Ashley Jensen grew up in Rhode Island in a house that was built in 1717. She and her family lived on five acres that were home to a pony, sheep, goats, and an old-fashioned sledding hill that attracted all the neighborhood kids when it snowed.
“I was always running in the fields. My brother and sister and I spent most of our time in the fields playing with the pony,” remembers Jensen, 33.
“I got into running by running with our pony or playing a game with my sister where one of us was the horse catcher and one of us was the horse. Our parents had to drag us back into the house, even in the winter.”
This early experience of running through the New England hills made Jensen strong, tough, and happy. Running wasn’t something she had to do to get fit. It was something she felt born to do.
“In elementary school we had a mile run and I came in second. One boy beat me, but it was really fun and it felt easy. I had this moment of, ‘Oh wow, I can do this,” said Jensen.
As the first runner in her family, Jensen’s parents weren’t quite sure how to nurture her talent, but they took her to the USATF Hershey Track meets and Junior Olympic National Cross Country races in addition to her high school races.
When Jensen realized that her hometown school – Providence College – had one of the top distance running programs in the country, she decided to apply. After she met head coach Ray Treacy - who is one of the country’s most successful collegiate cross-country coaches – Jensen was all in.
“At first I was afraid because Ray is one of the best. But he took me under his wing and from that point on, I was in the top seven on the team. We were third at the NCAA Division I championship in 2003 and it was just a great experience to have that with my team.”
As someone who grew up running over the New England hills, Jensen’s first love was quite naturally, cross-country. While she was already at home on the trails, Jensen soon became enamored with the team aspect of distance running. Even though every runner races alone, she and her teammates trained together and supported each other during races.
Jensen keeps this sense of camaraderie, even to this day, even though she has no official team. Instead, she views every competitor as part of her tribe. Recently, before a race in Miami, Jensen struck up a friendship with three other runners from Minnesota, while they were waiting in line for the Port-o-Potties.
“We were all trying to find the shortest line for the bathroom,” said Jensen, “And then we started talking about what pace we were going to run. During the race, we encouraged each other, even though we each wanted to win. That’s how it is. In the race, you lay it all out there, but after the race, we all took an Uber back to South Beach together.”
Jensen explains that being a ruthless competitor on the course doesn’t mean she can’t be incredibly supportive of her competition, even if it means that she gives them an advantage. As a former team captain of the Providence Cross Country team, she is still drawn to lead and to encourage.
“I can’t pass someone without giving them a thumbs up or some form of encouragement,” said Jensen. “After a race, my boyfriend will ask, ‘Did you give someone advice, and did they end up beating you?’ But hey, what goes around comes around.”
Currently, Jensen is training for the Boston Marathon on April 16th, under her college coach, Ray Treacy. As a New Englander, this race means a great deal to Jensen, who was devastated by the 2013 bombing, even though she didn’t race that year.
“I had former teammates running that year and I was texting everyone to see if they were OK. When you finish a race and you’re in the corral and you’ve laid it all out there, you are exhausted. You are either celebrating or you are disappointed and analyzing what to do for next time. To commit an act of violence where people are so vulnerable is just awful. It’s unacceptable.”
Jensen’s mother asked if she was afraid to run the race after what happened before, but Jensen said she feels the opposite.
“I’m not afraid. I want to go out there. Boston is strong, and runners are tough. This tragic event brought everyone together and made it that much more important to keep running and show unity.”
After Boston though, it’s all about the trails for Jensen, who prefers to run in nature, the way she did as a kid. In fact, when Jensen needs a break from competition, she hits the dirt with her dog as her running buddy.
“I was done with college eligibility in the spring of 2007 and I needed a break,” said Jensen. “It was just so nice to have a normal, everyday life. I still ran every day, but I didn’t think, ‘Oh I have to get my workout in.’ Instead, I ran on the trails every day with my dog after work. She could do her thing and I could do mine. I just love being out in nature, the challenge of the hills, and the terrain. The trails are just more fun.”
Jensen put competing on the back burner until she saw an announcement for the 2008 XTERRA Trail Run World Championship.
“I had been to Hawaii twice with my family and I fell in love with it. My parents went there for their honeymoon and it was such a special place for all of us. We went to Kualoa Ranch and rode horses, and I thought that it would be an amazing place to run. I called two of my friends and told them, ‘I’m going to run a race in Hawaii, but let’s all go and have fun.’”
Her first year, Jensen was 8th overall despite only light training.
“I just loved the course at XTERRA Worlds. It was quite the experience. The terrain was so beautiful and that race is responsible for my love of trail running today. Prior to XTERRA I had only done road races and cross country courses.”
Jensen returned to the XTERRA World Championship in 2015 and finished fifth against a tough field that included XTERRA Trail Run World champs Kimber Maddox and Polina Carlson. She returned again in 2016 but had a more difficult time.
“I felt just awful. I remember running up that massive hill and thinking I might just pass out. It went from trying to finish in the top seven to just trying to survive.”
This year, Jensen is out for redemption, not just in Boston, but in Hawaii. After Boston, she is hopping off the roads and onto the dirt with the USATF Mountain Running Championship in early July and the USATF 30K Trail Championship later that month. In early November, she will run in the USATF Marathon Trail Championship, which she believes will be a good precursor to the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship in December.
“It’s been fascinating to see how Ashley has handled both road racing and trail running,” said her coach, Ray Treacy. “Her marathon fitness will help her in a big way to achieve her goals on the trails.”
Jensen is more of a strength runner than a speed runner, which will serve her well on the tough hills of Kualoa Ranch, where she went horseback riding years before with her family.
“XTERRA is the best race I’ve ever run in terms of the people and the challenges. When you are running that course and come around the turn and look out a Chinaman’s Hat, you are in so much pain because you are going up this massive hill, but then you look out at the ocean, and you remember you are in paradise.”