At age 19, Ashley Erba was racing her first 50 miler at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile this weekend. Well, this former high school national champ (16:18 5k as a junior) sure made a splash in taking third at Sonoma. In the following interview, she talks about her extensive background in running, how she came to ultrarunning, why she likes the more laid back approach that permits, and what sort of influence her parents have had on her running.
For more on the race, read our 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile results article.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Ashley Erba Post-2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Ashley Erba after a great run at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. How did that feel?
Ashley Erba: So, overall I’m very pleased with it. It didn’t all feel like unicorns and rainbows, but it was fun. I knew it was going to be an experience. I knew I hadn’t quite gotten in the type of training I was planning to beforehand. So I just felt like I’d go out there and run the whole thing, and getting third, it was awesome. It’s been a fun day.
iRunFar: It was your first 50 miler. How does the experience differ from a 50k or 55k because you’ve run the Red Hot Moab?
Erba: Yeah, exactly. It was definitely different. For one thing, I knew I was going to have to take the nutrition and hydration a lot more seriously. Doing the 50k’s I’ve done so far I’ve sort of… I don’t… when I’m running or if I’m racing, I don’t really like to worry about eating and drinking. In the 50k distance, you can kind of do that and just gut it out the last five miles. But when you have 25 miles instead of five left, it’s a little bit different. I do think I did a better job of that today than I thought I could have, so that was good. Other than that, I definitely had a few lower spots, but it didn’t feel like a different world than 50k’s.
iRunFar: You’re unusual in that you’re 19 and running. There are more people in their young 20’s or something. Even Jared Hazen out here, I think he’s 19 as well.
Erba: Yeah, we were hanging out last night, and guess what, I got the 19 number instead of him for my age.
iRunFar: Sorry, dude. And he was third as well.
Erba: Was he really? What? We’re going to have to go take some pictures after this. It’s exciting. Is he over there right now?
iRunFar: I’ll have to go look for Jared in a minute.
Erba: Go look for him.
iRunFar: That’s pretty cool. So, what brought you to ultrarunning?
Erba: Long story or the short story?
iRunFar: I want to hear the long story because I know the short story: your mom runs ultras and you’ve been a runner for awhile. Give me the long story.
Erba: That’s cool. Okay. I’ve always kind of run as both of my parents are endurance athletes. In high school I started to take my running really seriously because I knew at the time, Okay, I want a full scholarship to run at a D-I school, and I’m going to go race D-I college cross country and track for four years, and after that I’m going to go onto professional running, and etc., etc. I had it all worked out. It was going to be great. So I did work really hard with my running. I trained hard. I got two state championships my junior year. I capped off my junior year with a national title in the 5k on the track.
Erba: 16:18 is right.
iRunFar: That’s a pretty solid run.
Erba: You know. It was awesome. I trained all summer for my senior year. That fall I signed onto a full scholarship to run at Providence College out in Rhode Island which I was super pumped about. Going into my senior cross-country season, I did something to my foot and I was like, That doesn’t feel great, but I hadn’t missed a day of running in years. I was like, I’m tough. I can train through it. I kept running and did something else to my foot. I was like, once again, My feet are swollen. I don’t care. I’ll keep running. About six months later… so I didn’t have the best cross-country season, but about January of that year I started having pain in my second toe. I finally got it checked out and had x-rays. They told me I had three completely unhealed fractures. I got put in a walking boot. So in the course of a day, I went from never having missed a day of running to zero running, a walking boot, and being in the pool every day. So there went my senior track season. It was gone. I wasn’t handling it very well. My mom was already running ultras at that point. We sort of decided… I just realized I wasn’t going to be one of those girls who could go to the track meet and cheer for her teammates when I thought I should have been on the track. I’m like maybe I’m a bad teammate, but that’s just where I was. I knew I needed a distraction, a healthy one, so my mom signed up to do the Midwest Super Slam—five 100’s between April and September, to do all of those in one year and be a “Super Slammer.” So she signed up for those and I was going to crew for her in all of them.
iRunFar: To give you a little mission and something to keep you occupied.
