For the second time in six years, the No. 1 prep distance runner in the nation is from Utah. Danny Simmons, a veggie-eating, straight-A student who did much of his early training in the mountains of Idaho, hasn’t lost a race this season and will be the favorite at the national championships in December. Next month he will sign with BYU, currently No. 3 in the NCAA cross-country rankings.

“My family ran, so I ran. I started running with my brothers in third grade. Whenever I’d see them run, I’d want to run too. But I didn’t run with a team until sixth grade.” — Danny Simmons

Simmons, who is a spare 5-foot-11 and runs with a slight lateral rocking motion, won his second 6A state cross-country championship in October by 26 seconds, continuing a streak that began last season, when he won the state’s distance triple crown (the 2022 state cross-country championships in the fall and the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs at the 2023 state track and field championships in the spring).

He has made an even bigger splash on the national scene. Roll the highlight video:

• Last December, he finished second in the Nike national cross-country championships in Portland, Oregon, behind California senior Aaron Sahlman.

• In March, he finished second in the 5,000-meter run at the New Balance indoor nationals in Boston behind Oregon senior Tyrone Gorze. They ran the two fastest indoor times ever by high school athletes — 13:56.82 and 13:59.96.

• In April, Simmons found himself in a thrilling 3,200-meter race (the metric version of two miles) at the Arcadia Invitational (California). He moved into the lead with three laps to go and pushed a withering, record pace. He held the lead down the final homestretch, but Simeon Birnbaum, a University of Oregon-bound senior from South Dakota, rallied and out-leaned him at the tape, with just .04 of a second separating them. It was the race of the meet and drew national attention. Their times of 8:34.10 and 8:34.14 made them the second- and third-fastest high school runners of all time at that distance.

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“No one saw that coming,” says Simmons’ father, Jim, who watched from the stands with his wife, Colleen. “We got the shivers. We were crying. We were so grateful that he had such a good run.”

A college coach who was sitting near the couple asked if they were Simmons’ parents and then told them, “I haven’t seen a race like that since Prefontaine. Danny made that race (by pushing the pace).”

• In June, Simmons wrapped up his junior season by winning the two-mile run at the New Balance outdoor nationals in Philadelphia with a meet-record time of 8:41.23.

All of the above has earned Simmons accolades and attention. Besides BYU, Stanford, Oregon and Washington offered him scholarships. In February, Simmons and his teammates were on a training run up The Grinder — the nickname for a hellish 1.3-mile run that gains 408 feet of elevation — when he noticed a crowd of people at the top of the hill. As he moved closer to the finish, he heard cheering. He was given a hero’s welcome at the finish and informed that he had been named the 2022 national Gatorade Player of the Year for cross-country. Casey Clinger, who won the same award in 2016 and is now an All-American at BYU, presented the trophy to Simmons.

“It was a total shock,” says Simmons. “I had no clue.”

Making of a champion

If Simmons didn’t see any of this coming, others did. When he was a freshman at Salmon (Idaho) High, his brother Johnny was a senior and broke several school records that had been untouchable for three decades. At the postseason awards banquet, the Salmon coach told the crowd, “Johnny, I hate to say this to you, but these records that you set so remarkably are not going to last very long.”

Danny began breaking those records the following year, most notably running times in the 14:37-38 range on 5,000-meter cross-country courses and 9:05 for 3,200 meters on the track.

He is the youngest of 10 children in a family of runners. Danny’s brother Joe was team captain for the American Fork team that finished second in the national cross-country championships, and then he went on to run for Idaho State. Johnny joined the Utah State team this fall after serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As Danny tells it, “My family ran, so I ran. I started running with my brothers in third grade. Whenever I’d see them run, I’d want to run too. But I didn’t run with a team until sixth grade.”

The family had moved to Salmon in 2015 to help Jim’s elderly mother run the family farm. When Jim’s mother passed away in 2022, the family moved back to American Fork in time for Danny’s junior year. The move was a boon for his running career.

Salmon is small — population 3,200 — and so was the cross-country team at the time. After his brothers moved away, Danny did most of his training alone, under the supervision of Jim. Jim was a devoted recreational runner, and he learned everything he could about training programs — intervals, tempo runs, aerobic and anaerobic running, etc. — to help his son.

