In a typical women’s collegiate cross country race, lasting 3.7 miles, the ‘actual race’ doesn’t start until a mile and a half or two miles in.
This is according to ONU cross country coach Jason Maus, who says that after a couple of miles, “That’s when a lot of the race usually takes place, and the moves are made.”
Fortunately for Maus and the women’s cross country team, sophomore Ashlie Baumann now knows how to make those moves.
Baumann spent most of her freshman season as Northern’s second-fastest runner behind then-sophomore Emily Richards, who would go on to become a Division III track & field national champion in the 800-meter race last spring.
When Richards went down with a knee injury after the team’s first meet this season, Baumann was given the reins as the lead runner.
So far, she hasn’t disappointed.
Baumann has placed first on the team in both races since Richards was sidelined, and has begun to ‘separate herself from the pack.’ Last year, Baumann led Northern’s
2nd-7th runners, who typically ran as a pack and finished within a minute of each other and any- where from 30 seconds to two minutes behind Richards.
This year, Baumann has finished nearly 50 seconds ahead of Northern’s next runner in the two races since Richards’s injury. She won the Michigan State Spartan Invitational on Sept. 16 and finished 17th overall in the ultra-competitive All-Ohio Championships on Sept. 30.
“Ashlie has started to emerge as a front-runner, and her scores on the card are getting lower and lower, which is really helping us a ton,” Maus said. “And if we can continue to keep pack times tight, and Ashlie keeps improving, we’ll get better as a whole.”
‘Pack times’ are important in cross country; that is, the middle runners on a team must run as tightly as they can (in a ‘pack’), so they can collectively push to get the lowest scores possible. After Richards’s injury, pack times became even more crucial for the Polar Bears, who were without an elite lead runner to score low for them every week.
Baumann, who used to lead Northern’s middle-runner pack, is now emerging as an elite lead runner as well. While this may go against ‘pack mentality,’ her separation and low scores are needed for the team’s overall success.
“Pack times are important, but obviously you don’t want to jeopardize your race to stay back with the group if you’re faster. So yes, I have strayed from that pack,” Baumann said. “Basically, Maus is telling me, ‘We need you top-five at conference. You have to do your best for the team, and that will help the team.’ The pack that’s behind me, they need to try to stay together and move up as one, and close that gap between me and them as much as they possibly can.”
Baumann’s separation this season has been driven mainly by an increase in race awareness around that two-mile turning point.
“Her strategy in races has improved a bunch,” Maus said. “She’s becoming a little more savvy and a little more race-competent, understanding what’s going on around her, where she needs to make moves, and how she should feel at certain points in races.”
“If you’re in a race and the pack around you makes a move, or a surge, she’s got to be able to cover that move. And maybe a year ago, she wasn’t aware that it was going on, or wasn’t aware that the group was moving and she just stayed where she was, and didn’t cover that move. This year, she’s done a much better job of covering those moves, or making her own moves to try to separate herself from the pack.”
Baumann is making her own moves this year. And she attributes most of her ‘surge awareness’ now to the experience she gained as a freshman.
“As a freshman, I didn’t really understand [surges], and then in outdoor track it started to click… I became more aware of the people around me and I realized that I can use them to my advantage,” Baumann said. “When they make a move, I can make a move. I learned that just because they make a move, it might only last 30 seconds, and I learned that if you can just hold on for that 30 seconds, you are 30 seconds better than you were a minute ago.”
While Baumann is more strategic on the course, her times have also improved this season. So far she has bettered her times on two of the three courses, the Bluffton Inv. and the All-Ohio Inv., by five seconds each.
“Every week she runs better, and the better you run, the more confident you get,” Maus said. “So the snowball is moving in the right direction for her right now.”
Not only is Baumann a more confident runner in her sophomore season, but she is also starting to take a leadership role on this young team. Following Baumann, the team has consistently seen two freshmen, one sophomore, one junior and one senior rotate places in the squad’s top five.
“It’s a young team and I think it’s really important that some of our younger members have good leadership, because they’re the ones who are going to be carrying the team in a few years,” Richards said. “And I think [Ashlie] is a really great model of what that leadership should look like. I think the team’s going to be just fine in her hands.”
Maus believes that most of Baumann’s leadership has been by example, as is the nature of talented, young runners.
“Ashlie’s done a good job, certainly on the course or in practice, raising her level of competitiveness to continue to improve and help our group get better,” Maus said. “That’s probably the biggest impact that she’s had this season, has been performance-based, which is fantastic. As she gets older and matures, other leadership roles will come.”
Despite Baumann’s emergence as the lead runner in Richard’s absence, the young Polar Bears still have a ways to go before they compete for OAC championships. Last year, even with a healthy Richards and three seniors finishing in their top seven, they placed fourth in the conference meet.
With Richards out for ‘at least a couple more weeks,’ although she hopes to be back by the OAC meet, and their lone senior scorer Genevieve Marchese battling ankle issues, this team will lean on Baumann to anchor them.
And she’s fine with that. She’s ready.
“The way that my training’s been going now, I’m just starting to realize that I can be good and that I can compete at higher levels because I have to trust myself and trust in the training, and eventually it will all start to come together,” Baumann said. “We are in the process of rebuilding this program, and eventually we will get there. It’s just going to take a lot of dedication, and a lot of people putting in the work.”