people around me and I start freaking out a little bit,” Mericle said. “I start trying to flag down cars that are passing to see if someone could tell me where to go. There was a little tiny marking that would have been very easy to miss, because I was tired.”
The final stretch of the race was a steep uphill, and with her friend and dog cheering her on, Mericle crossed the finish line with a time of 8 hours 21 minutes and 56 seconds. Although Mericle was the first woman to cross the finish line, she had to wait 24 minutes to determine if she was the actual winner due to a staggered start. After the nerve-wracking wait, Mericle was crowned champion, winning the women’s division by 38 minutes and finishing fifth overall.
“I was really excited that I finished this lengthy distance that I thought I would never be able to do and excited that I did well in terms of placing,” Mericle said.
The Grand Traverse race was just the newest in a long list of accomplishments Mericle has racked up in Spartan Racing. After getting third at her first obstacle course race in 2016, Mericle has continued to display her dominance. She won the 2017 and 2018 Obstacle Course Racing World Championships, the Tough Mudder World Championships and the 2019 Spartan Race World Championships and Trifecta World Championships.
As COVID-19 continues to put sporting events and competitions on hold, Mericle still has a plan for the upcoming year. She said that she wants to do more trail running— specifically sky races, a type of trail run with significant vertical gain. Mericle said she enjoys these races, but they don’t distract her from Spartan and obstacle course racing.
“[Obstacle races] will remain my focus and main passion,” she said. “But I think it’s more likely for trail races to come back more quickly than obstacle races.”
Going forward, Mericle is open to continue running ultramarathons.
“I’m definitely more open to it,” Mericle said. “I wouldn’t say it has taken the place of my passion for shorter races, but it was a really great experience and it has made me not fearful of that distance.”
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