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 True cross country fans know our sport is more of a team event than most outsiders realize, yet there are plenty of individual standouts as well.  So, while honoring the tradition we have started at DyeStat with Interval Sessions, which introduced you to the top individuals in both track and XC, we launch Fall 2009 with "Star Squad Spotlight," giving you a chance to get to know not just the top individual runners in the country, but also the best teams.

 star | mark blackmon
by SteveU, DyeStat Senior Editor

If you ask Mark Blackmon, he’ll tell you he’s more of a middle distance track runner than a cross-country runner.  And if you ask him again, he’ll tell you he’s more into basketball than he is into running at all. 

But if he doesn’t love cross-country best, it certainly loves him.

Mark first stunned the DyeStat nation in 2006, when as a 7th grader he was not only running on the Fort Mill SC varsity, but dropping eye-popping times like 15:47 for the fast 5k at Wendy’s on McAlpine Greenway.  Those familiar with the Blackmon family in South Carolina weren’t caught entirely off guard.  Mark had siblings known for their running excellence as well, including sister Angelina, who was a Foot Locker Finalist in 2003 and ran 4:58 for the mile the following spring.

Mark would go on to place 3rd at 4A state that fall.  Improvement was not easy to come by with such a lofty start, and injuries slowed him at times, as well.  But he won the 4A XC title as both an 8th and 9th grader, added more mid-high 15s on faster courses, and in track, powered his 800 (2:00.77) and mile (4:21.22) times down as a freshman last spring – the latter taking the Taco Bell title.

Now this fall, he’s finally had a big breakthrough on McAlpine, hitting 15:18 to win at Wendy’s last weekend.  He took a few minutes off from training this week to talk with DyeStat senior editor SteveU..

Congratulations on the start of the season, especially your big win at the Wendy’s race.  Can you tell us about that race – like what your expectations were going in, and the way the race unfolded?  How did you feel about getting a big PR at 15:18?

I didn’t really have any expectations going into the Wendy’s, except to try and win it because I didn’t last year.  The race went pretty much how I expected it to go.  We started out very fast in the beginning and when we got to about the second mile, there were only three of us together.  Then it came down to a sprint … and I felt pretty good about my PR.

It’s not that surprising, in different states, when girls sometimes do really well at a state (or even national) level when they are in 7th or 8th grade, but it’s very rare to see guys even make a high school varsity team in middle school, let alone place 3rd at state as a 7th-grader.  Can you take us back to some of your most vivid memories of that first year with Fort Mill varsity in 2006?  How were you regarded by the older kids?  What was the most challenging thing?  Coach said you immediately pushed to be competitive with the top kids and that made a big difference.

I think the most vivid memory of our state championship team in 2006 was when we all used to get up at about 5:30 in the morning and do biking classes and pool workouts, and I always got made fun of because I couldn't swim.  I don’t think they really liked the fact that I was that young and I was on the same level as them, but they wanted to win a championship so we made it work.

I think the most challenging thing was that I was always challenged by my teammates in anything we did, but it made me better in the end. Yeah, it really did make a big difference – because if I stepped up, it encouraged everyone else because they didn't want to get beat by a middle-schooler. 

Going back even further, can you tell me about how you got your start in distance running and came to embrace it?  So often in our sport, it’s automatically assumed African American kids will be sprinters and jumpers.  Tell me also about your older sisters, and how they got into it and if they were a lot of a support and encouragement for you as well.

The reason I got started running is because everyone in my family runs and you really can't get around it – because if that’s what your sisters and brothers are doing, you want to do it, too. My oldest sister (Angelina) talked to me about how she got started and she said it was her elementary school PE teacher. He said he saw her running around the playground outside at PE, and he told her she should think about running track – so she did and she just got better and better.

I think she influenced my other sisters and brother, as well as my parents.  Yes, they are a lot of support for me – because they tell me to just keep doing what I’m doing, and they just tell me to stay humble and I’ll be successful.   

You seem to have a lot of upper body strength and I’ve noticed your good times in the 800 and 1600 in track.  It doesn’t look like you run the 3200 that much.  Do you consider yourself more of a middle distance track runner or a longer distance cross-country runner?  Which do you like best and why?

I consider myself more of a middle distance runner, because I have a lot of speed and I’m good for the 800 and the mile, for things like last-minute sprints and catching people from long distances.  I like track better because I think it is more interesting to watch all the different races and see all the different talents.   

I’ve heard as much as you are into running, that you are extremely passionate for basketball.  Tell me a little bit about that, what position you play, what level you’ve competed at so far, what you love about it.  Down the road, do you see yourself playing hoops and running in college, or do you favor one or the other?  Are there any other sports you’re really into as well?

Yeah, basketball is my favorite sport, overall. I could play all day, every day for my whole life – if my parents would let me, haha!  But I play on the school’s varsity team and I’m the leading scorer. Over the summer, I averaged 18.0 points a game and last year, in ninth grade, I averaged 10.0 points a game.

I play shooting guard and I play AAU Div. 1 basketball and also averaged 24.0 points a game there. The thing I love about basketball is that it's a challenge – you can be the best at your school, then you want to be the best in your region, then city, then the state.  I like it because at every step you take, you’re going to be challenged.  You never get an easy game, because at every one someone is coming at your throat with everything in them and you have to respond – and if you don't you get burned.  But the main reason is because the game is so unpredictable.       

I understand your father has coached you some, as well as Coach Pyrc.  Can you tell me some about your background working with different coaches, and the key workouts you like and you feel are most important for your improvement?

Working with different coaches is helpful, because you can use each one for different things. I think the 800 meter workouts we do are very effective.   

I’ve read where you’ve had some injury problems the past few years, especially your 8th grade track year.  Can you tell me about those and what things you’ve learned in terms of injury prevention as you continue through high school?

In 8th grade, I hurt my meniscus again and I learned that you just have to be careful and aware of how you run at all times.   

As a fan, do you find yourself more into following pro and college hoops than college or Olympic track?  Who are some of your favorite players and teams?

Haha, yeah, I follow high school, college, and pro hoops. I like to follow high school, because I like to see my competition and how they play the game and just study them – but I don’t follow track except when my sisters run. 

Having learned what you have so far, what would you say if you were going to give advice to another talented runner who was running varsity track and XC as a 7th-grader?

I would just tell them that if you ever feel like you’re being challenged in practice, in a workout, then just take that and use it all.  Give it all you’ve got and let people know you’re here to stay and they can’t do anything about it. I would tell them not to accept everything that is done to them, just because they are younger than the other people on the team.

Photos (from top): 2009 Taco Bell by John Dye; 2009 Taco Bell by Donna Dye; submitted by Angela Blackmon