Ethan Ashley proved to be the top cross country runner in Georgia last month when he captured the Class 7A state championship with a blistering time of 15:45, winning the race by nearly half a minute.
On Saturday, he proved to be one of the best runners in the entire nation.
Ashley finished 23rd Saturday at the Eastbay Cross Country Championships National Finals in San Diego, Calif., running a 15:52 at the annual all-star tournament that draws 40 of the fastest runners from across the country.
Riley Hough [Fenton, Mich.] won the race with a 15:11.
"It was a huge blessing. I'm really glad God gave me the opportunity to go out there and compete with those guys," Ashley said. "It didn't necessarily turn out the way I wanted it to, but I'm just super blessed to be able to have that opportunity. It's been an awesome experience, for sure."
Ashley qualified for the race after taking first place at the South regional in Charlotte, N.C., on Nov. 27. He finished the 5K in 15:00, one second ahead of runner-up Sahil Dodda [Dallas, Texas], becoming just the second Georgia runner to win the South regional.
It was a better finish than he anticipated, Ashley admitted.
"That race was crazy. Honestly, I wasn't really heading in expecting to win," Ashley said. "I was just trying to qualify and get top 10. One of the top guys got injured halfway through the race and I found myself near the front with about a mile to go, and I just decided, 'All right, I can hang with these guys.' About 800 meters to go, Coach [Andrew] Hudson saw me and said, 'I know you've got one more move,' and I was like, 'You know, I'm feeling pretty good. I do have one more move.'
"So, I ended up pulling away a little bit and held on to the lead the last little bit. I was not expecting it. I crossed the line and was like, 'Woah, what just happened?' I was not ready for that, but it was super fun."
Hudson, who coaches Ashley in cross country and track, said in October that Ashley is "the best boy I've ever coached." He also coached Ashley and Denmark's 4x800 relay team to a state championship in May, when the Danes ran the fastest time in the country [7:44.21].
Having Hudson at Saturday's race was invaluable for Ashley.
That's partly because Hudson ran the same course in 1985, back when the race was called the Kinney Cross Country Championships before evolving into the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships. Hudson, then a junior from Woodbridge, Va., finished 25th.
"He was such a huge asset throughout this whole experience," Ashley said. "I would not have been able to do any of this without him. I'm so grateful that God gave me Coach [Andrew] Hudson to be there both for training but also for his experience. We were talking about race strategy and he still remembered ... how he ran the race and stuff. It was awesome to have him giving me advice pre-race, like, 'This is the best way to run it. Here are the good parts and the bad parts of the course.' That was really awesome."
Ashley won every single regular-season race this year, then extended his streak into the postseason with wins at the Region 6-7A championship, Class 7A state championship, and Eastbay Cross Country Championships South regional.
While the streak ended Saturday, Ashley said qualifying for the national tournament was enough of a reward.
"Honestly, it was kind of like a reach goal," Ashley said. "We came into the season hoping to get a top spot at state and hopefully win state — just see how well we can do and maybe make it to nationals. There were a couple of workouts that were the 'national qualifier workouts,' is what [Hudson] called them. So, we were hoping it would happen, but we did not head into it expecting to win the whole South regional and end up making it to nationals, so that was a nice little cherry on top, for sure."
Ashley signed last week to extend his career at the United State Air Force Academy.
According to Ashley, the Falcons were well represented at Saturday's race.
"Actually, two of the other Air Force commits are here, so we'll have a pretty good class," Ashley said. "We've got a handful on national caliber runners heading there. It'll be challenging, for sure; it's not an easy school by any means, but I think building some friendships here and getting to know these guys so that when we head into it, we know each other and we've got some people to work with."