Mario Mendoza started out as a kid picking fruit in his parents’ orchard, but today he is picking up medals for his long-distance running skills. His is a classic Cambria story: small-town boy with strong family and community values becomes a respected name on the national sporting scene.
As a youngster picking avocados with his parents on the Stepladder Ranch on San Simeon Creek Road, Mendoza had three goals. One, he wanted to be the fastest avocado picker on the ranch (check). Two, he wanted to set the record for the fastest time running around the ranch (check).
And three, after accomplishing the first two goals, Mendoza wanted to become “a nationally recognized soccer player. That was my dream all along as a kid. I played a lot of soccer.”
After finishing chores in the avocado orchard, he would dash around the perimeter of the ranch and write down his times, competing against his previous time with each new lap.
As an incoming freshman at Coast Union, he tore ligaments in his knee playing soccer, but after full physical recovery, his level of soccer skill “just kind of dropped,” he explained. “I wasn’t at the level I thought I needed to be in soccer but it seemed I had some talent running.
“People were saying, ‘You should focus on running,’ and I was learning to love running, and it really balanced my life well. And because I love being outside, for me, running is like playing.”
By his junior year at Coast Union, running became a necessary passion. He ran as a training tool to put himself in back in great shape for soccer (a winter sport he played for three years). To help with his training regime, Mendoza joined the cross country team (a fall sport), leaving much of the competition in the dust while winning the CIF Division 5 championship.
He won CIF again his senior year (2003-2004) and came in fifth in the state tournament for cross country. He was named Student Athlete of the Year at Coast Union and was MVP in soccer in the league prior to launching his college career at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga.
Meanwhile at St. Mary’s, where he had a full-ride scholarship for cross country, he performed with brilliance both as a runner and a student. He was named to the “All-Academic Team” in 2008 and was “Scholar-Athlete of the Year” and “Athlete of the Year” his senior year, winning other medals and awards along the way.
Today he lives, works and runs in Bend, Ore., in the foothills of the Cascade mountain range. His residence is 15 minutes from his favorite rugged mountain trails. Settling in Bend was by design, because along the way Mendoza switched from cross country to trail running.
“It’s the prettiest place I’ve ever been to,” Mendoza said about Bend during a phone interview Saturday, July 27. “It’s just amazing. The greenery in the mountains, the water, the waterfalls, it is so beautiful,” he continued. It is also a fortuitous location because Mendoza has now established himself as one of the top trail runners in the nation.
He started running trail races and was named USA Track & Field (USATF) “Trail Runner of the Year” in 2010–2011. He ran his first mountain race in 2011 at the USA championships and joined the USA NACAC Mountain Running Team.
He placed second in the 2012 USA Half Marathon Trail Championships and he also came in second in the XTERRA Trail National Championship. All this came after he had transitioned into trail running for little more than one year.
In 2012 Mendoza moved up in distance, competing in the following: the Transrockies (finished third); the McKenzie River 50K (finished first); the 50K Trail Championships (second); and the XTERRA Trail World Championships (fourth).
Has he ever come across wildlife that posed danger while running a trail race? “I’ve never encountered a mountain lion, but I’ve kind of wanted to,” he chuckled. “But I’ve encountered at least 13 bears. Once I came across a big female with cubs. You have to be careful. I stopped running and let them walk through.”
Today Mendoza’s goal is to become “a world class runner in trail running.” He believes running “really suits my personality and my love for nature.” Mendoza asserts that while he was “meant to be a runner,” his full-time job in Bend prevents him from running the 140 or so miles a week he feels he needs in order to become a world-class trail runner.
Right now, he is able to get in 80 to 90 miles a week by running before work, after work, and on weekends. He needs to work less and run more, and figuring out how to do that is yet another challenge because he supports himself (trail race winners earn about $500 on average).
Meanwhile, of all the motivating factors that have driven Mendoza’s career, his parents’ rise to middle class professional status (his father, Mario, has managed Stepladder Ranch for 11 years and his mother, Maria, is a family advocate and parent educator at CUHS) after they were brought up in “little shacks” as “dirt poor” people in Mexico, stands out as the most powerful, he declares.
“They were role models and they taught me to value life, hard work and to value opportunity,” he made clear. Certainly he knows that he has the talent for what he does. But talent “is overrated,” he insists.
What counts for Mendoza are discipline, dedication and passion — plus unending physical effort. In that regard, as his feet traverse steep, rock-strewn, brutally challenging mountain trails, he knows that in a very real way he is following in his parents’ footsteps.