Ethan Ashley's junior season didn't end the way he planned. The beginning of the season didn't go according to plan, either.
With COVID-19 challenging the 2020 cross country season and internal strife straining Denmark's runners, the Danes were in no shape to tackle the state's highest classification.
Denmark finished second last year at the Class 4A state championships and expected to return all five of its top runners, only to lose one of its top runners, Karthik Kochuparambil, before the season started.
It was July and the Danes had one month before the start of the season. Ashley called the team's training "terrible."
So Ashley decided to take charge.
"There's no team bonding, there's nothing going on and everybody is just fighting right now," Ashley said. "So I was like, 'All right, I'll see what I can do.' I ended up taking me and the top five up to my great-uncle's house up in Tennessee with some crazy hills, so it was just hills and swimming all day. We did a lot of running, a lot of hard runs. If you ask the guys, that's probably the hardest workouts we did all year. We did that kind of workout, then we'd sit around dinner and talk about goals for the season."
It was the impetus for a Denmark cross country team that took Class 7A by storm this year and spent multiple weeks as the top-ranked team in the state.
The Danes won the Warpath Invitational in October, then placed second at the Alexander/Asics Invitational against some stiff competition.
And following a convincing victory at the region meet, Denmark expected to finish the season as one of the top teams at the Class 7A state championships at Carrollton High School.
"Heading into it, I was definitely hyped up for it, and as a team we were hyped up for it, so we obviously had some big goals heading into it," Ashley said. "Just one of those days were it doesn't happen."
Ashley, the Forsyth County News Runner of the Year, finished sixth individually (16:36) and helped the Danes to a fourth-place finish at the meet.
In what can hardly be called a disappointing season, Ashley knows there's plenty of room left to improve. In fact, it's that dissatisfaction that Ashley uses to continually push himself.
"To be at the kind of level of running you want to be at, you have to be really internally driven. You have to be self-motivated," Ashley said. "So, in team sports like basketball and soccer, you can work your tail off every day and your team would suck. That's when I was like, 'I don't know if this is the right thing. I'm working my tail off and we're going 0-10 in basketball. I can go into running, work my tail off and see results.'"
Ashley did play basketball and soccer until eighth grade, when his friends coaxed him into running track. Ashley's relay team set a middle school record that year, then he placed at the state meet during his freshman track season.
"I'm definitely glad I made the switch," Ashley said. "I was actually talking to my parents about this. I find running more fulfilling, and I enjoy pouring into it more."