Cambrian: Sports

Cambria native balances faith, family with world-class ultra-marathon, trail-running career

Mario Mendoza celebrates finishing sixth out of 263 runners in the 55-mile IAU "Trail World Championships" in Spain on May 12, 2018. He was the top U.S. finisher for the second straight year.
Mario Mendoza celebrates finishing sixth out of 263 runners in the 55-mile IAU "Trail World Championships" in Spain on May 12, 2018. He was the top U.S. finisher for the second straight year. Courtesy of

Running has always come second nature to Mario Mendoza. As a young man, day after day, he ran lickety-split around the perimeter of the avocado orchard on San Simeon Creek Road’s Stepladder Ranch — where his father was employed. He timed himself and challenged himself to go faster each round.

Today, at 32, he is making his mark as a luminary on the international ultra-running scene — squeezing out every ounce of his energy and mental stamina as he competes in 55 and 10-mile races up and down mountains as high as 15,000 feet.

To wit, Mendoza finished the “Western States 100” endurance challenge on June 23-24 — the oldest 100-mile trail race in the world — finishing 16th among 299 runners in18 hours, 33 minutes, 11 seconds.

Six weeks earlier, the Cambria native finished sixth among 263 ultra athletes in the IAU “Trail World Championships” in Spain’s Penyagolosa Mountains. He was the top American to finish the 55-mile race for the second straight year. Mendoza completed the trek in nine hours, 31 seconds.

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Mario Mendoza is cooled off with water at the Forest Hill aid station (mile 62) during the “Western States 100” endurance race that ran from Squaw Valley, California, to Auburn, Oregon, on June 24, 2018. He finished 16th out of 299 runners. Paul Nelson Courtesy photo

Between his Stepladder Ranch scampers and his ultra running renown, the 2004 Coast Union graduate took serious steps towards making running more than a passing passion — he envisioned a possible career. As a Coast Union Bronco, he captured Division 5 CIF Southern Section championships in cross country in his junior and senior seasons.

He also starred in soccer; he was named MVP in the Coast Sierra League in 2002, and in 2004 he was selected as Coast Union’s outstanding student athlete and as the school’s top scholar athlete.

At Saint Mary’s College in Maraga, he excelled in cross country and marathons. He studied developmental psychology, and following graduation he moved to Bend, Oregon, to pursue a professional running career. Subsequently, he has won numerous marathons, 10Ks, the 50-mile and 100K Trail National Championships; and he was named USA Track & Field’s Trail Runner of the Year in 2010, 2013 and 2017.

Coping with fatigue

Asked in an email interview how he handles the physical pain and mental fatigue of the 100 and the 55-mile ultra races, Mendoza explained:

“Your body is so tired that it almost stops caring about being hungry, thirsty, or wanting to win. When the mountain breaks you down, you get to see a real reflection of who you are and are left with the choice to give up or to push to new boundaries.”

The thought has crossed Mendoza’s mind that he might just “lay down on the side of a trail and give up,” he said.

These moments also present the competitive option of choosing to “push deeper,” which allows him to see the “beauty in the way God created man’s spirit to desire meaning and purpose behind what we do.”

Even in the throws of near-crippling, agonizing pain, Mendoza feels a great deal of “pleasure and joy… even before I reach the finish line… (Because) I am able to offer the entire journey of an ultra marathon in faith and in communion with God.”

Nutritional barriers

Completing that journey means not stopping to eat for any extended period. There are aid stations along the 100-mile route, and “you really need to focus on getting calories in” during those brief pauses. But he gets “in and out (of the stations) as quickly as possible,” he said.

For Mendoza, a minimum of 7,000 calories is required to power him along the 100-mile route.

“Simple sugars help but are not sustainable,” he said. “I use a powder mix in my drink called Tailwind that adds calories and electrolytes. I also use Honey Stinger Gels and thin waffles that are easy to chew on.”

Having worked “so hard on conquering the mind and muscles’ fatigue barriers that are needed in ultra running,” he said, “now (I see) that the nutritional barriers are my weakest link. I have spent the least amount of preparation with the nutritional side.”

Typical of Mendoza, he sees a constructive, positive point of light even in the one vulnerable facet of his brutal treks.

“You need a good plan… I’m excited to solve this last missing piece and figure out what foods my body can digest and handle well,” he said.

Mendoza’s ministry

Clearly, Mendoza’s success as a world-class runner is linked to his deep faith in God; indeed, he is a licensed pastor in the Church of God in Bend. He receives a small monthly “missionary stipend” for his ministry and his advocacy work with Latinos in the Bend community, which is helpful because only one of his several sponsors actually compensates him monetarily. Other sponsors provide him with gear and necessities associated with ultra competition.

His faith reveals something tangible during every long mountain race.

“Whether I see it right away or not, God never lets an effort that stems out of faith go to waste,” he said. “This time of testing myself in the mountains really becomes a time of worship and communion for me.”

He rebukes President Donald Trump’s “mocking, insulting and blaming of others” approach to governing, especially when it comes to the treatment of immigrants from Mexico.

He adds that it’s “easy” and “takes no strength” to verbally attack people.

“What takes strength is to forgive, to be kind, patient, and to first look at our own selves and see what changes we need to make,” he said.

In August 2018, Mendoza and his wife, Jade, expecting their first child on Sept. 18, will launch a ministry called “Beautiful Feet” that will include a website, podcasts and public talks the two will be conducting in Mexico and the U.S.

When the baby arrives, will it impact Mendoza’s training schedule that includes about 90 miles a week?

“That may change to more quality (running) when the baby comes, or maybe not,” he said.

The couple already has purchased “one of those really fast strollers I can train with.”

He plans to incorporate more strength training; and while on his hiking treks, “I’ll be carrying my little guy around.”

Moreover, Mendoza says he is “blessed that Jade is very supportive of training and racing. She knows it’s a part of who I am and that it helps me be a better husband.”

Mendoza hasn’t yet decided on his next ultra race. It could be the “Leadville 100” in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains (Aug. 11); or the “Ultra-Trail Du Mont Blanc,” a 103-mile race around the French Alps (Aug. 27).

On the other hand, “It might be wise to race shorter distances and let the body recover, but we will see,” he said.

He added, “What intrigues me is the 100-mile distance.”

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