Westward Expansion by Jon Gugala, note by Larry Eder

Ashley Higginson was a wonderful surprise for many as she placed a gutty fourth in the U.S. Olympic Trials steeplechase final. Her huge pb in the AVIVA London steeplechase made her one of the top three time in her event in US in 2012. Jon Gugala caught up with Ashley earlier this week and here is how he sees her wonderful progression!  
Thumbnail image for Higginson_Ashley-OlyT12.jpgAshley Higginson, 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, photo by PhotoRun.net

Westward Expansion
by Jon Gugala
July 25, 2012

Ashley Higginson is in a pretty good mood as she prepares to move across the country. And why not? Her track season over, the Colts Neck, N.J., native spent the late winter and early spring setting PRs indoors in every distance she raced, every time she raced.

And then she moved outdoors.

Higginson, a steeplechase specialist for Saucony, ignited. Under the mid-distance magic of Frank Gagliano's New Jersey-New York Track Club, she set a PR by four seconds in her season-opening race at the Payton Jordan Invitational in April. Then at Oxy in May she cut two more off. Between the preliminary and final rounds of the U.S. Olympic trials--in which she would finish in a where-the-hell-did-that-come-from fourth--eight more seconds fell. And in the London Diamond League meet on July 13--her first-ever Diamond League, it should be noted--she set her current PR of 9 minutes, 34.49 seconds, making her the third-fastest American this year.

Eighteen seconds in a season is not too bad for a girl whose most notable accomplishment in 2011 was healing a stress-fractured leg.

But as previously mentioned, Higginson, 23, who has lived the last year in Clinton, N.J., with her NJ-NY TC teammates, is now moving across the country to Boulder, Colo. She was accepted her senior year at Princeton into the CU law program and deferred in 2011 to train for her shot at the Olympics. But deferment is a one-shot, one-year deal, and so she now packs her car for the epic road trip west.

The question is . . . why?

You could shake Higginson and say, You are 23 years old and were fourth in an entire country this year--a big country--and, well, do you really think you can do both school and running?

Higginson is convinced she can. Her question to you: And why not?

For most, becoming a professional runner is a lot like going into the Peace Corps. Higginson says, "If I were getting some huge, huge contract, that would make it so much easier. It would completely alter the stuff in my life and where I want to go with it all.

"But at the end of the day, that might just be what I love about our sport and the athletes in it: it is noble, it is a dream. It's both selfish and self-sacrificing, and you have to put a lot of other things away to think about what you need to be the very best you can."

A berth in law school is planning for the future, yes, but it's also ensuring that she doesn't have to get a full-time job this year, or, as she did last year, a string of part-times (six, which seems hard to contemplate).

Of course, having the season she did and the final result at the trials she achieved did make the decision more difficult. In that moment, friends who had been for months been saying, "Go to law school," now said, "Keep running." "Suddenly everyone's opinion was different," she says, laughing.

One of the greatest influences on Higginson's decision was her NJ-NY TC teammates Julie Culley and Delilah DiCrescenzo, two of the senior members of the team that have acted as mentors for her. Both had real lives after college while still running. Both are better because of it, especially Culley, who will represent the U.S. at the Olympics after winning the trials 5,000-meters last month. "They've gained so much insight and love and maturity for this sport that I think might be essential for my next step in it," Higginson says.

"I do want to go to school. I want to start this degree, whether it takes the three years that it's supposed to or the five that I'm allowed to do it," she says. "And if I fail, I'm ready to admit that and start over again."

One of the funniest stories from this spring came from an Alan Webb interview at the Armory in New York City, which Higginson calls her home. When he began working with coach Jason "Vig" Vigilante, Vig required Webb to get a hobby, and so the American record-holder, at 29, began taking piano lessons.

The moral of the story is that running can be a lot, it can even be most, but it can't be all. And Higginson, young and by her own admission with much to learn as a new pro, has at least learned this much:

"I think that that blend of realities has always made me a better athlete. I have laughed a lot more than I've gritted my teeth this year, and maybe that means that I'm just scratching the surface--and I sure hope so--but it's also how I'm going to continue to improve."

What if running didn't have to be "noble"? What if it could be a true professional choice, where athletes could make enough money not just to eat, but for a lifetime? (When was the last time you heard an NBA athlete announcing he was leaving the sport to return to grad school?)

These are all questions that Higginson sometimes thinks of and then lets slip by. Because they are not reality; reality is a car packed with two-thirds of all the things you really wanted to bring to a new life in Colorado and a rough sketch of how that life will look.

"The biggest thing that's been riding through my head the whole time is that I've been so lucky this year," she says. "Most years aren't going to be like this year. They help you get through the ups and downs that are sure to be ahead."

They can help you get through a broken leg. They can help you get through a law school first year. They can even help when your non-running friends think your event involves riding a horse.

Higginson's plan is to spend the fall growing stronger (in her own words, "getting hammered on tempo runs"). She'll race the roads in a similar pattern as Culley, the 2011 USA 5KM champ and 10-Mile runner-up. And as he has for the past year, coach Gags will still be planning her workouts, which she'll run on her own or with local post-collegiate training partners--just as soon as she finds some. In the spring she'll race with the team as she can, and then when school gets out, it's back to Jersey and her teammates and coach and run at an IAAF World Championships team in 2013.

Regardless of how her decision pans out--though I'm optimistic, and why not?--Higginson heads west, manifesting her destiny.

"I've thought a few times, the level I'm at in this sport would be the top level of any sport that people do make money in. But then I thought, but maybe then I wouldn't be who I am and I wouldn't love it.

"And the end of the day, that's the career you hold onto," she says. "You don't really hold onto necessarily what's on your singlet or what shoes you wore in the way that maybe another team or athlete does. You hold onto those moments with your training partners, those moments where you really were the best you could be."

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