Video Credit: Thanks to RunnerSpace.com for the 2006 NTN video at lower right.
Sixteen years ago this month, Ashley Higginson was a very good high school distance runner in New Jersey, but probably not someone that many in the prep running community imagined was about to win not one, not two, but three individual national titles in months to follow. However, that’s what happened as the Colts Neck HS senior’s team mission morphed into a trio of spectacular individual accomplishments as well.
In December, 2006, Higginson captured the Nike Team Nationals (now Nike Cross Nationals or NXN) crown in the mud at Portland Meadows and pulled her team up to 4th place. Six months later at the NSAF’s Nike Outdoor Nationals, she triumphed in the 2-mile to put a wrap on a fantastic senior year. In between, she rolled to an NSIC 2M victory in her indoor finale.
In the years since, Higginson’s journey has included an outstanding XC and T&F career at Princeton, competing as a pro runner for several years and now practicing law as an attorney at Miller Canfield in Lansing, Michigan.
In the fall of 2006, though, Higginson was thinking less about individual glory and more about how she could help Colts Neck get to NTN. Back then, there was no regional qualifying, so teams were ranked and selected by committee.
“We were on the cusp the year prior (2005), so we felt jilted a little bit when we didn’t get in,” she recalls. “We had a chip on our shoulder the entire next season and that was the goal that we were committed to, getting to NTN.”
Higginson allowed that over her entire career as a runner, XC has not always been her favorite sport, but nothing was more important at that point in her senior year, “because I got to be a part of something bigger and that was one of those moments.”
Colts Neck was selected and she and her teammates toed the line on a sunny December morning that belied the previous days’ deluge that had infamously turned the racetrack into a treacherous bog.
Higginson delights in the memory. “If my steepling was a sign, I was a mudder. The conditions did not scare me at all, it created an equal playing ground. I felt like on a tough day, I could be the toughest.”
She remembers her team breaking out the inch-long spikes and that her mission was to stay with “those New York girls” and defending champ Betsy Bies from South Dakota.
Hilton NY’s Allison Sawyer ran to a big lead and on the long final backstretch Higginson seemed destined for 3rd place. “Then I got to the hay bales and I started catching her, then I started feeling that last 200 meter push (even though it was much further). Around that bend, I was surprised that I was moving pretty quick and into the lead and I just went with it; like I’m not letting anyone beat me now.”
Higginson laughs at her NTN finish line memory: “I’ll never forget, Alan Webb is holding the banner and I’m like, wow, this is my first real banner. Then I slipped right at the end in the mud and actually finished on top of the banner. I just looked like a silly kid, but I had a sense of humor about it! Betsy fell in this huge puddle right behind me. It was a perfect way for us to end the race.”
Ultimately, Higginson says, she felt little or no pressure racing at NTN. The pressure had been in the drive to get there. “There was so much behind those two years, and sometimes you get what you want, so why make it pressure? Just make it fun. I think that’s what won the day for me, I got to just have fun.”
Higginson’s 3200m PR going into indoor track was 10:36, but she started blasting PRs befitting a national XC champ, finishing the undercover campaign with a PR and US#1 10:16.75 2M to win NSIC. Still, she didn’t feel like she was justifiably accepted as “the best.” She had tried to double Foot Locker after NXN and finished in the middle of the pack.
“And even indoors, there were nationals in both New York and Maryland (Nike Indoor). But then outdoors, there was only one (nationals) and I won!”
Indeed, leading up to Nike Outdoor in Greensboro in June 2007, the chip was kind of back on Higginson’s shoulder. “Going into that race, I felt more like I have something to prove. It was the time of DyeStat and you’re reading what people are saying as a 17-year-old girl. I don’t think people thought I was going to win and I was a bit mad about it.”
Higginson knew Ashley Brasovan had the fastest time of all entrants and was a little surprised at her rival’s strategy from the start. “She took it out pretty slow... We were the “two Ashleys” and I remember thinking I’m just not going to let that girl beat me. We get to the mile, then I think I tried to break it open and only Neely Spence followed me.”
Spence soon snatched the lead and started controlling the race, eventually taking a lead of more than five meters into the last lap. As was the case at NTN, Higginson thought she had fallen too far back.
“My mom remembers the announcer saying it was a 1-girl race at that point,” says Higginson. “But I was getting close behind Neely when we hit 200 to go, and it was about 120 to go when I passed her,” she says. “Coming from behind is usually not a strong suit for me, but it’s what I did in both of those races.”
