I push the conversation back to the Gorge Waterfalls 100k in April of 2016 and Ashley Erba gushes at the enormity of the last few years, “So much content of my life.” She was a fast-rising star, finishing third at the 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile as a 19-year-old, but then she became injured at Gorge Waterfalls and took a break from the sport.
“I stopped running altogether that spring. I was really struggling with mental health. I was 20, and I was struggling to deal with that,” Erba said, recognizing her youth at the time of that ultrarunning boom. “I think I’d had anxiety for years, and deep-seated depression. I was struggling internally and sometimes the best external stuff can’t fix that. I was in my apartment in Boulder, Colorado with my dog and I could not get off the floor,” Erba, now 25, said.
She elaborates, “I literally could not get off the floor. I was just watching Netflix. I knew I was struggling and tried to get a doctor’s appointment, but it was just me,” she recalled and in July of 2016, she moved back home to Indiana. “My parents stepped in. I thought it’d be temporary, but it ended up permanent.” Family, therapy, and medicine all helped her to recover. “It’s a process, the first several months I was just getting a grasp on mental health. I started depression and anxiety medication. I was struggling with sleep, having nightmares and just not able to sleep,” Erba recalled. “I went through some different periods of therapy and it’s trial and error on the medicine to find what works.”
After a standout high-school running career, Erba went to Providence College on a full-ride athletic scholarship. “I was overcoming injury and never really connected with the team or coaches, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she lamented of that freshman year. Then, when ultrarunning, she transferred in to the University of Colorado in Boulder, but exited that program when sport became nearly full-time. Back in Indiana, her road took a different turn and she became a veterinary technician.
“I decided to go back to school in the fall of 2018 to be a veterinary technician. I started to dabble in running a bit then too, but I was commuting to Fort Wayne. It was an 18-month program, full days. I graduated from there in February 2020,” Erba shared, and then explained her motivations. “It was a lifelong interest, I’ve always enjoyed animals. In high school though I didn’t think I could pursue it, didn’t think I could handle the harder parts of it, but it really came full circle. When asking myself what I really wanted to do, the passion for animals stayed constant.”
She beams that she herself has two dogs and three cats, and shared more of her motivations, “It’s something I can do anywhere in the country, there are a lot of good parts and bad parts. It’s great to know when you’ve made a difference, helped an animal or an owner.” That love of animals really has been there throughout her life. She’s been vegan for most of her years. “I just didn’t want to eat animals,” she simplified. “I was seven or so and just loved animals too much. I rescued some pet rats or something and got involved with animal rights and that was the end of eggs and dairy. I’ve never had any issues with wanting to go against it. There are so many reasons to be plant-based.”
Her professional track continues, and she’s adding running back in as well. “I started running more last spring, getting on the trails here in Indiana,” she said, and then brightened at the memory of a summer 2020 trip to visit her sister in Colorado. “It was the first time I’d left the Midwest in four-and-a-half years and it was really wonderful to be back in the mountains, a good motivator.” Erba quietly won the Cloudsplitter 100k in Virginia in October and, days after we talk, flew to Florida for the first-year Forgotten Florida 45 Mile race. She won that too, saying, “It kicked my butt because I definitely haven’t been run training the last few months, and the whole course was runnable. I had a blast.” And as for if we’ll see her at more races in the future, Erba reflected, “I’m always competitive with myself, even if I don’t have a big focus or specific training, there’s always some competitive drive. I’ve just got to have a good work-life balance, and mental health with it. It’s never a perfect balance, but I’m doing really well. I’m sleeping, I have positive people around me, and being more active helps with that balance too.”
Call for Comments
Share your story of running and adventuring with Ashley Erba in the comments.