For some elite runners, the journey into the professional realm came naturally. Once they found out they had the gift to run fast, they immediately applied their skills to excel at the highest levels of their sport. But this wasn't the path that Raleigh resident Bobby Mack took.

While attending North Carolina State, Mack says he was a middle-of-the-pack collegiate runner-nothing special. "Nothing ever told me that I should continue running at a professional level," he says. "But I had been injured a lot and I felt that I had never lived up to my potential." Mack says that after college, he tried to see what he could get his times down to.

After two to three long years, he finally began achieving breakthroughs like in 2011 when he won the U.S. 8K Championship. Unlike most of his rivals who had big sponsorships, Mack was running for his local running store.

"I didn't have a sponsor. I was driving my car to the races. The event directors didn't know my name, so they weren't flying me into the races. I was just driving to these races on my own-sometimes as far as Florida."

That's where Mack says the "blue-collar runner" moniker stuck. "I was just flying solo at that time," he says. But once he won the 8K Championships and then the U.S. Cross-Country championships the following year (2012), Mack says he slowly got the recognition he deserved.

Mack surely won't be the underdog at this Sunday's Rock ‘n' Roll Raleigh Half Marathon presented by WRAL to benefit the V Foundation, where he is one of the top contenders for the win. The race, which routes through North Carolina's scenic capital city, will be Mack's fourth half marathon in his career. "I really like the half distance; I feel strong racing it," he says. Mack recalls that he had a good experience at the U.S. Championships in Duluth two years ago when he placed seventh overall there with a 1:03:10 that wasn't on a course as fast as Houston where the current U.S. Championships are hosted.

To prepare for Raleigh, Mack says he's been doing long runs of 18-20 miles and a lot of tempo runs and mile repeats or even two-mile repeats. Mack, who works at the Capital RunWalk running store in Raleigh, knows the city like the back of his hand and says he's been tossing in some hill repeats recently to prepare for the undulations on the course come race day. "Hill repeats make all runners stronger," he contends.

Mack has a wide range of talent from the middle-distance events all the way to the half marathon. He's broken the 4-minute barrier in the mile and owns a personal best of 63 minutes for 13.1 miles. Because of this versatility, Mack says he will be deciding next month where he will focus and Raleigh will be a good indicator for him. "I need to test the waters at the U.S. 25K Championships [on May 9]. I need to know if I'm going for the marathon or stick with the 10K on the track," he admits.

Mack calls Raleigh home and really wants to break the tape on Sunday in 65 minutes or under.

"When I started running after college I was racing almost every other weekend in the Raleigh area and I made a lot friends and gained a lot of local fans within the community, "he says. "Those same friends and fans supported me and cheered me on all the way to the Olympic Trials and my first national title win. I'm really looking forward to racing a big time race back on the roads of Raleigh with those same friends and the local running community. Rock ‘n' Roll will bring my career full circle-back to the roads that I've logged thousands of miles on."

On Sunday, a marathon will be held in conjunction with the Rock ‘n' Roll Raleigh Half Marathon. Thousands of runners for both events will toe the start line at 7 a.m. between W. Davie and Salisbury Streets. A rocking finish-line festival awaits participants and their families at the Red Hat Amphitheater where headliner Smash Mouth will give everyone a chance to celebrate their running achievements.