For a time, Ray Rohatinsky lived with the family while doing student teaching in Salmon. Rohatinsky, who died two years ago, competed for the cross-country and track teams at the University of Michigan and BYU, and three of his children ran for BYU — Tara, Jared and Josh, the 2006 NCAA cross-country champion — as well as a granddaughter — Taylor, who set freshman records at BYU last year.

Jim and Ray went on daily runs together and Jim grilled his guest for information about training. Jim augmented this information by reading “a ton of books written by good coaches.” He also hosted the Idaho State cross-country team on his farm each summer for a three-day training camp, which gave him another opportunity to learn about training from Coach Nate Houle.

Jim oversaw Danny’s training. “I would drive him out 12 miles from the high school and I would have to follow him back on these back-country roads,” he recalls. “There was one place that if the dogs were loose they’d chew him up, so I would put my car between him and those dogs. I just followed along. He’d run into town and then go to the track to do a few intervals. It was lonesome for him.”

American Fork’s Daniel Simmons takes the tape as 6A runners compete in the state high school cross-country championships.
American Fork’s Daniel Simmons takes the tape as 6A runners compete in the state high school cross-country championships at the Regional Athletic Complex in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. Simmons participated in the prestigious Nike Cross Nationals last weekend in Portland, Oregon, where he finished second. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

At American Fork Danny found training partners and a team atmosphere that had been missing. Jim, an author and teacher whose focus is health and wellness, continues to be part of Simmons’ running career. He has written three books, and one of them (“Original Fast Foods”) is about nutrition.

The genesis of that book was a near-fatal bout with a mysterious disease. At one point, he says, a doctor told him he had weeks to live. Jim says he miraculously overcame the illness at least partly because of a strict diet, which he continues to follow. He eats primarily fruits, vegetables and grains, rarely consumes meat, and eschews processed foods, oil, sugar and sodium. A few years ago he read that sturgeon caviar has natural anti-inflammatory properties. His farm bordered the Salmon River, which is famous for steelhead. He discovered that steelhead caviar triggers the same anti-inflammatory response.

“We might eat meat once a month,” he says. “On our farm we raised high-quality beef. We sold our beef to friends this year. I don’t like to call myself a vegetarian, but I eat as a vegetarian. I know when my body needs something.”

You run how you eat

Danny has adopted the same diet. “He just came to me and said, ‘Dad, I want to eat the way you eat.’ He started to eat the same way and he’s been running faster and faster on this diet. He’ll average a heart rate of 150 beats a minute during a race (much lower than normal).

Dinner at the family house is a unique experience. Let him describe it: “We set out small bowls on the table. They’re filled with a variety of vegetables — carrots, cucumbers, a couple of types of cabbages — and legumes (maybe black beans), and grains (corn, quinoa), and maybe some starches — potatoes, sweet potatoes. We might serve them with onion powder or garlic powder.

We set it up so he (Danny) can take whatever he is wanting. I believe the body knows what it needs.”

It’s not always easy to eat this way. Road trips to national competitions require much planning. Arrangements have to be made with hotels, and the ingredients for most meals must be packed and carried in coolers.

“You have to plan menus ahead,” says Jim. “When we go to regions we’ll stay overnight in Page (Arizona). We’ll set up tables and I’ll fix the meals. We take everything in a big cooler. The veggies and other food are already prepped. Nike asks for your dietary needs (at nationals) so that’s taken care of there.”

Maintaining such a diet would seem challenging for a teenager, especially since his peers tend to gravitate to fast food restaurants. Danny shrugs it off. “My team doesn’t usually like fast food joints, so I usually don’t have to deal with that one, but there are times where I just skip eating because I don’t want to hurt my body from the food my team wants to eat. I would describe my diet as eating as much whole and natural foods as I can, and staying away from 99% of processed foods.”

Simmons plans to continue his running career at BYU, but after the fall semester of his freshman year he plans to leave running behind to serve a mission for his church. His lifestyle played a role in his decision to attend BYU. He says he enjoys competing and training with the kids who are headed to Pacific Coast schools, but he was uncomfortable with the things they talked about and their pursuits away from the track.

He pulls nothing but A’s in class, (well, other than the A-minus he was given for a freshman English class), and in his spare time he rock climbs, reads, hangs with friends and of course he’s always preparing for his next challenge in the running world.

“I’m thinking big,” he says. “I want to try to take this running stuff as far as I can go.”

American Fork High School’s Daniel Simmons crosses the finish line, taking first place in the 6A state high school cross-country championships, at the Regional Athletic Complex in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News