It wasn’t on the sweltering 90 degree heat or the hundreds of bystanders in the stands at the USATF Junior Olympics regional qualifier meet in Rome. It wasn’t on the collection of talent from Florida, South Carolina and Georgia that surrounded him. On the starting block of the 800 meter race that he found himself in, Marcus’ laser-focus was on the starting gun.
When Marcus heard that, he jetted out of the opening leg and made the first turn of the two-lap race. Then he suddenly felt one of his socks touch the asphalt. One of his shoes had been kicked off by the runner behind him, and the race wasn’t even close to being halfway over.
But his focus didn’t waver for long. With his stride now uneven, the athleticism and strength that he had worked to build over the past year began to take over. He completed the last 650 meters of the run as if nothing happened, riding a new personal best of 2:41.64 to a fourth-place finish and beating the rest of the field by two seconds. Marcus had just qualified for the USATF Junior Olympics, which will take place from July 23-29 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Marcus, an eight-year-old third-grader at Mashburn Elementary, has already produced times that could challenge some high schoolers. He added another qualification with a second-place finish in the 1,500 meter run at that same meet, in 5:30.18, and another as a part of a 4x400 meter relay team that is on the cusp of setting a national record.
Markell Webb, Marcus’ father, was watching it all from the stands.
“That, to me, was the ‘awe’ moment that I’ve had – just to see him persevere through the adversity and still finishing the drill,” Markell Webb said.
Running track is a family tradition for Marcus, who moved to Forsyth County last year from Tennessee. His father ran track during his high school days in Kentucky and was an all-state selection during his junior year, and his grandfather was a state record holder in Tennessee.
“Marcus, his namesake, he’s named after my father,” Markell Webb said. “Maybe it skipped a generation – he has a little more talent than I had. I’d say it’s kind of a sport that got passed down.”
Despite the family ties, track was not Marcus’ first sport. Football has that title, as he plays for the North Atlanta Giants out of St. Francis High School in Alpharetta. Markell was looking for something to keep his son active during the offseason, and track fit the bill nicely.
"I figured eventually I wanted (Marcus) to run,” he said. “Obviously he was young. A lot of clubs don't accept kids until they turn around seven. ‘It was like, ‘Let’s try it out and see if you like it.’”
Marcus Webb was signed up for Jackrabbit Track Club, where head coach Andre Al-Ghani saw his potential immediately.
“From the beginning, it was exciting,” Al-Ghani said. “Once we saw him run and his work ethic, we knew very early on he was going to go deep when we got to the qualifying rounds for the Junior Olympics.”
Coach Andre’s workout regimen is mostly the same for older and younger athletes, although the younger age group sometimes gets a lighter workload if they’re not physically or mentally ready. Stamina was an early focus for Marcus Webb.
“The biggest thing (was) building up his endurance first,” Al-Ghani said. “Once we got some endurance along with his conditioning, it was then at the same time making sure he had the strength. We’re at that phase now because he’s on the 4x400 relay team. What we’re doing is making sure he gets his speed work in as well. He’s already in shape, he’s strong, he understands his races, he knows how to run them. Now we’re in the process of just getting him faster.”
Markell Webb has also started to focus on nutrition and diet in his son’s development. But as is the case with any elementary school student, compromises are sometimes necessary.
“He loves McDonald’s like any other eight-year-old,” Markell Webb said. “We definitely treat him. For us, it’s a healthy lifestyle. I think one thing about sports, and track in particular, is that it kind of instills discipline in a kid, where they understand the importance of what they put in their bodies and how that can really impact their health. I would say that in a lot of ways, he’s just really getting a leap on a lot of other kids his age, as it relates to understanding healthy choices.
“It’s definitely not the world I lived in as an eight-year-old. A lot of these kids have a very focused regimen. He’s kind of following in that path as well.”
Marcus Webb isn’t the boastful type and mostly keeps to himself. And while his father doesn’t try to keep Marcus‘ national success a secret, he also doesn’t feel the need to.
“I think it’s registered,” Markell said. “When Coach Andre first met him, he said, ‘Hey, you’re going to go to the Junior Olympics.’ He was kind of like, ‘Well, coach says that I can do it. I’ll work hard and I’ll maybe I’ll get there.’”
While the prospect of performing in front of college recruiters is still a long ways off, Al-Ghani says that pressure, particularly from parents, can still be an issue for some young athletes. He doesn’t see that issue with the Webbs, though.
“What happens once you take a student-athlete and they start performing and running for the parent, rather than the program on the coach and themselves, you start to go in a different direction,” Al-Ghani said.
The Webbs haven’t decided exactly what Marcus‘ future holds, whether it will be focused on football, track, or a mix of the two. For now, though, Marcus will keep working for a place atop the medal stand at the Junior Olympics.
“I’m going to let him do whatever he chooses,” Markell Webb said. “It’s whatever he’s passionate about and just letting him continue to go down that path, versus setting a path for him.”