MADISON — Huron native and former Wolsey-Wessington standout runner Ashley Robinson has been defying the odds for most of her life. The most recent occurrence came early this month, when she finished as the runner-up at the North Star Athletic Association Conference meet, to help the Dakota State University women’s cross country team to a share of the conference title and a berth in the NAIA National Cross Country Championships this Friday in Vancouver, Wash.
“It is like a dream come true. I feel like I am on top of the world,” Robinson said of qualifying for the national event during her final attempt as a senior for the Trojans. “I have put in countless miles and numerous workouts and I was able to see it all pay off.
“It really hasn’t set in that I am going to nationals and I will get to race against the best runners in the NAIA in the nation,” she said. “I think when I get on the plane, which will be my first time flying other than being life-flighted to hospitals when I was younger, it will really set in.”
Robinson’s trek across the snow-covered ground in Forest City, Iowa during her qualifying effort sort of mirrored her path of getting past some of the struggles she faced early in her life to becoming one of the top runners at the collegiate level in South Dakota.
“I was a sick kid. When I was born, I spent the first two years of my life in hospitals with an undiagnosed condition,” Robinson said. “I was flown to both Minneapolis and Omaha in search of a diagnosis.”
After numerous tests and trials it was determined that Robinson was allergic to protein. Her body did not have the ability to digest the proteins, which she describes as being “found in literally every food.”
At that time and to this day there is no cure for her condition. Through the age of 10 Robinson was fed a special formula through a feeding tube in her nose. After turning 10, doctors ran some advanced tests and determined her digestive tract had developed slightly and more normal food could be integrated into her diet.
“The process probably took around four years to go from being ‘fed’ a formula through a feeding tube in my nose, to eating a diet similar to normal people,” Robinson said. “To this day I still cannot eat wheat, eggs, fish, shellfish, nuts, tree nuts or honey.”
Despite the challenges it presented because of the lack of getting the nutrition she needed in her younger years, Robinson decided to take up the sport of running and developed into one of the state’s top athletes during her high school years.
“I did not gain weight correctly nor could I properly maintain nutrition when I did become physically active,” she said. “Despite my adversity, I persevered and worked hard with the cards I was dealt.”
After a successful high school career at Wolsey-Wessington, Robinson took her talents to Dakota State where she has developed her running skills for the past four seasons.
“Ashley has been a leader these past few years, not only with her work ethic but by her encouragement of her teammates. It’s been phenomenal to see her progress in her time at DSU,” said Anthony Drealan, who has served as the head men’s and women’s cross country and track and field coach for the Trojans for the past seven seasons. “Ashley has obviously seen a significant improvement in her personal bests, but more impressive is the fact that she’s improved her confidence and belief in herself.
“As a freshman, she would become nervous to the point of negatively impacting her race,” he said. “Each year she has become more confident in herself and has viewed her nervousness as something she can deal with and race to her potential.”
Robinson finished 18th in NSAA conference meet as a freshman, 19th as a sophomore and 14th as a junior. Knowing this would be her last attempt at reaching the national champions and the last time she would set foot on the course for the Trojans, the nerves set in early.
“I went into the conference week trying to remain positive. Occasionally I would wonder how I would afford a plane ticket to go watch my teammates run in Washington, but then I would try to tell myself not to worry about it just yet,” Robinson said. “I also tried to stay level headed and not “bank” on qualifying for the national meet. I truly thought my only chance at making it was if me entire team made it and we got the automatic bid.
“When I stepped onto the course that morning I was nervous, but not too much more nervous than I would be for any other meet,” she said.
Adding to the challenge of the event was a snow covered course where a path had to be shoveled for the participants to run on. Officials also had to make a slight change in the course in order to avoid some slippery areas in the corners and the runners had to make the switch to longer spikes for more traction.
“At the start line, I really wasn’t telling myself I was going to try to win the race. I told myself that I needed to get out hard and be with my teammates,” Robinson said. “If we packed up, we could stand a better chance of beating our rival, Dickinson State.”
Robinson didn’t get the start she was hoping for, but that didn’t hamper her bid to reach the next race too much.
