Prep cross country photo: Sun Prairie's Ash Francis

Sun Prairie's Ash Francis finished second in the Stoughton Invitational with a 5,000-meter time of 16 minutes and 19 seconds.

The way Ash Francis sees it, he has been running for his entire life.

Only a few years after learning how to walk, the Sun Prairie senior said, his feet already were slapping the pavement.

“I grew up in a small town, so all we did was run. Even for transportation, getting to school was running,” Francis said.

And Francis has kept moving ever since.

After transferring from Sequim (Washington) High School to Sun Prairie in time for the 2017 season, Francis finished sixth in the Big Eight Conference meet, second in his WIAA Division 1 sectional and 21st in the state meet in Wisconsin Rapids.

This season, he has found a way to turn up the heat. He won the season-opening race, the Jamie Block Invitational in West Bend, for his first first-place finish since moving to Wisconsin.

And now, as Francis prepares for the three biggest Saturdays of the cross country season — conference on Saturday, WIAA sectionals the following week and the state meet the week after that — he says the success of the season have him ready to test his limits.

“It (the Block race) had a different feeling from last year,” Francis said. “Being new to the school (in 2017), I didn’t know all the kids yet. Coming back, I knew who was racing against — and I had some training under my belt from over the summer.”

Francis hasn’t stopped there. He also finished second at Verona, first at Wausau, seventh at Janesville and second at Stoughton.

According to Francis, there is no big secret behind his success. It’s all a result of — to misapply a phrase — elbow grease.

“Just a lot of running, putting in the mileage,” Francis said. “I feel pretty good (about my performance so far).

“This was the year I really felt a connection with my coach, with the team. I want to do well not just for myself, but for everyone else on the team.”

Sun Prairie boys coach Kevin Hall said he’s proud of Francis’ development and attitude, and said the future of the Cardinals’ cross country program is brighter with his leadership.

“We have such a positive culture in the running program now,” Hall said. “We’ve built a solid foundation, and our current team has done such a good job of bringing in young runners and making them dedicated to the sport.”

Hall explained to get his runners in shape, he collaborates daily with the coaching staff for the two-time defending state champion Sun Prairie girls team, a nationally recognized program currently ranked first in the Division 1 coaches’ poll.

He hopes the crossover will help to grow the success of both programs.

“We have runners like Ash to show we are at a certain level of competitiveness,” Hall said. “We are getting there and knocking down barriers, showing what we are capable of.”