Approaching Woodward Park on Saturday, Nov. 28, for the CIF Cross Country State Championship race, it was clear something big was happening. Thousands of people scampered curiously across the park like dogs on a hunt to position themselves for a closer look at runners who made their passes along the three mile course in north Fresno.
The 3.1 mile cross country meet attracted thousands of runners from all over the state of California to compete for the bragging rights of best cross country runner in the state. The air was filled with excitement and tension. But for Yosemite High School senior Alek Simpson, it was one more race for the year and yet another chance to distinguish himself as one of the top distance runners in the California.
With the CIF posting a mid-afternoon start time for Division III racers, Simpson spent much of his morning staying fresh and making sure all systems were a go. He stretched, jogged and kept his body fresh for what would be one if his toughest and most competitive races of his life.
Simpson had been preparing for this moment his entire high school career an said although he was not as nervous as previous races, he definitely felt something coming into the race.
"I definitely had butterflies ... I was a little more nervous than I thought I was going to be coming into today," Simpson said.
The nerves never seemed to show for the 6-foot-1, 140 pound senior who placed 32nd at last year's state meet with a time of 16:14. Simpson ran his best race of the year a week earlier at the Central Valley Section D-III finals with a time of 15:52, fast enough for first place and a spot in this years state meet.
As the 12:20 p.m. start time approached Simpson stood in starting gate 13 intently starring ahead with his hands placed together as if to say a prayer before the race. Simpson looked poised standing next to nearly 200 highly talented D-III runners who were trying their best to reach immortality by placing amongst some of the best runners in the state.
At the sound of the starting pistol racers took off, kicking up dust like a herd of wildebeests and Simpson was quickly lost amongst the group of runners fighting for position.
Slowly but surely the pack broke up into smaller groups with Simpson falling into mid-teens positioning. Simpson ran hard and was encouraged by cheers from friends and family who attended the event. Those who supported Simpson included athletes from rival teams throughout the Central Valley who had ran and trained with Simpson in previous years.
As part of his game plan Simpson, as he had done in the past, held onto a small reserve of energy to give himself a boost at the end where he passed several tired runners.
Simpson crossed the finish line his arms flailing from over-exhaustion and quickly kneeled next to a shade tree offering him a place to cool down as he removed his time tag.
Other exhausted runners, who were now finishing, took a seat next to Simpson as he eagerly took off his shoes and turned in his marker for official results. It was all over and the results were in the record book.
Officially, Simpson ran a personnel best record time of 15:46 which was good for 11th, one position behind his pre-race goal of 10th place or better. He was 44 seconds behind D-III state champ Aidan Goltra of Campolindo (15:02) and eight seconds behind the 10th place finisher.
Following Simpson at the finish line were 185 runners.
"I felt good ... that was my fastest time and I feel like I ran my best today," Simpson said.
Simpson's coach, Ellen Peterson, was extremely pleased with Simpson's finishing time and thought he ran a great race.
"He is one of the most grounded, mature, and self-disciplined athletes I have ever had the honor of coaching. He has prioritized what is important in his life, and committed himself consistently to those values. That being said, his poise, preparation, confidence, self-knowledge, and performance are no fluke. He has worked diligently, consistently, and tirelessly," Peterson said.
Simpson said part of his training the past year was in high altitude which clearly paid off for him.
With a look at overall performances Simpson finished 65 in the entire state including all five division times, something few people can say they have ever done in any sport. He clearly placed himself amongst some of the greatest cross country runners to ever come out of Yosemite High School.
The next step for Simpson is to participate in track where he is expected to set school records in the 800 meter, the 1600, and the 3200. By the end of track season, he may very well go down as one of the greatest distant runners to ever run at Yosemite.
Simpson says he is not sure whether or not he will have a fast enough time to compete at Nationals, but knows he will give it his best in an attempt to make Yosemite history.
Simpson is know for his year-round hard work ethics and rigorous training schedule. Whether it be track or cross country, Simpson knows how to keep his body in shape and understands the importance of being on-top of your game.
Simpson will be attending Azusa Pacific next year and plans to run for the team.
CIF California State Championship D-III results:
Teams: 1. Jurupa Hills 68; 2. Brea Olinda 83; 3. Palos Verdes 112; 4. Campolindo 156; 5. El Modena 162; 6. Rubidoux 178; 7. University City 218; 8. Canyon Crest Academy 222; 9. Bishop O'Dowd 249; 10. San Marcos 255.
Individuals: 1. Aidan Goltra, Campolindo, 15:02; 2. David Luna, Indio, 15:03; 3. Austin Tamagno, Brea Olinda, 15:03; 4. Fred Huxham, Redwood, 15:08; 5. Luis Ramos, Rubidoux, 15:14; 6. Casey Celestin, Palos Verdes, 15:19; 7. Michael Teran, Jurupa Hills, 15:21; 8. Sydney Gidebuday, El Modena, 15:23; 9. Sahm Bazargan, Oak Park, 15:26; 10. Brennon Koryta, Brea Olinda, 15:39. 11. Alek Simpson, 15:46.
Other Valley runners
Gustavo Delcastillo, West, 16:39 (69); Tyler Moore, West, 16:56 (93); Ricardo Casillas, Roosevelt, 16:56 (94); Edgar Bolanos, Roosevelt, 17:05 (113); Manuel Santos, Roosevelt, 17:07 (115), Josh Guzman, Hanford West, 17:18 (135); Rene Toribio, Roosevelt, 17:24 (143); Sam Magana, Foothill, 17:27 (146); Jorge Lopez, West, 17:27 (147); Christopher Moreno, West, 17:27 (148); Daniel Gonzalez, Roosevelt, 17:46 (167); Pedro Cruz, Arvin, 17:47 (169); Keylan Meneses, West, 17:51 (173); Chris Garcia, Foothill, 18:26 (185); Lamberto Sarmiento, Roosevelt, 18:44 (187), Javier Zuniga, Roosevelt, 18:59 (190); Alberto Valencia, West, 19:03 (192); Daniel Aguirre, West, 19:25 (194).