DES MOINES — Ashlyn Bagge’s road to her first Drake Relays has more twists and turns than the half marathons that initially drew her into distance running as a college freshman.
The Wartburg College senior and Independence native certainly wasn’t the typical runner in the Thursday night Drake women’s 5,000-meter field, and that goes beyond the fact that she was the only NCAA Division III competitor of the group.
Bagge is a newcomer to the sport rubbing shoulders with lifetime distance runners in the Division I and II ranks. She ran her first half marathon as a college freshman, became a Division III cross country All-American in her first year of competition this past fall and recently earned indoor All-American honors during this inaugural season of collegiate track and field.
Running has helped fill a void left after years of enjoying the camaraderie of teammates that Bagge found in high school volleyball and track — where she never ran further than an 800. Like so many young adults, she initially struggled to find her way in college living away from home for the first time with childhood friends spread out.
Reaching a breaking point towards the end of her freshman year, Bagge stumbled into a sport that can last a lifetime.
“I was getting stressed with school and just life trying to adapt to college,” Bagge recalls. “I needed to go for a run. I went for a run and then I was like, ‘I think I can go further.’ After that, I still l wasn’t tired. I just kept running.
“Someone suggested why don’t you try a half marathon? I just tried it and loved it, and I’ve been a runner ever since.”
Bagge successfully trained and completed her first half marathon that summer in Chicago. When she returned to Chicago’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon one year later, she won her 18-24 age group.
Embracing the half marathon circuit, Bagge still didn’t find her way into collegiate competition until a chance encounter with Wartburg’s cross country coach Ryan Chapman last fall. Bagge happened to train in the same cardio class as Chapman’s wife. The Knights’ coach caught the end of one of their workout sessions and was struck by how composed she looked for the pace she was running.
Chapman eventually convinced Bagge to give cross country a try, and she quickly became the fastest runner on the team. Bagge placed 16th with the program’s second-best time at the NCAA Division III cross country championship. That All-American honor came in just her fourth-ever cross country race.
“It still blows my mind,” Bagge said. “I was just having fun and then when I got to cross country and became an All-American. I didn’t understand it at first. I was literally was in shock.”
Being part of a team was also refreshing.
“I hadn’t been on a team in four years and I didn’t realize how much I missed it,” Bagge said. “You just create a whole different world with this team and they’re such great people. They’re just like me. I finally figured out where I belong.”
She’s quickly caught up for lost time on the track, placing sixth in the 5,000 at the NCAA Division III indoor meet. Bagge is now qualified for the 5,000 and 10,000-meter national championships outdoors.
Thursday night, the college senior stepped foot on Drake’s blue oval for the first time since she was a member of Independence High School’s 4x400 state qualifying team. She cut her 5,000 time down to a personal-record 16:55 and placed 21st out of the field of 28 more experienced runners from higher divisions.
Indeed, not all wins at this weekend’s Drake Relays can be measured by the first place flags.
“That was really intimidating for me,” Bagge said, following her race. “But how many people get to say they get this opportunity to run with D-1 girls?
“I was super nervous, but at the same time I should be happy for just getting the opportunity to get into this field. I wanted to be competitive and see what I could do against them, but at the same time I need to appreciate where I’m at and be thankful for all I’ve been given so far.”
Bagge says she plans to return for a fifth year of college and compete in cross country and track for a second season next year. Her cross country coach is limiting her to one half marathon over the summer and she has California’s Napa Half Marathon in her sights.
“I’m going to keep helping the team and see what else I can do,” Bagge added. “This has just been a crazy ride and I’m enjoying it.”
PANTHERS CLIMB SCHOOL CHARTS: UNI distance runners Kelsey Kirchoff and Hannah Truniger each made gains during Thursday’s Drake Relays.
Kirchoff placed ninth in the 10,000 meters with a time of a 35:23.27 that ranks second in school history. Truniger followed suit with a personal-best 10th place time of 16:23.87 that was just back of UNI’s record 16:23.85 set by Agnes Kroneraff in 2002.
Lauren Frederick led UNI in multi-events with a personal-best score of 4,784 for fourth place. Courtney Sowle of Wartburg was fifth with 4,438 points. UNI's Austin Heitland had a personal-best score of 6,213 good for 10th in the decathlon.