Erba: Yeah, you know, something to do on the weekends. It worked out really well that one of the races happened to be the same weekend as the state meet for Indiana. I didn’t have to worry about thinking about that. So, I’d been at ultras before and thought they were pretty cool, but it was really moving to go on these 100’s on the weekend and crew and spend time with people and just get to be with the ultra community at these races where people are really… you know, it was just like such a different feel from the running I was experiencing in the elite track and cross-country world. It was really refreshing. I still went through stuff. I found out I had another fracture in my foot that required surgery and got put in a boot again from February through June of that year. I had a really rough recovery from that. I basically overdid my physical therapy and managed to get tendonitis and etc. I still went to Providence in the fall with high aspirations. I had a really disappointing year. Physically, I couldn’t seem to shake injuries and stuff and it was just mentally and emotionally really trying. I did very well academically, but it was basically because nothing else was going right in my life, so I was pouring all my energy into my school work. So I ended the school year with a 4.0 but at the same time I was like, I’m going to let it sit for a few weeks, and part of the way through June I was like, I can’t go back. I’ve always enjoyed running trails and nature and all of that stuff. I kind of just threw myself into running on the trails. I spent the summer just doing cool running stuff. My mom and I would travel around and do running stuff. We went to Georgia and did some running. We went up north and did some running. I had some friends out in Colorado, and I thought, Okay why not. Let’s just go out there and visit. I just planned to stay for two months. I’d signed up for a 50k during that time. My friend was doing it. Why not? Hey? We came out to Boulder. I knew I was going to help pace at Leadville that year. I’ve done a lot of pacing.
iRunFar: And who were you pacing?
Erba: I was actually going to pace the last 50 miles of Leadville in August. I paced a friend from Wisconsin. It was kind of fun. He was one of the people who was pushing the time limit cutoff. I think we left the 50-mile turnaround maybe 20 minutes or less before the cutoff and then had to go up Hope Pass again. So, it was definitely an emotional experience. We ended up making it in 29:27, under the cutoff. It was really fun. After being in Boulder for a few weeks I was like, I can’t go back to Indiana.
iRunFar: Which is where you’re from.
Erba: Which is where I grew up. I was like, this is finally somewhere where I feel like I fit. I love the people—there’s actually some of the best people I’ve met running in Boulder there. I raced my first 50k at the UROC event. I basically totally winged it and had a blast. It was like, Okay, I’m going to keep doing this. I like to push myself and see what I can do. I love the people on the trails and helping on the trails, so it’s a really good combination.
iRunFar: Did you run a race in Wisconsin?
Erba: So I did. I did the 50k at UROC in September. In October, I did the Glacial Trail 50k in Wisconsin which was fun. I ran alone most of the race, it’s an out-and-back, but I knew a lot of people that were doing that.
iRunFar: And you won that outright?
Erba: I won that in 3:52 and was first finisher overall. Then I took a break and came back and raced Moab Red Hot 55k. That was a blast. It was an interesting experience. I got lost a couple times.
iRunFar: Lost lost or slickrock-don’t-know-where-to-go?
Erba: Both. We actually took a wrong turn at mile eight and went at least two-thirds of a mile extra which was good because it gave me a little motivation in that middle section. Several times on the slickrock we’d stop and scan, but I knew that was coming.
iRunFar: You’re not really lost then.
Erba: I didn’t count that as getting lost. That was so much fun. I’d never been to Moab before, so that was cool. I signed up for Sonoma as my first 50 mile, a very low-key event obviously.
Erba: I mean, nobody shows up for this race, right? So, yeah, I definitely plan on continuing.
iRunFar: No Western States this year, correct?
Erba: Not this year. That race is on the top of my list of must-do 100’s, but I kind of want to, when I do it the first time, to kind of get after it and really race it well. I don’t feel like I have quite the base right now to be able to do that right now without injuring myself. Not having it feel good, I don’t want to. I do want to get out to Western this year and just pace and run part of the course and get part of the experience. Then I’m thinking maybe next year coming back and start doing ultras a little bit more seriously and seeing if I could qualify.
iRunFar: Well, you would have here, so you did here, so there’s probably a good chance you could do it. How do you transition from on the track in high school… obviously you have to be completely driven to run a 16:18 your junior year of high school. How do you go from that to, obviously there’s more miles and you run more miles doing ultras, your races are longer? How do you think you can manage? You got hurt a couple times in your senior year. How can you manage that in ultras?
