By Jeff Shearer
Ashley Ahner ran her first half-marathon in high school in 2005 in her hometown of St. Louis.
Five years later, as an Auburn student, she ran her second in Orlando.
That fall, while Auburn was rolling toward the national championship, Ashley started grad school and began kicking around the idea of a big goal: 50 half-marathons in 50 states.
Despite working two jobs and taking a full load of MBA courses at Auburn, she planned and she ran.
Three half-marathons in 2011. Seven more states in 2012. Nine 13.1's, including Alaska, in 2013, 14 in '14, and 13 in 2015.
In January, Ashley crossed off Hawaii from her list, giving her 49 half-marathons in 49 states.
-- Ashley Ahner (@AshleyAhner) January 18, 2016
For Ashley, who earned her Finance degree and MBA from Auburn before moving to Atlanta, there could be only one appropriate destination for No. 50: the 50-yard line at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"One hundred percent," she says. "I was diehard. I had to finish here. This is where the journey began. This is where I started running, where I've done all my training. Finishing the legacy with the Auburn Family was, in my mind, the only way to finish."
Ashley's affection for Auburn began a decade ago, as an undergraduate. She was a Camp War Eagle counselor and tour guide for prospective students and their parents.
-- Jeff Shearer (@jeff_shearer) March 18, 2016
"I came down here. I fell in love with the Auburn family. I fell in love with the vibe with the sports and athletics, and it really was a feeling," she says. "And I used to tell people that, when I would give my tours. I just had that feeling. That feeling didn't go away all through undergrad and grad school and still today."
-- Ashley Ahner (@AshleyAhner) December 31, 2013
Ashley shares her journey on social medal and chronicles each adventure in her blog called "#DreamBig: 13.1 in all 50 states."
"Just setting goals and having your personal mantra, your little go-to phrase," she says of #DreamBig.
For Ashley, the challenges were as big as the dream.
"I'm not honestly a strong runner," she says. "Having to train, and having to work toward finishing every race. I've had some foot injuries. I got my tonsils out. Had some hip issues.
"I had a bout this summer where I just could not get into running, where I couldn't run two miles without having to walk or having to stop. Having to get through that mental barrier and that mental block," she says. "Continuing to think of the end game, that the last thing I'm going to do is finish on Auburn's field."
Along the way, Ashley picked up fans and followers.
"It would be so easy for me to quit, if it were just something for me," Ashley says. "But with all of the people who have been so motivated and so inspired by it, I think about that every time I'm running.
"I had an Instagram post the other day, where some girls said, `We've read your blog. We're huge followers. We're coming to Auburn to run. That'll be our ninth state. Your blog inspired us to run,'" she says.
Forever true to her school, Ashley wore Auburn gear during several races and spent many pre and post-race afternoons watching the Tigers on television from Connecticut to California.
"Part of my routine would be, if the race were on Saturday, I'd watch the game after I ran," she says. "If the race were on Sunday, I had no issue staying in bed all day Saturday watching Auburn football, just watching college football."
-- Ashley Ahner (@AshleyAhner) March 29, 2014
While in Arkansas two years ago for No. 24, Ashley and a friend took a detour to Shiloh Christian School in Springdale, where Gus Malzahn won state championships with a record-setting quarterback named Rhett Lashlee.
"Oh my gosh, that's Malzahn's school!" Ashley recalls saying. "So we pulled off and took pictures. Just another Auburn moment."
-- Ashley Ahner (@AshleyAhner) June 28, 2014
Three months later, Ashley was returning to Atlanta from Ohio after completing her 28th half when she learned of the death of former Auburn football player Philip Lutzenkirchen in an automobile accident.
She has worn Philip's "I know God's working so I smile" bracelet in every race since.
"It's part of the Auburn family, you're going to be affected by it." Ashley says, her voice shaking. "You want to do that, and just keep the legacy alive."
In Montana, in 2015, Ashley honored Lutzenkirchen in race No. 43.
"I had my No. 43 hat. Had an Auburn shirt. We just wanted to dedicate it to him," she says.
Just completed half marathon #43 in Missoula, Montana. Ran in memory of @lutzenkirchen_ for the @lutzie43foundation - the @auburntigers family miss you big guy! Big thanks to the roomie @sgpeters09 for coming to run with me on this Montana adventure! #dreambig #run50states #missoulamarathon #lovelikelutz #wareagle
Ashley completed her journey Saturday in Auburn in the 5th annual "Finish on the 50 Running Festival."
"Running down Donahue, into the stadium and across the 50-yard line was both exciting and confusing," Ashley says. "I'm thrilled to have accomplished such a fun and challenging dream, but at the same time I'm struggling to believe that the dream is actually over.
"I was so overwhelmed by the amount of love and support I received at the finish line from both friends and strangers, and I'm glad they could share the moment with me," she says.
"This has been a long time coming, and it's been a large commitment, financially, emotionally, physically," Ashley says. "It's been fun to see it all boil down to one last big moment.
"I always go back to, `Dream Big.' Set goals, dream big. Put yourself out there. Challenge yourself. Life's too short not to go on adventures like this," she says. "Stretch the limits. Find a way to continuously challenge yourself and make the most of life."
-- Jeff Shearer (@jeff_shearer) March 18, 2016
For race No. 50, like the previous 49, Ashley did not concern herself with her race time.
"I'm just there to finish and enjoy the moment," she says. "And to keep on keeping on."
50 states - 50 half marathons - one life goal accomplished. Today was more than I could have ever imagined. Between friends and family who traveled down to Auburn to the cheer squad and after party tailgate, everything was perfect. I know I had a few Auburn guardian angels looking down, helping to clear the weather and make it a beautiful day. I haven't fully accepted or comprehended what happened today - but thank you to everyone who has followed along the way - you are my inspiration. #dreambig #wareagle #finish50onthe50 #run50states #auburnrunningfestival
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer