By Tim Morris
Ashley Higginson plans on taking time to appreciate the moment.
While the nationally-ranked steeplechaser is under a great deal of pressure as she pursues a berth on the United States Olympic Track and Field Team, she still thinks of herself as lucky — lucky to be good enough to be in a position to be an Olympian. There are plenty of runners around the country who would trade places with her, and she is aware of that. That’s why, no matter how stressful it is for her running career to come down to one race, she is finding she can appreciate what is at stake.
“I’m excited and happy to be here [at the Trials],” she said. “It’s a great opportunity. I’m relishing it. I’m going to savor the moment.
“The nerves will come, but I’ve done the work. I’m prepared for it.”
Higginson, who had a legendary high school career at Colts Neck High School, is as ready as she could possibly be for the Trials, which run from July 1-10 in Eugene, Oregon, called Track Town USA, at historic Hayward Field.
In 2015, Higginson finished fourth at the national championships and missed making the USA World Championship Team that she had made in 2013 (top three go).
“It was disappointing,” she said.
She rebounded to win the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Pan-American Games, a confidence-making international victory. But she still labeled the season disappointing because despite that gold medal, she wasn’t healthy. She had to train and race around plantar fasciitis, which forced her to take time off. It was hard to develop consistency and a workout schedule around that.
“Last year, things were not so smooth,” she said. “[The injury is] not an excuse. This year, I’ve been able to stick to the plan. I really believe in the system we have.”
Higginson, who runs professionally for Saucony, is a member of the New Jersey-New York Track Club that is coached by the legendary Frank Gagliano. Several member of the club besides Higginson are going to the Trials. Training with nationally-ranked runners like herself who can push her in workouts and relate to the good and bad times can never be undervauled.
In preparation for the Trials, Higginson has geared her training and early-season race schedule around being prepared for any type of race in Eugene: slow and tactical, a race of surges or fast from the get-go. She said the goal was to help her take control of races no matter the pace. Her workouts mimic what can happen in a race.
One thing that the ex-Cougar and Princeton University great has been working on is her finishing kick. It’s not her greatest strength and to improve it, she has done a lot of 1,500-meter mile runs in her workouts, which she noted are designed to run a quick pace and still have a kick left.
In her final race before the Trials, Higginson ran at Princeton, turning in her second fastest 5K steeple, 9:29.77, winning from the front unchallenged. It was off her 9:27.59 personal best.
“I ran it after a hard workout, and it felt smooth. It was a good race. It helped my confidence,” she said.
Always part of the training is working on the hurdling technique so critical in jumping over the water barriers.
Along with her fitness, her previous experience at national championships and Olympic Trials are pluses for her.
Having raced at Hayward Field, perhaps the most famous track and field venue in the country, Higginson is a believer in “Hayward magic.”
“It has a magnificent culture,” she said. “I’m hoping the Hayward magic gives me one magical moment.”
While Higginson talked about her wonderful opportunity and how lucky she is, don’t for a moment think that she is just happy to be there. She’s first and foremost a competitor and wants to be an Olympian and is prepared to leave nothing on the track to achieve that goal.
“I’m not squandering the opportunity,” she said. “I have as good a chance as anyone.”
Higginson’s first race at the Trials is July 4 in the first round of the steeplechase. The final is July 7. The top three finishers in the final will make the U.S. team and head to Rio de Janiero for the Summer Olympics Aug. 5-21.