Erba: Part of my injuries my senior year were a combination of a lot of things. It’s part of being so driven to run at the level of that intensity. I’m a very type-A person naturally, so it just got a little bit obsessive. Once you start looking stats, once you start looking at repeats, once you start looking at time splits, looking at all the recovery things you’ve got to do if you want to be good—I think it kind of pushed me over the edge. One of the things that I love about doing trail running and training for ultras, I think this summer this year is the first time I don’t have a schedule. I know a lot of the top ultrarunners do have schedules, but I’m not there yet. I kind of need to push away everything from before and just be like, Alright. So there are certain injury things you always have to deal with especially doing more mileage, longer races, and bigger adventures, but there’s less of aspect of constant time crunch with them. If you’re racing in college or in high school, you’re racing every weekend.
iRunFar: If not twice a week.
Erba: You can’t be hurt. You can’t have anything wrong. You can’t cross train. You can’t miss that workout because it will screw up your whole season.
iRunFar: If you’re not feeling it now, like if you’re going to do a long run on Wednesday and you’re not feeling it, you can do it another day.
Erba: If something’s feeling a little bit tweaky, either I can do it slower or I can cross train that day or I can go for a hike. It’s not going to significantly take away from… I know I’m not going to be any worse off in my next 50k or 50 mile because I didn’t do a tempo run today. Nobody cares. So, I think that’s a big part of it is just having our lives a little bit.
iRunFar: How much of that is, I believe your father was a pretty driven triathlete. Does he still have the Vineman record?
Erba: He does. I posted that picture on Instagram. He still has it—8:50.
iRunFar: So your dad was a type-A, driven triathlete and your mom did Midwest Super Slam. Does switching from what maybe is your dad’s driven-ness to your mom’s ultras—there’s just a different approach. Is there any of that going on?
Erba: My dad and I still think a lot more along the same lines in our training. If we’re doing an event… we’re not going to do an event unless we’re going to go out there and go for it. As far as our training or how we view our running or our athletic pursuits is very similar. It’s been a great bonding thing for us over the years. It’s been really good. I definitely have similarities to my mom as well, but she takes her racing and her events in a much different way than I do. In some ways we’re similar because I’m doing the events that she does and stuff like that, but I’m definitely still on the other side.
iRunFar: So how are you going to not limit that but check that and control it?
Erba: I think part of it is just coming from what I went through the past few years and being like, That’s never going to happen. I don’t want that to happen again.
iRunFar: Just that experience.
Erba: That experience. I think that will help me put it in perspective.
iRunFar: Do you have any more races lined up?
Erba: Not currently. I was asked that in today’s race. I’m not actually signed up for anything. Obviously I’m going to do more races this year. That’s not a question. I just didn’t know what I’d want to do. I kind of sign up a race at a time and then, Okay I’ll sign up for that. I want to leave it open for opportunities to see what comes up. I’m definitely going to do a lot of mountain adventuring this summer—a lot of 14’ers.
iRunFar: So you’ll stay in Colorado?
Erba: Yes, a lot of 14’ers and a lot of that kind of thing. A few 100’s I might just pace. I’m pacing one in June for sure and my mom’s running the Bear 100.
iRunFar: Awesome race.
Erba: Which I’ve heard is fantastic.
iRunFar: Totally fantastic.
Erba: Crewing and pacing at that which I’m very excited about.
iRunFar: Keep her on course.
Erba: Exactly. I’ve heard you can get lost.
iRunFar: Been there, done that last year.
Erba: Yikes. Yeah, I don’t have any events that I’m signed up for yet, but I definitely will.
iRunFar: So we’ll see you out on the course soon?
Erba: You definitely will see me racing again. I can’t not get out and run these races.
iRunFar: Congratulations on a great race today, and I look forward to seeing you out on the trail some more.
Erba: Thank you so much. Absolutely.