An inside look at this year’s OCR World Championships race from the 2017 women’s 15k world champion, Lindsay Webster.
Some races, the start gun will sound and you’ll feel fantastic that day. Other races, you don’t get so lucky and you’ll feel like a slug. In obstacle races, there’s a lot more that can go wrong than in a running race; so many little things you can mess up. I think all that, combined with the impending torrential downpour that would make the mandatory obstacles slippery and much more challenging, was why I was so nervous coming in to this past weekend’s OCR World Championships. Well, and the fact that it’s the World Championships!
I had a fantastic race at Spartan World Championships two weeks previously, but I definitely left it all out there on the course. I ended up sick as a dog the following week. Normally, I taper (aka lots of rest) before Spartan World Championships, then come down from altitude and go back to my regular training for a few weeks. This generally leaves me feeling pretty great for OCR Worlds race weekend, but with my cold, I couldn’t train properly. I tried, like any determined athlete is unfortunately bound to do, and probably ended up over-doing it when I should have been resting. When the body is run down, it wants relaxation! But man, is it hard to sit still when you’ve just spent the past two weeks resting and have a big race coming up. Needless to say, I spent the week leading up to the race worrying that my body would feel all out of whack.
Race morning dawned, just as rainy as the weatherman predicted. I swear he’s been wrong all summer long, but when it really matters of course he was dead accurate down to the hour. This is another thing I spent all week worrying about; I don’t have a good history of success with wet obstacles! Rain doesn’t only make the obstacles wet, it makes the ground wet and muddy, which inevitably somehow ends up all over the obstacles. OCR World Championships is a mandatory obstacle completion format. This means you can’t keep moving forward on the course until you successfully execute the obstacle in your path. I’ve competed in races like this before where I’ve been stuck at obstacles for hours, moving me from a podium spot to the back of the field. If you can’t complete the obstacle, you’re technically disqualified. Harsh, but this is the World Champs, after all!
I tried to remind myself that I’d done everything in my power to prep for this race, between tons of strength workouts, and recovery tactics the recover from the 3k the previous day. I had an ice bath the night before, foam rolled, and wore compression. When that start gun sounded, it only took me a few minutes to realize my legs weren’t feeling their best.
Nicole Mericle lead out the field at a fast pace. Nicole is infamous for starting fast, and I was mentally prepared for it. I had a plan that I would not try to burn all my matches keeping up to her. I was going to let her get ahead and have caught back up to her by the end of the first climb and descent, by which point she would have settled in to a slightly slower pace for the remainder of the race. So, the first 30 minutes of the race went exactly as planned, and I gradually reeled her in. But then we hit the third climb, she started putting a gap back in to me. Climbing is supposed to be one of my strong points! I was mildly horrified that my legs couldn’t keep up with the pace she was setting, and she wasn’t settling in, she just kept moving as fast as she had in that first kilometre! I told myself not to let it get to me, just not to let her out of my sight. She couldn’t possibly keep moving at that pace, so she was bound to slow down eventually and then I’d catch her. It was super muddy out from all the rain we’d had, so I was counting on that to possibly tire her out. I’m used to mud, but she lives in Boulder, CO, where it’s hot and dry.
Now, I’m not trying to use my head cold as an excuse for why my legs felt sluggish on race day. In all honesty, Nicole Mericle was flying out there all weekend, and my legs just couldn’t keep up! There are only so many races you can “peak” for in one season. I put my focus on Spartan Worlds, and it payed off! I think it’s safe to say that Nicole peaked for OCR Worlds this past weekend. I have no doubt that she outran me in Saturday’s 15k. I knew Nicole would be hard to beat, since I’d heard her say a few times throughout the season that this was the race she was most focused on. For some background info, Nicole qualified for Olympic Trials in hurdling, so needless to say she’s a freaking fast, talented runner. She also executes the obstacles like the men (I mean that as a major compliment!). She’s a better rock climber than my husband, and he’s pretty darn talented, so I knew the mandatory obstacles wouldn’t be the thing to stop her.
We reached the top of the 3rd climb, about 4km in to the course, and I received a split that first place Nicole was about 1.5 minutes ahead of me. No big deal, I told myself, it’s early in the race and I’ll have lots of time where I can use my strengths to close that gap. I think I managed to close a bit of time at the “grocery bag carry,” as I like to call it. We had to farmers carry these two canvas shopping bags full of sand up and down a massive hill, which was probably my low point of the entire course. Lucky for me my friend, Matt, walked the entire carry with me from outside the course tape and cheered me on, but Nicole was still basically done the carry by the time I was halfway through. I also worried about this obstacle frying my grip strength for the second half of the course, where all the grip-intensive obstacles were waiting for me in all their wet, muddy glory.
Finally, I reached the top of the fourth climb, about 10km of 15 total in to the course, and received a split that Nicole had a 4-minute lead on me. I literally remember saying, “4 minutes?!” I was doing everything I could to try and make up time on her, but somehow, she was still putting time in to me. I couldn’t breathe. Literally, I was wheezing and my throat was closing up on me. This isn’t a foreign feeling to me, since it’s been happening all summer during hard training sessions. Exercise-induced asthma isn’t uncommon for athletes, and I think I have a mild case of it, but it’s never reached a level where I can’t control it, so I usually just soldier on and focus on my breathing. I remember going through the Traverse Wall obstacle at the top of that climb and wheezing my way through. It was then that I realized I hadn’t been racing my own race up until this point. Yes, I’d stayed within my own limits, but I’d probably run the first 4km of the course faster than I should have trying to keep up to Nicole. I mentally shifted my focus to completing obstacles efficiently and conserving my forearms for the grip strength obstacles that awaited me. If I burned all my matches, it wasn’t going to do me any good if I then got stuck at a mandatory obstacle and couldn’t make it through.
