GARDINER — You can find her flying around the track at Gardiner Area High School’s Hoch Field. What you won’t find is a moment in which one of Ashlyn Poulin’s feet isn’t on the black rubber.

After years of training, Poulin can now walk faster than many of her peers can run. Six years after she first decided to give race walking a try, the Gardiner senior has now turned the most basic form of human bipedal movement into a competitive art form.

“(My middle school coach) wanted some more points for our team, so he asked if anybody wanted to try a new event nobody had even ever done before on our team,” Poulin said. “At that time, the only thing I was doing was the mile run, so I said, ‘I’ll try it. I’ll learn the form, and I’ll see where it goes.’”

For Poulin, it’s gone far beyond middle and high school competitions on tracks in central Maine and throughout the state. A master of the sport’s technique and a conqueror of its distinct challenges, the state’s top race walker has also made waves nationally ahead of a senior season she hopes will be historic.

Race walking, as the name would imply, is a fast-paced walking competition that requires athletes to keep one foot in contact with the ground at all times. The advancing leg must be straight when making contact with the ground rather than bent as it would be if the athlete were sprinting.

It’s a sport that prohibits athletes from doing some of the things that seem to be innate desires when racing toward a finish line. The result is an event that forces walkers to develop a unique form — lower shoulders, shorter strides, proper leg technique — while also fighting off those desires mentally.


“I like how technical it is,” Poulin said. “I like that it’s a challenge to try and keep the form and to be able to do it while you keep going. You have to be strong mentally, and you really have to work on that form and work on being more efficient at doing it.”

The coronavirus pandemic deprived Poulin of many competitive race walking opportunities in her first two years at Gardiner High. However, she finally broke out during the end of her sophomore season when she finished as the state runner-up at the Class B championships. It was shortly after that meet she met Abby Smith, who would become her personal coach.

Smith, a 2012 Edward Little (Auburn) graduate and four-time Class A outdoor race walk champion, had recently moved back to Maine after a few years away. She had been looking to develop the state’s next great race walker, and in Poulin, she saw big-time potential.

“She had gotten a time that showed she had put in a lot of work despite not having a coach or a club team,” Smith said. “She really had the form down right away. It really came naturally to her, and she seemed really excited to do whatever she was asked. … She was really all-in on it.”

Over the next year, Poulin soared from a promising performer to an elite one. Last March, she placed third at Nike indoor nationals before winning the Class B outdoor state title in 7:49.33, a 43.67-second improvement from 2021. She’s also competed in the Junior Olympics and, more recently, qualified for the USA Track & Field U20 championships.

The key to Poulin achieving success, Smith said, was the realization that she could walk at greater speeds while maintaining her form. After only a couple of sessions with Smith, Poulin had that epiphany, and the heights she went on to reach as a junior and senior followed.


“She just hadn’t spent time with anybody who could really say to her, ‘Hey, you can go this fast and your form will still look fine,’” said Smith, who is also a certified race walk judge. “For her to realize, ‘Oh, I can go this fast, and I’m still following the rules of race walk,’ that really unlocked it for her.”

Poulin trains an hour and a half six days a week, taking Sundays off. When it’s nice enough outside, she’ll usually walk the Kennebec River Rail Trail. Otherwise, during the winter months, she’ll find an indoor track or do her walking routine on a treadmill. The training, she said, is “pretty much year-round.”

It’s a level of dedication, Gardiner head coach Jen Boudreau said, that only the top echelon of athletes can put forward. Her senior leader is in as good of physical shape as she’s ever seen her, and she’s also beginning to master the mental aspect of race walking that’s crucial in such a technical sport.

“A race walker needs to be physically fit, but they also need to have that mental toughness to focus on their form, the shape of their hips and those technical parts of it,” Boudreau said. “I think that’s something she’s worked hard on this past winter, working on that mental toughness and being able to zone in and go for it.”

Poulin has impressed other coaches, too, including longtime Monmouth Academy track and field coach Tom Menendez. A renowned race walking official with USATF, Menendez often travels the country for large-scale events, including the Penn Relays and collegiate national championships.

Gardiner’s Ashlyn Poulin competes in the 1,600-meter race walk at the Capital City Classic on May 20, 2022 at Cony High School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Menendez, who has also coached some of the state’s top race walkers in the last 20 years, said Poulin is “the real deal.”


“I haven’t coached her, but I’ve been paying a lot of attention to her,” he said. “She’s probably one of the best race walkers to come out of Maine in the last 15 years. I’ve watched her at some really big events, too. I’ve seen her at the Penn Relays, the New Balance indoor nationals, and she’s done really, really well. She’s very impressive.”

Poulin placed second in that New Balance meet, bettering her third-place performance in nationals a year earlier. She also competed in the USATF Maine Indoor championships at the University of Maine in February, winning the 3,000-meter race walk in 14:41.50.

“That’s one of the fastest 3-kilometer times of any Mainer I’ve seen,” Menendez said. “That’s a very, very good time. I’ve coached national champions and kids on national teams, and she has the brightest future of all of them if she sticks with it.”

That’s exactly Poulin’s plan. She will continue race walking next year at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. First, though, she has her sights set on winning another state championship this spring and setting a new Class B state championship meet record in the process.

The Class B championship race walking record is 7:26.07, which Izabelle Trefts of Old Town High School set in 2019. The overall state championship record of 7:19.77 — set by Caitlin Bonney of Mt. Blue High in 2000 — isn’t far out of reach, either.

“Indoor, I (recently) did a 7:27, so I’m getting closer,” Poulin said. “Outdoor, I’m working toward getting it down even more. That’s my goal, and hopefully, I’ll be able to get there.”

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