Academy of Art junior Valentin Pepiot had looked comfortable for most of the eight-kilometer men's race at the San Francisco State Cross Country Invitational in Golden Gate Park on Friday.
On the occasions that he flew into view at the viewing galleries, Pepiot casually mussed his wavy brown hair or exhorted the assembled mass of supporters. There was a sense he had something in reserve.
Then, with just under two kilometers to go, he was alongside Luis Luna (unattached) in the lead. They came through a chute in Speedway Meadow, then disappeared around a bend.
Thirty seconds later, they reemerged. Pepiot held a commanding 10-meter lead and went on to win comfortably in 24 minutes, 52 seconds, high-fiving his way through the finish line. It was his second individual victory of the season after vanquishing a 7.2K course, also in Golden Gate Park, in 23:40 during a Sept. 18 meet.
The most impressive performance, however, and the one that gives the biggest indication of Pepiot's considerable talent, came at the Stanford Invitational on Sept. 27. A Division II runner racing in a field littered with Division I athletes, Pepiot finished the 8K with a time of 23:43. He was the top Division II finisher, and sixth out of 362 participants. For that effort, he was named the Division II national cross country Athlete of the Week.
This was just one month after he had come to San Francisco.
Pepiot hails from Besancon, France, near the Swiss border. He grew up playing soccer, then dabbled in judo before settling upon running. The prospect of a U.S. education always appealed, and after his twin brother, Tanguy — also an excellent runner — joined Oregon two years ago, Pepiot began looking into similar options.
“We wanted to discover our sport in a different country,” Pepiot said. “And the American university level in track and cross country is the best in the world.”
A compatriot, Nicolas Rifflard, had excelled as a runner for the Academy of Art. Pepiot noticed that name when he scanned results at the Division II national outdoor track championships in May.
Intrigued, Pepiot started digging. He spoke to Rifflard, then perused the Academy of Art website, whereupon he was struck by the slogan at the top of the page.
Be Artist. Be Athlete. Pepiot had left the National Science Institute in Lyon in search of more creative outlets. He sensed he might have found the perfect fit.
He began Skype sessions with Knights cross country coach Torrey Olson that frequently ran over an hour. It wasn't until the fourth or fifth call that they even began discussing training.
“Anybody that talented has options,” Olson said. “But he had a good grasp of our program, and the academics and athletics lined up really well for him.”
Pepiot saw a school with a good coach and a strong music production program. He could further his running career and continue his quest to become a DJ and electronic-dance music producer. San Francisco had great weather. All the boxes were ticked.
He went through the visa process and got cleared by the NCAA. Pepiot didn't arrive Stateside until a few weeks after fall training had begun for the 2014 cross country season, but after a summer full of racing in France, including a fantastic double at the national track championships in the 1,500 meters and steeplechase, he's quickly returned to form.
The Division II national championships is held Dec. 6, later than usual and a full month after the PacWest Conference Championships. Olson believes that bodes well for Pepiot, given his late start.
“I think you feel the momentum of building up much more when the training is a bit more compact,” Olson said. “Pepiot's speed is in a different place than someone who did a more traditional summer.”
Asked about his goals for the rest of this season, Pepiot responds with that trademark grin:
“Great things, maybe.”