Yosemite High School distance runner Alek Simpson slept like a rock last Friday night -- But the second he woke up Saturday at 7:30 a.m., his first thought was to remember to pack his running shoes. He then started thinking about what he would need to do to have a good race at the CIF State Cross Country meet that afternoon at 12:50 p.m.
After a breakfast of waffles with raspberries and plenty of water, the YHS junior walked out the front door of his Bass Lake home at 8 a.m., hopped in the family car with his parents, Rob and Cammie and his 9-year-old sister Sophie for the one hour drive to Fresno's Woodward Park.
Simpson was there in time to watch his cousin, Paige Townzen of Colusa, race in the Division V race where she finished in the middle of the pack.
After stretching and warming up for an hour, Simpson settled into his spot on the starting line amongst nearly 200 competitors. He knows most of the runners from the Central Valley, but he's never seen the majority of the field who converged on Fresno from throughout the state. Runners from as far north as Chico and as far south as San Diego anxiously line up with Simpson for the start of the 3.1 mile race.
"Normally I get out fast but today I let people sort of pull away from me and got in the middle of the pack, knowing I could pass people during the race," Simpson said after the race. "Early in the race I was in the middle of the pack, but between mile one and mile two I passed 35 runners. During the last 400 yards I passed an additional seven runners to finish 32nd. "
Simpson was satisfied he gave his all and called the race his best of the season -- the clock proved it -- He had his personal best time of 16 minutes,14 seconds.
"I was pretty taxed at the end and my legs were really sore which normally does not happen after races," Simpson said. "I felt great and I accomplished what I set out to do at the start of the season and that was to be in the top 50 in the state meet."
Winning the race was Aidasn Goltra of Campolindo-Moraga (15:18), just steps ahead of second-place finisher Myles Smith of St John Bosco-Bellflower.
The prior week, Simpson placed second in a field of 160 runners in the CIF Central Section Division III championship race in 16:21.
Yosemite cross country coach Ellen Jackson-Peterson was on hand for the race, along with her husband John, a volunteer assistant.
"The goal for Alek was always to run his personal best," Peterson said. "In order to accomplish that we knew he had to come in close to 5:05 at the one mile mark and 10:30 at the two-mile mark. With the crowded surge at the start of the race, Alek's first mile was a little slower than hoped. Although he faced about the same number of competitors as he did the week before in Section race that he won, these runners are all top caliber, so they go out at a much faster pace. Alek got swallowed up in the start and had to run an amazing second and third mile to accomplish his time. He came through the two mile mark in 39th and finished the race in 32nd, picking off seven quality runners in the last mile and holding off every sprinter in that last 100 yards."
Simpson's father Rob, ran cross country and track at Azusa Pacific College for four years in the late 80s and early 90s and was one of the top runners on the cross country team during his junior and senior year. Alek said his dad has been a big influence in his running career helping him with workouts and race strategy.
"For whatever reason, it seems like a lot of people run really well at the CIF section meet and then run terrible at the state race," Rob Simpson said after the race. "At the state meet it's easy to go out way too fast for the first mile and then pay the price or go out conservatively only to get discouraged because you are so far back in the pack. Alek was in around 70th place at the mile mark and then moved up to around 40th place by the two-mile mark and then had a great last mile. Running a personnel best time was fantastic."
Simpson started the season training alone in the heat of summer with the goal to do well at the State meet.
"Alek was really disciplined throughout the entire summer and I was really proud of him for getting out and running by himself all summer long when it was hot and for the most part there wasn't anyone else to train with, said his father. "The summer training is all about building a big base of mileage under your belt so that when you start the season in September you are stronger and your body can handle the increase in speed without the risk of injury."
In addition to his family and coach, assistant YHS track coach Ed Cheney and about 15 of Simpson's friends were also at the race to cheer him on, including Badger cross country alumni Jamie Cogdell, Tara Nunley, Zane Veater and Tyler Sikora (and his sister, YHS junior Kitlyn).
Tyler Sikora, a freshman at Cuesta Junior College in San Louis Opisbo and a member of the school's cross country and track team, was a teammate of Simpson's for two years at YHS.
"Alek came here (Woodward Park) to watch me run in the state JC meet (23:20 in four mile race) last week, so I wanted to come out and support him," Sikora said. "He had a fantastic day today."
Sikora said it is Simpson's persistence that sets him apart from many runners.
"He lives and breaths cross country," Sikora said. "In the off-season when most runners are relaxing, Alek is working as hard as he does during the season." Rob Simpson had words of praise for coach Peterson.
"We can't thank coach Peterson enough. She is an amazing coach and exactly the type of person that you want your kid to be spending time with and being mentored by. Her excitement is contagious and the athletes on the cross country team are really blessed to have a coach that cares so much about each of them."
Simpson will run Saturday in the Western US Footlocker Championships in Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California, a race that will feature some of the top high school runners from 10 western states.
He will then start preparing for track season where he runs the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meter events and he is already looking towards next year's cross country season and the state meet.
"Out of the 31 runners that finished ahead of me, 15 are seniors who will graduate this spring," Simpson said. "My goal for next year is to finish in the top 10 at state."
State cross country individual champions
Division I: Juan Gonzalez, El Toro (15:05). Sarah Baxter, Great Oak (16:40 - new state record).
Division II: Bryan Fernandez, Dos Pueblos (15:09). Maggie Bell, Granite Bay (17:29.2).
Division III: Aidan Goltra, Campolindo (15:18.2). Sydney Segal, Beverly Hills (17:40).
Division IV: Dan De La Torre, La Selle (15:30). Vanessa Fraser, Scotts Valley (18:00).
Divison V: trevor Reinhart, Marin Academy (15:34). Julia Maxwell, Branson (17:26).
State cross country championship schools
Division I: Boys: Arcadia. Girls: Great Oak.
Division II: Boys: Westlake. Girls: Saugus.
Division III: Boys: St. John Bosco. Girls: Bonita.
Division IV: Boys: Fillmore. Girls: Jserra.
Division V: Boys: St Joseph Notre Dame. Girls: University-San Francisco.