Former CT Whale, Nicole Stock, Turns to New Challenge of Being a top Triathlete
From recreational races to the professional circuit, the most demanding endurance sport is the Triathlon. Combining open water swimming, long cycling legs and distance running, it is one of the ultimate tests of mental and physical resolve and ability. And these days, it is the sport of choice for former NWHL goaltender Nicole Stock of the Connecticut Whale.
Stock is currently the Assistant Athletic Director and one of the girl’s hockey coaches at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. In July, she will be competing in her second triathlon, the Ironman Triathlon in Whistler, British Columbia.
The course at Whistler, known widely as a magnificent twin peak ski resort, will consist of 70.3 miles of hell contested in a single day. It takes a special kind of athlete to take on that challenge, so no surprise that one of our Connecticut Whale is involved, and no surprise it is Nicole Stock.
Nicole had a great hockey career, from her days as a youth player in the Chicago area, through her prep school experience at Deerfield Academy. She had a record setting career between the pipes for the Brown University Bears, and was an original member of the Connecticut Whale. Nicole has played the most games between the pipes of any of their goalies over the Whale’s first four seasons, and accumulated the most minutes, made the most saves and is tied with teammate Jaime Leonoff for the most regular season wins.
Nicole was a multi-sport athlete growing up, and explained how she became a triathlete after trading in her pads and mask for a clip board and whistle.
“The biggest thing for me is having a goal and working toward something,” Stock explained. “I feel like as I grew up playing hockey there were always goals to attain and now that I don’t have hockey this was something I could set my mind to. I started biking right after college and I really enjoyed it so from there I was finding ways to add to it. Bike and run which was fun, and then I took on the water. This was the biggest obstacle, since I had never lapped swam in my life. I knew how to keep myself afloat but nothing past a doggie paddle and certainly nothing in open water. But again, I put my mind to it and dedicated time to it and eventually it came around. It is probably the thing I am most proud of in life. Don’t get me wrong, I am slow and have stroke issues, but it was one of the hardest things I have ever done and to teach myself to do swim and then compete in open water was a pretty neat feeling. Once that I was able to complete the three aspects, I have now learned how to put it all together and competing in an Ironman is just a different animal. The mental and physical aspects are like nothing else i have ever done. To cross the finish line last summer at my first full was an incredible feeling and something I will remember forever. To accomplish something like this on my own as opposed to the team sports that I have played for so long was totally different. You rely solely on yourself and there is nothing else. If you don’t bring it, you don’t finish- Simple! You can’t point a finger at someone else. It is just you and the three disciplines to accomplish your goals. I played team sports growing up so this is a completely different feeling but a satisfying one to see all your hard work pay off in the end.”
So, fast forward to this summer and we find Nicole, in her own words, “in the thick of the training, and trying to hone in on my eating and overall VO2.” A short sentence but full of nuance, as we soon found out when we questioned Nicole in more detail.
For starters, we wondered what a typical training week for her would be? Nicole replied, “A typical training week consists of usually two disciplines a day, and then one day off. For me I usually do my workouts back to back in the morning before work at (Lawrenceville School). So for example I would swim and then go bike or run, and the next day would be bike then run, etc. Usually my day off is Thursday because of my work schedule, but many true athletes take Mondays off (the concept of NCAA Monday’s will be familiar to many college athletes). Weekends are the most work and longest days. Usually Saturday it’s a long ride with a shortish run after, and Sunday it’s long runs with bike or swim mixed in. Different weeks bring different levels of intensity or length to each discipline. But right now I am in the thick of things so my distances are longer both during the week and weekends.”
Nicole added that she includes weight training as well, saying, “I lift as I find it is super useful and it actually gives me additional ability to finish strong at races. I don’t lift super heavy like I did in college (for hockey) but enough to feel like I am gaining something from it.”
Nicole had also mentioned she is working on her VO2 Max. Alex Hutchinson, writing for Runner’s World gave an excellent and concise definition of the term a couple of years ago, stating, “VO2 max is basically the definitive measurement of aerobic fitness. It tells you the maximum rate at which you can take oxygen from the air and deliver through it through the lungs into the bloodstream for use by your working muscles.”
So we asked Nicole how she trains for and monitors this in her workouts. She replied, “VO2 Max usually improves through interval training. Being able to increase your heart rate for periods of time or hill work. I monitor this through my chest heart rate band and Garmin watch. My watch and app connect and give me a wide range of details. I also have power meters on my bike to give me the percentage of my functional threshold power and make sure I’m in a certain range to not burn out to easily or not going hard enough. FTP (functional threshold power) is the measure of how much power you can put out over the course of a period of time usually, it calculates it over an hour. Different tests can be done on the bike to find this percentage. And of course there is always heart rate monitoring which is still the go to for most.”
To better understand the quest that Nicole has undertaken, we sought out the opinions of three athletes who compete in the individual sports represented in the Triathlon to see what aspect they would find most challenging if they were to move into the sport.