Up until this point, I’d been trading 2nd and 3rd position with Zuzana Kocomova of the Czech Republic. We reached the Urban Sky obstacle at the top of the course’s final climb. Zuzana completed two of three sections of the obstacle, but slipped off on the final section and had to start over again. I made it through, moving me in to 2nd place for the final descent of the course. It was then that I received a split that Nicole still had 3.5 minutes on me. I’d made up 30 seconds on the final climb, but it would be extremely hard for me to close the remaining gap in the final descent. I had no idea if Zuzana has made it through the Urban Sky obstacle behind me, but she’s a fierce descender, so I focused on doing everything I could to maintain 2nd position.
I’d pushed my body to the limits of what it had in it that day, and I would be really happy with a 2nd place finish. To me, when you try your absolute best and leave it all out there, it’s always a win, no matter what place you finish.
Popping out of the woods at the bottom of the 2nd climb, I started the sandbag carry with Nicole only one minute ahead of me. I’d closed a good amount of time on the slippery descent, but to be honest I wasn’t sure I could close that minute gap in under one kilometre of course remaining. The final stretch was packed with obstacles, which are more of a strength of Nicole’s than mine, but I told myself just to stay focused on completing them on the first try, as opposed to what place I was in. I’d walk a few steps coming in to each obstacle, trying to lower my heart rate a few beats so I didn’t screw it up. Pick an obstacle lane that looks less muddy. Reach the obstacle, count to five, and go for it. Place each hand well, with a strong grip because you never know when you’ll hit a muddy spot and slip off. On the Platinum Rig, the 5th last obstacle before the finish line, I’d head that Nicole had slipped off the next obstacle, Skull Valley. I basically brushed that comment aside, since I assumed she’d just slipped on a muddy patch and would immediately give it another go. She’d be gone by the time I got there. Nicole’s the grip strength champion; having her lose her band at an obstacle is like Usain Bolt in an ultra-running race – it just doesn’t happen.
But, surprise, surprise. I reached Skull Valley, and Nicole was still standing there trying to massage out her exhausted forearms. I muttered a “hey girl, hey,” and she muttered back a polite “hey,” that didn’t sound altogether like she was too excited to see me. I can’t blame her, I’ve been in the position where I’ve lost 1st place to a challenging obstacle enough times, and it’s devastating. Not to mention, having Skull Valley immediately after the Platinum Rig was probably the trickiest part of the whole course. I’d almost fallen off it the previous day in the 3k because my arms became so pumped. Both these obstacles are extremely grip intensive, after an already grip-intensive course with loads of obstacles covered in mud, and you’ve just run 15k as fast as you can.
I knew that this was the only chance I’d have to pass Nicole, but if I fell on the obstacle like I nearly had the day before, I’d blow it. I gave myself a longer than usual rest before starting the obstacle, wasting precious seconds that I’d fought so hard to make throughout the race. With Nicole still resting beside me though, I didn’t feel any need to hurry and didn’t see any sign of 3rd place. Once I’d caught my breath and stretched my forearms, I went for it. I assumed that Nicole would start with me and it would be a battle to the finish, but just focused on the obstacle. First, the climbing holds, arms-only. Then, the monkey bars. Transition back to the climbing holds and my arms were still feeling good. I hit the bell to signal my obstacle completion and was back off running. When I looked back, Nicole still hadn’t started the obstacle. I was so surprised, and I think it was at that moment I realized I would take the win with only a few hundred metres and three straightforward obstacles to the finish. I looked at my friend who was cheering me on from the sidelines and we exchanged “What the heck just happened omg I can’t believe it!” faces. I ran it in to the finish, where lots of hugs from my friends and family awaited.
It was only afterwards that I found out Zuzana had to give Urban Sky a few more tries, which created the gap between us and 3rd place. She eventually crossed the line in 4th. Karin Karlsson of Sweden, who’s very strong at obstacles and a great runner, took 3rd place. Talking with Nicole after, I learned that she experienced her first ever “arm bonk” during a race. Of course, she’d experienced this feeling in training, when your forearms get over-taxed and all your blood rushes to these muscles. This creates the feeling people describe as “pumped,” and it becomes nearly impossible to hold on to anything. Obviously, having this happen in a mandatory obstacle race can be devastating. Nicole confided that if she had started Skull Valley when I did, she felt she probably would have fallen off again and needed even more time to recover before trying it a third time. Having no idea how far back 3rd place was, she made the call to take more recovery time and safely secure 2nd place.
What a whirlwind! I’m so honored and excited to take 1st place at both Spartan World Championships and OCR World Championships, but my season isn’t over yet. The Tough Mudder Championship in SoCal is only a few weeks away, and then I get to tackle 24 hours of obstacle racing at Worlds Toughest Mudder for the season’s grand finale. Now I’ll make the transition to long, slow distance training to prepare for that, which it’s something I really look forward to. This means long runs in the beautiful fall colours, and lots and lots of food! Massive congrats to everyone who competed. Whether you kept your “obstacle completion” wristband or not, I know we left it all out there and tried our best on that muddy course. Thanks so much to Adrian Bijanada for putting together another great World Championships weekend!