Ashley Johnson is a fast learner. Take, for example, her performance in the recent Ken Garland Invitational in Denton. It was the first time the Martin senior had ever run a 2-mile race in cross-country. The standard length of a cross-country race is 5 kilometers, or roughly 3.2 miles.
A new challenge, though, brought the same type of finish she’s been providing since her early says of running at the high school level. Johnson, the two-time defending district champion, won the race with a time of 11 minutes, 11 seconds. She followed up that victory by winning the Marcus II Invitational in Denton on Sept. 19.
“I didn’t really have a goal for time. I never ran a 2-mile during cross-country before,” she said of the Ken Garland race. “I decided to go out there and have fun, run my best and whatever I ran, be happy with it.”
Johnson’s been happy and running her best for a long while. She qualified for the state meet when she was just a sophomore. And she repeated that feat in 2014.
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As major universities such as the University of Oklahoma scout her, Johnson is focused on reaching state one last time and really making it count. She wants to finish in the top 10 this time around.
To gauge her progress, she and her teammates have spent the early part of the season competing against some of the state’s premier teams and individual runners at several area meets.
“There’s a little bit of pressure,” Johnson said. “I want to run really well. I want to try to get a good scholarship for college. And really I’m just trying to improve myself. I’m not trying to compare myself to the other girls. I’m just trying to work on me and not worry about them.”
Martin girls cross-country coach Julie Penix considers Johnson a perfectionist who enjoys running against other top competitors. “She does a great job and stays humble,” Penix said. “She wants to keep improving, which is a great trait to have in cross-country.”
Johnson isn’t just trying to win district and qualify for state. She’s trying to push her team to another district championship in October. Junior Erin Jacobs and freshman Valerie Solis have both had strong showings in the first month of competition.
“We’re using the meets to get better and not really focusing on that meet that week,” Penix said. “We’re kind of using this as an opportunity to train for the championship season.”
On the boys side, Martin is trying to get back in championship form. Sam Houston boys won the district meet in 2014. The boys are led by junior Matt Smith.
“We’re doing some good work and just keeping an eye on championship season and working toward that,” boys coach Chris Capeau said. “I think it’s coming along well. We have some great leaders on both [the boys and girls] sides. Matt Smith on the guys side is definitely carrying the front of that, and Ashley on the women’s side is carrying the front of that.”
As Johnson rounds into championship form, her teammates are following suit, Penix said. Johnson, who has benefited from off-season weight training, has embraced being a role model to the younger girls, her coach said.
“She knows how to push herself,” Penix said. “She’s been a great leader this year. She’s really stepped up and helped some of those younger girls find their way, as well.”
Johnson knows she’s looked to as that experienced runner who knows what it takes to make it to state. “I’m a senior and the freshmen are like, ‘Oh, she’s a state runner,’ ” Johnson said. “That’s really cool. I feel like a lot of them look up to me. I feel like I have to be a good role model and not slack off and have a good attitude so I don’t give them my bad habits.”
If Johnson has any bad habits, she said, it might be that she thinks too much at times and sometimes gets down on herself. But she’s working on those tendencies.
“Sometimes I let my head get the best of me, and I just think too much,” Johnson said. “I can get really negative sometimes if I’m not having a good day or I’m not running very well. I’m trying to work on that. It’s gotten better in the last few weeks.”
If Johnson’s still getting better, then the state’s best runners had better watch out. She’s coming for them. “I really want to improve my performance at state,” Johnson said. “I know the last two years I haven’t had the best races there, so I’m really hoping that this year I can run a great time and place in the top 10.”