BOYS CROSS COUNTRY: Mark Castaneda, Vallivue

Beep ... beep ... beep.

It was a sound Mark Castaneda dreaded hearing every morning during the summer. It was the sound of his alarm clock going off at 5 a.m. on the dot.

While most of his classmates were sleeping in over the summer break, the Vallivue boys cross country runner was sprinting on the sides of roads, through ditch banks and up hills well before the morning sunrise.

Even though he barely kept his eyes open for most of it, the routine paid off for him this season. The senior led the Falcons to a district title and a third-place finish at the 4A State Cross Country Championships in October. He tallied seven Top-5 finishes, including placing fifth at state.

For his accomplishments, Castaneda is the 2017-2018 Idaho Press-Tribune’s Sports Stars Boys Cross Country Athlete of the Year.

“It was really hard to do, but only the great runners put in time during the offseason,” Castaneda said. “It’s telling yourself: ‘do you want to get better or not?’ You stay the same if you don’t put in any extra work and I wasn’t about to be complacent. I had a goal and knew what I had to do to get it.”

Castaneda put in more than 60 hours of running this summer. It was an increase of 20 hours from the previous summers.

But Castaneda knew he needed to step things up. After all, it was about to be his senior year.

The graduation of two-time state placer Vincent Groner meant Castaneda was the next in line. So he not only prepared himself, but his teammates as well.

Castaneda organized group runs all summer long. He routinely met up with fellow teammates like senior Anthony DeLeon.

They often kept him company and awake during those early-morning runs.

“He got quite a few of the guys out to run and in those workouts, he worked his tail off,” Vallivue coach Robert Thomas said. “That translated into other people wanting to work their hardest too. So he was really good in terms of leadership.”

Castaneda’s dedication to his craft resulted in stellar seasons for both himself and the team. He had more Top-5 finishes in his first six races than he did in all of his previous three years combined.

The 18-year-old won his first ever race at the Gary Ward Invitational on Sept. 28. His personal record time of 15:46.6 at the Bugtown Canyon County Championships two weeks later ended up being tied for the sixth fastest time in the state regardless of classification.

The runner-up finish at the 4A District III Championships helped Vallivue win the title in a landslide. The Falcons beat Bishop Kelly by 38 points to end its 10-year district title run.

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“Mark is committed for sure and that really showed this year because he was the leader of the team,” junior Christian Pearson said. “He was always so confident and portrayed an attitude of — we’re going to win no matter what. That attitude carried over to the rest of the team and we all believed in each other as much as he did with us.”

At the 4A State Cross Country Championships on Oct. 28 at Eagle Island State Park, Castaneda looked like he was going to dethrone defending state champion, Nicholas Russell of Bishop Kelly.

He was slightly ahead of Russell at the midway point of the race and neck and neck as they approached the two-mile mark. But with a little more than a mile to go, Castaneda fell off.

Russell got away and three more runners passed him, including one during the final 100 meters of the race as Castaneda settled for fifth place.

But the result was still the highest of his career at state, and assisted Vallivue in bringing home hardware for the first time in three years with a third-place finish, just one point shy of second.

“I’m going down the last 100 meters of the race and everyone is yelling at me. Everything felt like it was in slow motion,” Castaneda said. “As I crossed the finish line I thought, ‘that’s it, that’s my high school career.’ It was hard to believe it was really over.

“My family, teammates and coaches were all there and came up to me after. They were all really proud of me and in that moment I was happy with what I had just accomplished.”

However, the cross country race won’t be Castaneda’s last.

He signed with Idaho State to compete in both cross country and track and field.

But before he takes the trip east, Castaneda still has indoor and outdoor track and field seasons ahead of him.

He will compete indoors at the Simplot Games and the New Balance Invitational in Boise before the high school track and field season kicks into gear in March.

Castaneda competed in the 800, 1600 and 3200-meter runs last season. He was the district runner up in all of those events and fourth at state in the 3200 last year.

He will look for much better showings this time around. And he’s already planning on upping his running time to 75 hours per week — just not so early this time around.

“I’m going straight into more training. I got another huge season ahead of me,” Castaneda said. “I’m glad I started doing it in the first place. Everything is going the way I want right now. I feel like it’s taking me somewhere so I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”

Brandon Walton covers Ada County and College of Idaho sports for the Idaho Press.

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