“Of course, as I do for literally every race, I was behind my teammates,” she said. “I had a slight moment of discouragement when I realized I was not in the spot I wanted to be. However, I kept rolling and started to see myself moving up.”
Prior to reaching the mile mark in the 3.1-mile event Robinson was running ninth. After she passed the mile mark she passed one of her teammates.
“At this point I knew I needed to work harder for my team,” Robinson said. “We all shared the goal of winning conference and I knew I needed to move up for that to happen.”
As the race reached the 1.5-mile mark Robinson was the top DSU runner in the field, which put her sixth overall.
“At this point, in my mind I was kind of freaking out. I was telling myself ‘you are pretty far up, you don’t belong in this spot’, but I pushed the voices out of my head and knew I had to keep moving up,” Robinison said. “I wasn’t confident at this point that I had secured myself a spot to get an individual bid and I didn’t know how my team was looking behind me. I made the decision to keep passing people and get into a higher position.”
When Robinson passed the 4K mark of the 5K event she had moved into the second spot and set her sights on the leader — Lisa Townsend of Dickinson State.
“We battled back and fourth for the last 800 meters,” Robinson said. “We rounded the corner to the finish line with 200 meters remaining and she just had a little more kick.
“I crossed the finish line and sat on the ground, not completely realizing what had just happened. After a few moments, it sunk in that I was going to nationals,” she said.
“My dad hugged me first, with tears in his eyes, and then next my mom, she was sobbing. I had teammates picking me up, coaches hugging me and everyone telling me how phenomenal of a run I had.”
Although her time of 20 minutes, 14.7 seconds wasn’t enough to establish a new personal record for Robinson it was the best showing she has had during the conference meet in her collegiate career.
“My time for the day wasn’t fast, but it was what I needed that day to ensure I go one more race,” Robinson said. “The icing on the cake was finding out, in surprise fashion, that my team was going to nationals as well.”
Robinson’s performance came at just the right time, according to her coach.
“Through the first kilometer she was 20-25 meters behind the leader, but she didn’t panic and she worked herself all the way up to the lead group and fought for the win,” Drealan said. “This was the first meet of the season that she was the No. 1 runner for DSU, and it was an important day to have a peak race.”
Robinson and the rest of the Dakota State team will compete in the NAIA Women’s Cross Country National Championship on Friday in Vancouver, Wash.
“I was fortunate enough to watch my boyfriend, Braden, and the boys’ team compete in the 2018 national cross country meet in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, so I feel as though I slightly know what to expect,” Robinson said. “I am using that to my advantage. The atmosphere is unlike any other meet. There are tons of people.
“I know the race will run fast. Girls are going to get off the line quickly,” she said. “Knowing that, I am going to try to use the intensity of the race to get a PR (personal record). It would be great to better my PR, as I have one last opportunity for cross country.”
Robinson, who is also a member of the DSU track and field team, is looking for the success she has had this fall in cross country to carry over to her final season of track and field.
“I already feel the conference race has impacted my track season. I am more confident in my ability and feel as though I will be able to push myself harder in my track races,” she said. “I have goals of qualifying for outdoor nationals in the marathon and I am hoping my increased fitness and newfound confidence can carry me to a qualifying standard.”
Robinson won the 3,000-meter steeplechase last season for DSU at the NSAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. She also posted the third fastest time in DSU history in the event, with a time of 12:10.62 at the Howard Wood Relays, which was just her second time competing in the event.
“I am also hoping to get a new school record in the steeplechase,” she said. “I think my trust in my fitness will allow me to push myself beyond my limits. Racing against such tough competition at nationals will provide me with the desire to better myself when track rolls around.”
Robinson, who is the daughter of Brian and Kristie Robinson, is planning to return to Huron following her graduation in the spring. She is majoring in biology and nutrition/dietetics.
“I have been accepted into an online program, where I will be able to take my dietetics internship in the Huron area,” she said. “Following competition of the internship I will take my registered dietetics exams. Once I become a registered dietitian, I will be looking to work in a small practice-like setting where I can work along side my clients to better their health.”