When Ashleigh Nicholson was told what the time of her first high school 400-meter race was, she laughed.
It was 1 minute, 29.15 seconds.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Nicholson, a senior at Kodiak High School. “Really slow.”
There was a reason for the glacial pace. Back then, as a freshman, Nicholson viewed herself more like a sprinter than a full lap gal. So, when she toed the line for the 400 at Joe Floyd Track and Field, she cooked up a devious plan to prove coaches wrong.
“I didn’t try that hard at the 400, because I just didn’t want to do the 400,” she said.
Her trickery didn’t fool anybody. Mostly because it’s a tactic that her coaches had seen before.
“We get that a lot, especially for freshmen,” Kodiak coach Ashley Mortenson said. “When the athletes have a vision for themselves in a certain event, we let them have that and gently start moving them towards the next event.”
In Nicholson’s case, that next event was the 400.
Instead of holding a grudge against her coaches, Nicholson embraced her new race. She spent time watching YouTube videos and reading articles written by 400-meter Olympic runners. She was not only motivated to improve her time but had bigger goals.
“I wanted to get the 400 (school) record,” she said.
That record was set in 1994 by Kelsey Andreson, with a time of 1:01.04.
She devised a plan to reach that goal, by sprinting the first seven seconds of the race, “floating” during the middle part, then slowly picking up speed until the final stretch, where she dropped the throttle.
“That has worked pretty well for me,” Nicholson said. “I have dropped a lot of time using that.”
To Nicholson’s credit, she got within touching distance of Andreson’s time. Last spring, she went 1:02.24 — the seventh-best time in school history. That time came during the middle of the season, which gave her hopes of vaulting closer to the record. However, a long-lasting hip injury flared up — one of her legs is longer than the other, which causes hip alignment issues — at regionals and was not able to post a better time in her final four 400 races. She did still qualify for state and finished 13th.
“I finished my race (at regions) crying because it hurt so bad,” Nicholson said.
She was planning to spring up the school leaderboard this season, but instead, ends her career with unfinished business.
“I’m still upset about it,” Nicholson said. “At first, it was very hard.”
After a spectacular swimming season where she qualified for the state championship for the first time as an individual, Nicholson took to the pavement. She had been training on her own until preseason track practices started.
“The minute swim ended, she was telling me she was excited for track,” Mortenson said. “Her energy and enthusiasm is great.”
Nicholson’s first memory of running was when she lived in Glennallen. She was in the sixth grade and joined the cross country squad. The team would travel two hours to Valdez to compete with high school runners.
“That was the worst thing ever because I realized I was not a distance runner, and I didn’t like being beat by all the high schoolers,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson’s family moved to the island — her dad, Shane, played sports and graduated from Kodiak High School in the early 90s — and she started track and made the middle school travel team.
“I thought it was the coolest thing,” she said.
Running has been a part of her life since then. Despite there not being a season, Nicholson is still training by using practice templates that Mortenson posts every week on the team’s Facebook page. Sometimes Nicholson trains with her younger brother or a friend — at a distance. However, many times she is solo.
“I put my music on,” Nicholson said. “It is very stress relieving going on runs — there has been a lot of stress.”
Mortenson was encouraged to hear athletes were not just reading the workouts but doing them.
“It makes me feel like these athletes are taking control of their health and taking care of themselves,” she said.
Nicholson will be attending Weber State University in Utah in the fall, where she will be studying dental hygiene. She would like to walk-on to the school’s track team. She has lived her entire life in Alaska — Soldotna, Ketchikan, Sitka, Glennallen and here — and was looking for a school in the Lower 48. She has family in Salt Lake City, which is 38 miles from Ogden.
“It is just really pretty, and there are so many outdoor activities around there,” she said. “It just called my name.”
Mortenson is sad that she did not get to help Nicholson reach her goal of owning the 400 school record, but will never forget her infectious smile that she brought to practice, races and trips. She was always encouraging to teammates.
“I picture her running the 400 and coming down the home stretch with just a look of total exhaustion on her face — in the zone, pushing herself to the max,” Mortenson said. “She was such a great example to other athletes. She was all about enjoying the experience, but when it came down to race time, she was all in 100%.”
Nicholson loved all her coaches and was especially honored to have had the privilege of learning from Kodiak icons John Lindquist (swimming) and Marcus Dunbar (track) during her career. Both retired after the 2017-18 school year. When she thought about leaving swimming for volleyball, she said Lindquist supported her but also reminded her that she had a future in swimming.
And even though she doesn’t own a school track record, she was part of a mixed 200-yard medley relay team — Talon Lindquist, Anders Hocum and Devon Cummiskey were the other members — that set a state senior open record during a 2018 meet in Oregon.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Nicholson about being coached by both Lindquist and Dunbar. “I was thankful for that.”