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Ashley Higginson: Remaining at peace with the journey to Olympic trials

On the verge of her steeplechase races at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, Ashley Higginson remains at peace with the process.

With the 2016 Olympics around the corner, 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 discussing her training, races, and preparation ahead of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in July and the 2016 Olympics in August.​

The first round of my race at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, the 3000-meter steeplechase, takes place on Monday July 4, and the nervous anticipation is just starting to settle into my stomach. The feelings are overwhelmingly familiar from years past and yet different all at once. Here we go!

Since my last post, I have run one more tune-up steeplechase race, back on my college track at Princeton. The race was a lesson in staying calm but focused and running evenly, and I was content to dip just under 9:30 while leading the race from start to finish. No emotion, just execution. We have had some wonderful speed sessions since and I am fortunate in that the entirety of my training plan is in the the hands of my capable and phenomenal coaches. Frank Gagliano, my coach, and Tommy Nohilly, his assistant coach, have years of experience creating successful plans and workouts, so I am leaving that portion of preparation to the experts. One less thing to think about!

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Many people are asking me, “How are you feeling?” It’s certainly thoughtful and kind for people to care, how I am feeling today will be very different than when I’m running at the trials. I am healthy and that is the largest thing in my corner right now. However, when people ask how I am feeling, I doubt they care about the laundry I need to do, what I am cooking for dinner or my opinion of who should win the Bachelorette. These are the things on my mind for now.

When asked how I am feeling, my simplest response has been that I feel at peace with this process. Clearly, that is a very convoluted and complex simple answer. In the past, I know there have been moments I have lined up feeling injured, out of sorts or thinking that maybe I could have done a few things differently. This year, we planned, plotted and put together a program that held me accountable. I am proud of the work I have put into this training cycle; I dared to try new things and improved upon things that once were a weakness. To top it off, I focused on recovery and staying healthy throughout. 

Feeling at peace does not mean being content. Of course, I have lofty goals coming up and hope to accomplish them. However, it is nice that after four years, I have made the switch from “try your best” to knowing what it is I want and proudly wearing those desires and hopes on my sleeve. Four years ago, I recall thinking, on a great day I could be top three today. However, I never really acknowledged what a top three finish would mean. Becoming an Olympian means first and foremost believing you can be one, then going after that goal with your whole heart.

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Lately, I am feeling more overwhelmed with gratitude then ever—my team, my family, my neighborhood and my huge network of support make me realize I have gained so much in the smallest moments leading to the trials that prepare me for what I hope to gain in the upcoming large moments. It means even more to know many of those people will be in the stands in Eugene. Personally, I like that kind of pressure, if nothing else to make those people proud.

My goals are personal. Looking inward is not always easy, especially in a sport where time makes for some pretty black and white comparison. It is easy to wonder how so and so is doing, or refresh results to see how another person is doing. I think throughout this four year process, one of the best life lessons I have gained is clearing that noise from my head a bit and gaining some trust in who I am and what my own strengths are instead. I am going to line up against very impressive athletes, who work as diligently as I do, who sacrifice many of the same things, who did not just get here with luck. It is going to be a tough race and that is what is going to make it memorable, our mutual respect for one another’s talents and abilities. Rather than disregard that realization, I think I have come to terms with the fact that the race being hard is what makes this entire experience worthwhile. Moreover, I am proud of my role in that drama and my strengths that make me a contender.

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Leading up to the Olympic trials, I have also reflected on the past five years of running professionally and appreciating that this race may be my last national meet. Who knows where running is taking me after this year (other than hopefully Rio). While it might sound cathartic, the tension and nerves I am feeling may be one of the last times in life I feel this way. There is nothing quite like prepping for a big race; no hard final, no tough litigation case, perhaps not even big milestones in life that are joyful. It is a personal experience filled with the greatest nausea and elation. So, even in the nerves, I am trying to remember how very thankful I am to feel this way, loss of appetite, burst out in sweat sessions when trying to go to sleep, and all!

So when I say I am at peace with this journey, it is to say I am so glad I took this path, the result ahead cannot and does not take that away. I am glad I turned a car of my belongings around in Michigan and came home and put my nose down and went to work to improve as a person and as a runner. I am proud of where we have come and I am excited to feel some pressure and as if I have something to lose. Four years ago, coming in fourth meant nothing but gain, being introduced to a new level, being considered a young contender. That these same peers and people can now think that the same position would be a defeat is really an honor.