Interview with Ashley Higginson, professional US middle-distance runner
These days, Ashley Higginson focuses on the 3000-meter steeplechase, a running event that circles the track seven times, with 28 ordinary hurdles and seven water jumps.
A bevy of track honors trail her name. Higginson is a three time All-American athlete. She’s been a member of the U.S. team for the World Championship in Athletics and a gold medalist of the 2015 Toronto Pan American games (breaking the meet record). She can run a 4 minute 32 second mile.
With a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Princeton, she enrolled in law school in 2012. Meanwhile, she trained as a professional runner to compete for a spot on the U.S. Team for the 2012 Summer Olympics. At the U.S. Olympic Trials for Track and Field, she came in fourth place, two seconds short of making the team.
Higginson was not deterred. She finished her law degree and continued running for Saucony and the NJ/NY Track Club. She is a whip smart, very smiley favorite for the 2016 Summer Olympics U.S. Team. The Pursuist asked Higginson, faster than ever, about what makes her go.
Pursuist: Ashley, let’s warm-up by starting from the beginning. What did you have for breakfast today?
Ashley: I ate oats with blackberries, bananas, one scoop of honey peanut butter by Justin’s, and some granola on top, with the delicious pour-over coffee my boyfriend made me! I let him be the chemist. I just enjoy.
Pursuist: Ha, the breakfast and the treatment both sound very palatable! Now a more demanding question…at what juncture in your life did you realize you wanted to be a runner?
Ashley: I started running ironically when I flipped a coin. Sure, I had always shown some talent in the sport, in that I may have been a quick soccer player, or how in basketball I was only put in to steal the ball and make a lay-up. However, come middle school I really wanted to be a three sport athlete. Soccer and basketball were simple choices, but come spring, I had one friend in track and one in softball. So, I flipped a coin and track it was!
Flash forward to high school, where at my soccer banquet freshman year, my coach announced me “anonymously” as an amazing runner who would contribute hugely to our high school’s running teams. The next day, I told him I would be running cross country.
Throughout high school, my coaches really pushed me to realize my potential and got me excited about the prospect of heading to college and continuing to run. However, I ultimately chose a school based on where I would want to go if I couldn’t run for another day in my life.
Pursuist: And in college, you still really performed — kicked all kinds of Ivy League and NCAA butt. You served as co-captain of the Princeton cross country and track teams. Did you know throughout your undergraduate years that you wanted to run professionally?
Ashley: Throughout Princeton, I don’t think I gave professional running a second thought until I got injured senior year. Suddenly, I thought, I wanted to see my true potential. Running professionally, I guess, can be considered a job. However, the day I think of it as a job, I should stop. I am privileged and lucky enough to try to discover my potential in a sport I love, and I want to prove all those people along the way who believed in me (sometimes in spite of my own beliefs)…I want to prove them right.
So, I am unsure a runner is a thing you decide to become. It’s almost a rite of passage. I don’t know if you become a runner the day you finally wear spandex tights without shorts over them, or your first race victory, or the first time you meet a target time you set for yourself, but I think one day you just wake up at 4:30 am to fit a run in before a busy day and realize running has become you. It is a lifestyle.
Pursuist: What was it like balancing your academic and running careers, from college through law school?
Ashley: I have always balanced running with school. Since middle school, I rushed home from practice to finish up homework. I think part of balance is deciding what you think should be non-negotiable. For me, running and my studies were both priorities. I set time for both and I put them in boxes.
Also, running is a time for clarity, which always helped me write my best essays and find simplicity in my studies. I have made some of the most intelligent, remarkable friends through running, so practicing with them actually helped inspire me academically.
Honestly, when I was injured or spent time away from running, I had no idea how other people balance or excel in academics! I like the ritual, or practice and training, the plan. I think I utilize that with academics too.
Pursuist: Would you share what’s running through your mind while you’re running? Do you think differently when you’re training as opposed to when you’re racing?
Ashley: I spend most of running trying to contemplate other things; my life, to be deeply grateful for each run, and to find the joy in all of it. It is very rare that I think the way I do in a race. I like to think you only practice race mentality minimally. For example, in a very difficult trying track workout that mimics a race. However, on an easy run day, I just take it easy. I enjoy being outside or with friends, to just breathe and experience the time to myself.
I have a deep belief that you have around five candles to burn a year athletically (this could pertain in other parts of life too). To blow some of them out just training seems like such a waste. I plan leaving about three for the Olympic Trials, if I can! Once you run out of candles, you are done, burnt out for the year.
Also, I think that training encompasses different lessons in racing, but never all at once…always one part or a segment to make it all come together on race day. The mind is the most significant part of controlling those segments. So, oftentimes while training, I practice being patient, being calm, and being grateful. Occasionally, on some workouts, I practice shutting off completely and following the person in front of me. Then, very rarely, I practice digging down and seeing what I’ve got!
Pursuist: I love the visualization of the five candles…it really fulfills the spirit of living with a sense of urgency, and I am sure it resonates with many of our Pursuist readers. Thank you Ashley so much for your revelations! Good luck in all your upcoming pursuits, on the track and elsewhere.