Running hard in the pitch black of a moonless November night at Montana de Oro, Mario Mendoza launched his latest 100-mile effort, powering his legs up and down rock-strewn trails and along sea-sprayed bluffs.
Notwithstanding his vast experience as a distance runner — the Cambria native is a five-time USA Trail Champion and top-ranked ultra-marathoner — this midnight scamper Nov. 10 was a bit out of Mendoza’s comfort zone.
He had never launched a long-distance endurance run in the dark — and at the outset he was running solo, in sharp contrast to the 299 athletes he competed against in the Western States 100 in June (he finished 16th ) and the 263 competitors he battled in the Trail World Championships in the rugged Penyagolosa Mountains of Spain in April (he came in sixth).
The Montana de Oro 30-mile outing was Mendoza’s first leg of a planned century run to Cambria — “A run for community, 100 miles to build a bridge,” in Mendoza’s words. He was running because he sees a need for “positive activism” to bring cultures together in this time of “(political) division and contentious border issues.”
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His goal: build a fire under young people to reach out — culture to culture — through athletic challenges and recreational interaction.
Putting pain aside
Two weeks earlier, the bilingual 32-year-old Mendoza, listed 70th among 2,000 internationally-ranked ultra-marathoners, outran 500 competitors to win the mountainous 100K Ultra Trail en Mexico near Mexico City. His misfortune was losing four toenails.
“The worst part wasn’t the toenails; we crossed 15 rivers, so the bottoms of my feet got lots of blisters,” he said.
So here he was, in the Montana de Oro blackness, fighting foot pain, yet keeping a promise to return to his hometown and his almamater, Coast Union High School, to “lift people up” by running 100 miles in less than 24 hours.
The Morro Bay sandspit was his second serious obstacle. Leaving Montana de Oro and running north toward the “toe” of the 7.2 kilometer sandspit — across from Morro Rock — his cell phone wouldn’t load his GPS, so the tracking software his support crew depended on was inoperative. It was high tide, and the sand was soft and deep.
In addition, Mendoza was struggling.
“After 38 miles, before I got to the boat crossing to Morro Rock, I was starting to hit some mental barriers,” he said in a phone interview Nov. 11. “Your body wants to go to sleep. I had to fight that. You combine the soft sand with feeling tired... it’s like they say, ‘There’s no easy hundred.’ There’s no way to make it easy even if you’re not in a race atmosphere.”
Boat crossing brings ‘reset’
When Mendoza left the sandspit he crossed the mouth of Morro Bay, over to Morro Rock in an inflatable dingy.
“That was gorgeous,” he said. “The water was calm. That was an inspiring moment. The sun was perfect and I can’t wait to see the footage on it because it looked incredible” (A video documentary was being filmed of the event.)
There to greet him when he came ashore were several of his high school teachers, parents, his wife Jade with their 2-month-old son, and support crew members.
“It helped a ton. It was a break, like a reset,” he said. “It’s a new day, the sun is coming up, and now I got to run this beautiful stretch of beach from Morro Bay to Cayucos.”
From the moment Mendoza arrived on the Cayucos bluff trail, approximately mile 55, he never ran alone — “Not one step. That was huge. I didn’t expect that,” he said.
When he got to Harmony Headlands, he was joined by two 13-year-old boys who had been brought down from San Jose to accompany him.
“This is unreal,” he said. “They came at the right time because I was starting to get really tired.”
At about mile 70, after several jaunts east and west up and down country roads adjoining Highway 1, Mendoza began to feel the Achilles tendon in his right leg “tighten.”
Having experienced numerous brutal physical challenges, Mendoza becomes philosophical when necessary.
“When you’re struggling, as I was, that’s when you turn to faith. I have it,” he said.
Mendoza carried a backpack with supplies and gear he would need, but he didn’t have compression socks or athletic tape on board to help remedy his recalcitrant Achilles. So word was sent through Steve Kniffen, his principal support person and event organizer, to bring tape and compression socks to his next brief rest stop at mile 80. .
Mendoza had run 10 miles with the nagging Achilles prior to Aaron Linn and Jim Pitton, support staffers, arriving with tape and a compression sock at Pocahontas Park in Cambria. His mom, wife and baby and others hovered over him as Kniffen and Linn tugged the sock (inch by inch) fully onto his leg. He enjoyed a few gulps of a strawberry smoothie during the procedure.
Then he stood up. “Gotta go!” he said.
Followed by a gaggle of companions, he hustled down Ramsey Street and navigated a steep dirt trail to the East Fiscalini Ranch. Soon after he crossed Highway 1 to the West Ranch, where he hastily ate up 9 miles along the stunningly beautiful vistas where the ocean crashes dramatically onto rocky shores.
Arriving at Coast Union
Prior to his arrival at Coast Union, where in his senior year (2004) he was chosen outstanding student athlete and top scholar athlete — and he captured the Division 5 CIF cross country championship — he was battling serious fatigue.
He told himself, if he had to walk the final four or five miles, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
“For me, there was no option to not finish it,” he said. “I was ready to walk if I had to. Honestly, I told myself, coming in under 24 hours is doable, so if I need to walk, I’ll put more clothes on, I’ll keep moving, and we’ll do it.”
However, no such drastic alternative was in the cards. Mendoza and his by now impressive entourage turned east from Main Street onto Santa Rosa Creek Road and arrived to a thundering applause from an estimated 100 well-wishers in front of the football stadium. He was immediately surrounded by students, parents, teachers, coaches, his family and children requesting his autograph.
In the end, he ran 98 miles in 16.5 hours, according to Kniffen.
Asked the following day how he coped with the pain from the broken toenails, Mendoza replied: “Basically (an endurance runner) learns that if you stop thinking about the pain, and it’s not messing up your mechanics... you learn to be a little tough and just kinda ignore it.
“Your brain tells you, ‘Oh, the pain’s not really there anymore.’ And the missing nails were not doing anything anyway — they were already dead.”
Kniffen, who challenged himself by running the “Yudovin 100” from Cambria to Carmel in April 2016, representing the Sophidion Foundation, said the Mendoza event “was so much beyond what I even could have imagined. It couldn’t have been drawn up any better.”
As to the two young boys who met Mendoza at Harmony Headlands, “That was amazing,” Kniffen said. “I thought Mario was going to do the Headlands on his own, but those two little characters showed up. It was awesome. It was so motivating for Mario. They carried him to the Headlands and back. One little guy went the whole way with Mario.”
Little and big kids alike are the people Mendoza has in mind as part of his passion
“To bridge cultures and promote inclusion,” he said.
For more information on Mendoza’s charity — the Beautiful Feet Project — which benefited from his 98-mile trek, visit www.beautifulfeetproject.com.