As arguably the world's top female athlete in outdoor endurance sports for years, Monique Merrill has amassed trophies for mountain biking, skiing and contests that test a backpack full of skills—running, swimming, orienteering, paddling, pedaling, climbing and ski mountaineering.
As a member of Team Nike, Merrill (Col '91) helped win the 2006 Primal Quest, a series so tough it claimed the life of one athlete and set a standard in adventure racing.
These days, though, her drive to be immersed in world-class endurance racing is not so compelling for a number of reasons. Amazing Grace Natural Eatery, the natural-foods shop she started in Breckenridge, Colo., has grown into a restaurant, and the years simply have given her a different outlook.
Energy has been her trademark, along with mental toughness and physical durability.
"Mona is an extraordinarily talented athlete who also happens to be an extraordinary human being," says outdoor writer Jayme Moye. "People wonder what her secret is, how she's able to do so well, to persevere, to overcome setbacks."
"Genetically, I think I won the lottery," Merrill says. "I never had any formal training with anything, but seemed to do really well right off the bat."
Of course, she had some help. Growing up, she lived largely overseas—Africa, Indonesia, the Caribbean. An elderly woman in Jakarta gave her swimming lessons, and during her high school years in Florida, she rose to All-America status as a swimmer.
At UVA, she says with a laugh, "I really never did any sports. I drank a lot of beer."
After a youth spent in the tropics, Merrill was drawn to the Colorado mountains, settling in Breckenridge and developing a relationship with Chris Ethridge. He owned a sports shop, and the two became avid endurance athletes. In 2001, however, during a bike ride near Boulder, Colo., Ethridge was hit by a car and killed. The loss devastated Merrill.
"When he passed away, instead of turning to drugs and stuff, luckily I had sports," she says. "I really dove into it in a very intense and neurotic level."
She racked up victories in 24-hour mountain bike races and ski mountaineering (where skiers go up as well as down mountains and traverse rocks and ice). Her peak came in the mid-2000s, when, in addition to Primal Quest, she won world championship adventure races in Sweden and Scotland and triumphed at the North American Randonee Rally in Wyoming. (Randonee skiing requires ascending mountains with special bindings and traction-providing "skins" that are removed from the skis for the descent.)
A setback came in 2010, when Merrill plowed into a concrete post while mountain biking during a team adventure race in France. Among her injuries were broken ribs, a shattered wrist, a collapsed lung and pulmonary contusions. Within months, she was back on the racing circuit, and she has continued competing in a variety of events.
Merrill counts her blessings for such physical prowess, but doesn't discount the importance of attitude and perspective.
"I just feel really grateful and blessed for my life. I was able to live overseas, my family is extremely supportive and close, and I have these genetic gifts," she says. "I feel like I'm one of those people who [has been] able to live an inspired life."
Now, she's more inspired to take a deep breath and smell the coffee brewing in her restaurant. She's also ready to let go of demons that pursued her after Ethridge's death.
"When you have a lot of anger or a lot of loss, it can propel you to do things you would never do," she says. "You know that saying about the mother who picks up a car to save her child? I almost feel that was me for 10 years—really trying to get rid of a void and the feeling of emptiness.
"Now, I'm just in a more peaceful spot," she says. "It's nice to have those achievements, but they didn't come without a price."