It’s been three and a half years since Alicen Ashley, her two younger brothers, Aaron and Andrew, and their mother, Emily, moved from Bolivar to Nixa for a new beginning in their lives.
“To get a fresh start,” Emily said.
After arriving in Nixa, Alicen found a new love in her life in cross country, an arduous endeavor for the strong-minded and strong-spirited that is actually an old love for her mother.
Alicen, a Nixa sophomore, is headed to the Class 4 State Cross Country Meet in Columbia on Saturday. Her mother, Emily, also was a two-time State cross country qualifier in her native Iowa, while running for Sioux Center.
Mother and daughter are enjoying Alicen’s rousing success and relating their experiences running. They’re also savoring their memories of Alicen’s late father introducing her to athletics, leading to her stellar running career.
“He never got to see me run,” Alicen said of her father, Brent, who passed away four years ago due to cancer. “But I know he's watching me now. All I want to do is make him proud.
“He was passionate about our athletics and was my soccer coach for a while,” she added. “It gives me a lot of motivation knowing he’s watching me because ever since I was younger, I've wanted to make him proud, even though I knew he would be proud of me no matter what.”
Likewise, following in the footsteps of her mother gives Alicen a sense of reflection and empathy she is proud to share with her mother.
“I wanted to run, there was no question about it, because my Mom was a runner,” Alicen said. “But I didn't get into it until my freshman year. Throughout junior high, I feel I was more committed to soccer than cross country. But I could tell my Mom liked me running more than soccer.”
“I definitely was pushing her in that direction,” said Emily, who coached cross country and track at Humansville for eight years and is now a teacher at Ozark. “I do tend to push as a mom. Sometimes, I have to find the right line between being mom and coach. I have to step back at times and just be mom.”
Emily had seen that Alicen had the physical talents to shine in cross country long before she got serious about the sport.
“Her Dad saw a lot of potential in Alicen when she started playing soccer, the same excitement I see in her when she runs,” Emily said. “I see how much she has grown since seventh grade and a lot of potential in what she can be.”
Mother and daughter are about identical in size — petite, but relatively long-legged — and share the same running style — relentless.
“We have the same body type, but she’s a little taller than me,” Alicen said. “Hopefully, I’ll grow and get longer legs.”
“She's been much more successful than I was,” Emily said. “But I would say we are similar runners. I was pretty consistent with my pace. If I can run three miles, I can run six or eight. You find your sweet pace and go with it. I feel she's the same way. She has a lot of endurance.
“I knew she had the right body-type to be a runner and she was athletic, from playing soccer. I could see from all of her soccer playing that she might be fairly good at running long distances. So, I encouraged her to try them when we moved here (prior to Alicen’s seventh-grade year). I also knew it would be a good way to meet friends, being that we were new to the community. She ended up loving it and has met great people through cross country.”
Alicen is aided by having a mother with a running background while at home and in particular at the breakfast, lunch and dinner table.
“I know how important nutrition can be for a runner and she knows, too,” Emily said. “Sometimes self-discipline can be a little difficult. We help each other out with that. She definitely works hard at trying to eat healthy and find the right food to eat.”
On the course, Alicen also receives help from her mother. At spectator-friendly courses, Emily can be seen running from one end of the course to the other and points in between. She makes a point to always find her way to the two-mile marker.
“I very rarely see her finish a race because I know the two-mile mark is a critical part of the race,” Emily said. “I guess it's the coach in me that always wants to give her time to her and let her know what place she's in. I find myself at the meets putting myself in that position I was in as a coach.”
“When my Mom shouts out my two-mile time, I know if I need to go harder or what I need to go for,” Alicen said. “She’s very involved and loves it. Her coaching spirit comes out. I like her pushing me.
“My Mom has been a very big influence,” Alicen added. “Sometimes, I can be down on myself or my mindset isn’t there and I need to work on my mentality. She can tell whenever that’s lacking. She is one to pump me up again and make me feel good about myself. She tells me what I need to work on. She really cares.”
As Alicen mentioned, she is also spurred on while running by memories of her father. The date of his death, ‘May 30, 2015,’ and ‘Dad’ are written on her shoes.
“He was like me in that once I set my mind to do something, I'm very passionate about it,” Alicen said. “He was always all-in or out. He was never halfway. He is where I feel I get my passion, motivation and commitment to always want to do better.”