The result was an outdoor PR of 10:17.44 and Higginson's third and final national title of her senior year. That weekend at Nike Outdoors, she also took 3rd in the steeple and anchored Colts Neck’s 7th-place 4x1 Mile relay as she capped off her prep career. She looks back now on the significance of not only that weekend, but all of her other NON meets as well.
“It was an incredible experience ... but even (3 years earlier) as a freshman, just having the opportunity in our development,” she says. “We were so fortunate having a coach that was willing to invest in athletes who were not going to be successful at nationals at first, so that they could be successful once it became their time. That was critical. You need that experience. For me, having that first shot mattered. It made it so that I could be ready.”
Providing early development opportunities is equally important for the NSAF. It’s why it created Emerging Elite, Freshmen and Middle School divisions for its national championships.
The coach Higginson referred to is Jim Schlentz, who has coached at Colts Neck for nearly 25 years with scores of champions and All-Americans at all levels. “He was incredible at the time, being honest about and helping us understand the commitment it takes to be a great runner. But he also taught us how to do it incrementally, in a slow way that enabled you to enjoy it, and how to make it a lifestyle and the investment of joy that can be. He’s still supportive and excited about my goals in my life.”
Higginson also considers herself blessed to have had teammates like fellow national championship legends Craig Forys and Briana Jackucewicz. “Craig was so important, he helped me navigate (a) what it took to be a great runner, (b) how to have fun with it and (c) just being able to do it together. He and I had a natural kinship, but I also had Bri, who had so much maturity and experience and was able to guide me (even though she was younger). That was huge to my development. She was incredible as a mentor. It was great to be part of that whole program.”
From Colts Neck, Higginson moved strongly to the collegiate and then professional levels, with the 3k steeplechase eventually becoming her signature event. She had a wonderful career at Princeton under Coach Peter Farrell, which included 7 Ivy League titles and an NCAA All-American steeple finish in 2010. Then she nearly made the 2012 Olympic team, taking 4th in the steeple, and then had a shot in 2016 as well.
Higginson DID qualify for the U.S. team for the 2013 World Champs in Moscow after taking 2nd in the USATF meet that year. In all, she made four U.S. squads, including the 2008 World Juniors in Poland (after her frosh year at Princeton) and the 2015 Pan American Games and NACAC Championships, where she won the steeple both times.
The first of those was special, since Higginson’s mother was from Poland. “Coach Farrell noticed the meet and was like, you need to do that.” She made the team in the 5,000m and it became a milestone event in her career--beyond the competition. “Mom got to go back for the first time since she immigrated. It was extremely emotional and so special.”
As a pro, Higginson ran for the NY/NJ TC, Saucony and Hoka One One, and was coached by the legendary Frank Gagliano. In 2017, she hung up her spikes, but then qualified for the 2020 Olympic Trials marathon while contesting her first race at the distance in 2019 -- providing a nice epilogue on her elite racing career.
Higginson has now been at Miller Canfield as an attorney for three years, having graduated from Princeton, Rutgers School of Law-Newark and then as an associate for Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti LLP for three years. She married Liam Boylan-Pett, a fellow elite runner who ran at Columbia, and now has a daughter, Zofia Bee.
She specializes in employment, specifically in higher ed institutions and Title IX. She enjoys “as a defense attorney, helping to promote and support equity. It’s a nice space to be in and it gives me a touchpoint with a space I loved as an athlete.”
“The law is just both fun and terrible in that you are billing your life by a 10th of an hour,” she adds. “Time matters, just like it used to, in seconds and minutes, and so time management matters and understanding endurance and learning how to achieve balance matters in finding joy and purpose. What I learned as a runner applies every day, with the competition, in pacing yourself and in preparing, and with finding the fun when you can ... and if you’re not, to reevaluate.”
Higginson will never forget that trip to Portland 16 years ago and how it became the biggest first step to her life that unfolded. “It was the first time I thought about professional runners and was just mesmerized that running could be your job. Then going to World Juniors and experiencing that with people who are like-minded, it just prepared me and got me excited about it all.”
The next-level running career that followed may have winded down, but it gave Higginson something she’ll always have. “It is a family, and with all of the coaches, teammates and friends I’ve met through running, I’ll be ever grateful for that.”