Kyle Murray, Head Cross Country coach at West Chester University and a distance runner and cyclist said, “I think most people find the cycling aspect of training for a triathlon the easiest, it is minimal impact, you can refuel easily while cycling and usually go right out your door like with running. Swimming is usually the most intimidating of the events, but is the shortest part of the race. Most people don’t like being in open water, which is very different than being in a pool. The waves are much larger, you usually can’t see the bottom, unknown objects brush against you and you may not always be able to see the shore. Also the mass swim start can be a challenge in itself. A lot of people in a small space all trying to get the perfect line to the first buoy can become part wrestling match/ turn into a center rink fight between Roy and Osgood! (for Nicole and all the other goalies reading this). At the end of the day though, the running is always going to be the toughest, because it’s tough to know what running a marathon is going to feel like after 2.4 miles swim and a 112 mile bike ride. We have all seen people hit the wall in a marathon, now spend the 6-10 hours before it working out non-stop. Then factor in weather changes throughout the day, GI needs and just your body begging you to stop; you are in for a grueling day.”
Kyle’s college teammate at St. Joe’s, marathoner and cyclist Justin Heinze of Philadelphia concurred, and offered these thoughts: Swimming is the rarest skill of the three, and the hardest to cultivate, because it is the most alien to our biology. Humans evolved specifically to run long distances, and our bodies are built to do it better than any creature in the animal kingdom. Bikes, in the very least, are machines built specifically for human use, regardless of how natural or unnatural the motion may be. Not so with swimming; even the greatest human swimmers don’t hold a candle to the meanest fish. Many other animals (a puppy is one of probably hundreds of examples) have an innate expert knowledge of swimming, while human children flounder and drown without external instruction. Not only is swimming the activity our body is least adapted for, it’s also the most complicated for which to train. Reliable access to swimmable water is harder to come by than a road or trail, and unless you live near the course, replicating race day conditions will be difficult. But because running is the final stage of a triathlon, the accumulated fatigue will make it the most brutal phase of the race itself.”
Nicole offered her thoughts on the running aspect when we asked her about competing in any of the three aspects as part of her training. She told us, “I did the Philadelphia Marathon last November and that was the first time I competed in an event alone at the full distance. I have done half marathons in the past. I have to say I am not a huge fan of just doing the marathon part. But I should probably do more of them to focus on the fueling aspect of the race.”
Nicole might not like the stand alone marathon that much, but she is pretty darn good at it. In the Philadelphia Marathon, Nicole finished in the top 40% of all competitors who finished. Many do not.
Not only the difficulty of the running leg, but it’s importance can be illustrated in the career of a top triathlete Nicole told us about, Heather Jackson. Heather as it turns out, was also a talented former hockey player. A Princeton University forward, Heather finished her career with the Tigers as a co-Captain, scoring 89 career points. Now a professional Ironman Triathlete, Heather has succeeded in large part do to her transformation as a runner. She walked most of her first Tri in the marathon leg, but notes on her website that she now has clocked an impressive 1:19 half. A tough accomplishment, but a huge advantage in her repertoire.
Nicole mentioned the nutritional aspects of the sport, so we asked her to elaborate on that. She said, “Fueling and nutrition is the biggest hurdle and the hardest thing to get right for athletes. This was my down fall in the first race. I fueled enough but my body did not respond well to what I ate, so I had some GI issues. Right now I am honing in on what I am going to eat in order to not have a repeat of that day. I am hoping by figuring this out I will improve my time by a good amount. I am open to any ideas that people out there have!!”
Obviously there is a ton of sport specific gear in hockey, and we wondered how the gear factored in for Nicole as a triathlete. She responded, “This is gear that most people use. For example a wetsuit for the swim, tri-suit for underneath and then bike and run. It is the bike which has the most variables. I do not own a tri specific bike. I am probably one of the few. I have a road bike that I have added to to make it more aerodynamic. I hope at some point I can save to buy a tri bike but that will be in the future. Then the running is really just shoes. Everything is between is preference. For example type of bike helmet, goggles, show (bike/run), sunglasses or hat, carry food/ drink on you or not. All of those things become preference. Gear is a huge part of the tri world. It is what people go for in the sport. I will say the gear does not make the athletes, much like hockey. You may have the best stuff and most aerodynamic stuff but I have seen those people not finish. It is all about the training and being prepared for everything.”
When Nicole referenced being prepared, she was talking about both the physical and mental aspects of the sport. So we asked her about the mental preparation for hockey vs triathlon. She thought it was a great question, and she gave us a fantastic reply, “Hockey is more mental on game day than a training day in my opinion. Not saying that you didn’t have a mental aspect through training. But game days felt like more pressure to perform and are happening more often through the course of the season. You need those high mental days more often. In triathlon training I think the training days are more mental because it’s hard to continual get up to focus on the training and eating the most out of each day especially the tough days where you don’t want to get up or go for a long ride. There is only one race day so the training far out numbers the game days and that is the mental grind. The actually Ironman day, to me, is just the culmination of all the mental energy that you already put in. You know that you stuck to the training and that has prepared you for that day and so for me the mental aspect fades. I believe in my body and training to be there and so I pull from what I have learned in training and just keep chugging along. There are moments you have to push through, but really the unexpected becomes the mental challenge on race day not the stuff you expect.”
We posed one more question to Nicole, considering that last season was the season that, “Once and Future Whale” became a real thing, with both Shenae Lundberg, and Jess Koizumi returning to the Pod. We wondered if there was a possibility that fans might get to see Nicole Stock between the pipes again? Nicole answered with her customary class and honestly, “It is not something I foresee given my schedule and now living in New Jersey, but I never rule anything out. I love the game, I love competing and challenging myself, so to rule it out completely would be outside my character.”