Ashley Johnson’s cross-country career has mirrored her many memorable races: She started strong, maintained her pace in the middle and saved her best push for the end.
The Martin senior’s high school cross-country career comes to a close this Saturday at Old Settlers Park in Round Rock when she runs in the 6A state championship meet. Johnson, who also advanced to state as a sophomore and junior, is looking to finish in the top 10 at state for the first time.
“There’s so many good girls there, and they can start so fast,” Johnson said of the challenging field of runners at state. “And I’ve never started at a 5:20 mile [pace] before and that’s what I’m going to have to do so I can get a good position to place in the top 10. I think that’s going to be the most challenging part of the race.”
Johnson, who is committed to the University of Oklahoma, has always responded well to a challenge. In October, she won the District 4-6A meet —her third straight district title — and then finished fourth at the Region I meet in Lubbock.
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Her time in Lubbock of 17 minutes, 26 seconds set a personal record for that course by 10 seconds. Johnson finished ninth at regionals as a junior and eighth as a sophomore.
“I didn’t start too fast because I knew I wouldn’t be able to maintain it the whole time, so I stayed behind,” Johnson said of her performance at regionals. “I was sitting in like sixth the whole time, and then towards the end of the race I started moving up, because I knew towards the end I’d be able to keep going when some people would start to slow down.”
Not only did Johnson use her experience to thrive at the Region I race, she also shared her expertise with her fellow Martin runners. Teammate Erin Jacobs, a junior, finished 36th — just nine spots away from making it to state. Jacobs and Johnson helped the younger runners remain calm and maintain a strong pace despite a steep hill near the beginning of the course.
“They were really nervous for the race,” Johnson said. “And while we were jogging the course [beforehand], me and Erin were just giving them some advice to not worry about it. And we were telling them how to run up the hill, because the hill is the worst part of the race — and just not to slow down when you get to the hill because you can pass so many people going up it. And I think the advice really helped them, because they all ran great.”
Martin girls cross-country coach Julie Penix has enjoyed watching Johnson excel on the course and mature as a runner and a person along the way. “It’s actually what you want to see as a coach: to see your athletes grow and mature into young women who find success along the way,” Penix said. “She’s done everything that we’ve asked her to do year to year. Every year she continues to improve and get a little bit better, so it’s been fun to watch her grow.”
Even without Johnson next season, Martin should continue to find success in girls cross-country. The girls team won the district team title for the second consecutive year and also won the junior varsity district title. Johnson said she will miss competing alongside her Martin teammates. She’ll even miss all those early morning workouts.
“It’s 5 a.m. and everyone is tired, but we still find a way to make it fun,” Johnson said. “The girls, I’m really going to miss them. … Without the girls on the team and the guys, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.”