With less than 100 days remaining before the 2016 Olympics, hundreds of athletes are making the final push to represent their country in Rio de Janeiro come August. Track and Field takes its place in the spotlight every four years, but the preparation needed to reach the starting line begins long before the big moment. Running goes beyond just putting one foot in front of the other as fast as you can.
Ashley Higginson is a steeplechaser for the New Jersey-New York Track Club, which is headed by revered track and field coach Frank Gagliano. In May 2007, Higginson was named a Sports Illustrated Faces in the Crowd athlete. Just nine years later, she is on the cusp of making her Olympic dreams come true. Each month, Higginson will write a first-hand look for SI.com discussing her training, races, and preparation ahead of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in July and the 2016 Olympics in August.
In my last piece, I gave the abbreviated version of my life—who I am and what led me to 2016 and the last training weeks leading up to the Olympic Trials. Since February, when I took the bar exam and finally stopped studying for hours on end, I have been a full-time runner! It has been an interesting transition at times, but overall I’m really happy to have dedicated this time to sport and my athletic abilities, but also to running. Given it is Global Running Day, I feel it apt to note I am just as lucky to have been given this time to mature my relationship with running, a personal experience that even when the race has ended will continue to grow and change.
I started out my spring season with a trip to the Florida Relays with my New Jersey-New York Track Club teammates. We ran a 1500 together followed by a 4x800-meter relay. I had a lot of fun trying out my speed, which is something that in the past has been a weakness. I focused on the last half of the race rather than getting caught up at the start, and ended up getting a win and a new 800 personal best as well.
Next, we headed to Princeton, where I raced the steeplechase. The solo effort was solid, just under the Olympic standard and without any bumps in the road, and I came out of it healthy and excited for the next phase of training. More importantly, I was able to run in front of so many people who matter to me and my running experience. Every coach I have ever had—high school, college, and professionally—was there. The middle school athletes that I coach where able to come watch, my college and current teammates, friends and even some of my family came. I felt filled with such gratitude to all those people and felt so lucky to be surrounded by them.
Then came the Penn Relays, where I focused on a long, strong kick from further out and squeaked out a win against some speedy competitors. Racing at Penn marked the first of what will likely be many “last” moments for me this year. This was my last Penn Relays to cap off over a decade of racing at Franklin Field—Heps Championships, high school and college wins, my first college dual meet. Again, after the race I looked in the stands and spotted coaches, mentors, friends. I couldn't help but be filled with so much emotion and gratitude again. The win was exciting, but taking a moment to remember these people and moments, on good days and bad, meant a lot more.
Training continued into the next racing phase, out on the West Coast. I started with a high-performance meet at Occidental College. My coaches and I decided on a 1500, to test myself and our speed-endurance training amidst many top competitors in the country. I was excited to leave with a new personal best and confidence in our training. At Oxy, I also got to watch my coach, Frank “Gags” Gagliano wheel and deal with all his friends and fellow coaches at a meet he had started years back. Again, I got to be with my team and hone in on a personal plan and journey.
This carried me right into Prefontaine Classic, but unfortunately, I cannot say the race at Pre went as “according to the plan” as the rest of the season so far. The race was very fast, producing an American record (nearly a world record) and some fantastic performances. While I ran one of my better times ever, I left feeling like I had lost an opportunity. I lacked ownership of my race plan and goal, and a race instantly becomes more difficult when you start without a plan or forget to focus on the skill set, instead anticipating that a great opportunity will lead to a great time. It was a good lesson leading into this next part of the season. Running has a way of constantly reminding you to stay humble; it’s hard work, always, but worth it.
I flew home to my beloved Jersey reinvigorated for training and excited to be remaining local until I fly back to Oregon for the Trials. More importantly, I came back with the opportunity to really recognize the unbelievable people running has brought to my life. I was able to have dinners with friends, chat about what our lives look like in the future, text about my races to people who understood, reminisce with old teammates, see an old competitor two days before she gave birth to her first kid, meet a new group of middle school athletes just starting their journey with running, and made even more new friends and connections. That was all just in these two weeks! Thank you.
My relationship with running has been competitive and exhilarating, but most importantly it has become a part of who I am. Global Running Day is a day to help inspire other people to begin that journey but also a time to really remind myself how lucky I am. I am so fortunate to be healthy, pursuing the chance to see if I can find the best out of myself and hopefully become a better person along the way. More importantly, I have hit the jackpot when it comes to support, mentors, friends, boyfriend, competitors, coaches, and family. Thank you, running.
On the other hand, that is a whole lot of people I will work to make proud over these next few weeks. I’ll keep in mind a quote by Billie Jean King: “Pressure is a privilege.”
Looking forward to it.