Some of Mario Mendoza’s earliest memories of his father relate to their mutual love of soccer. At the time, Mendoza excelled at soccer and would travel across California playing in games. His father loved watching him play. They also bonded over watching soccer on TV.
“A lot of these memories of my dad are about soccer,” Mendoza recalls. “And one of my favorite memories later, in my middle childhood, was that my dad, when I started to run, he actually decided to start running too. It was really cool. I mean, he wasn't fast. But we started doing laps at the ranch. And those are memories that really stood with me because, when you share these experiences together, you just really bond a lot more.”
The Mendozas not only share a love of sports, they are also both competitive.
“As much as I always was fitter, he still always tried to push me,” Mendoza says, citing an example of a steep climb they used to do. “This one road was like going up a wall. It goes straight up for a half a mile and even cars have a problem going up there. There were times when my dad would start making this move, start going for it. And I always smiled and I just didn't say anything because that's in me. I have this competitiveness that I had as a kid and it's built there. And it's fun to see how that can get you transferred over to 10 or more family members.”
From soccer to running
His Mexican parents became U.S. citizens on a work visa program. Mendoza was born in San Clemente, Calif., and after four years his father got a job working on an avocado farm in Cambria, Calif.
“We were pretty much raised in the Mexican culture with me and my sister,” he says. “We had families around us that were also from Mexico and then also relatives. And until I went to school, I didn't really hear much English or I didn't know how to speak English. So, everything we did was just the culture they knew.”
Mendoza grew up with a “love-hate relationship with avocados,” but that has since changed.
(Photo by Paul Nelson)
“It's funny, I joke with people that, now I love avocados,” he says with a laugh. “When I lived there, I didn't really like them that much because to me it correlated to work. And for some reason, I guess the flavor hadn't clicked yet. But, as I got older, when I started getting into high school and stuff, I started liking avocados. Now, I wish I had unlimited supplies because that was pretty sweet to have avocados all over.”
More importantly the avocado farm allowed the family to work.
“My sister and cousins pitched in. We went to school like normal kids and then during summer break, we got a chance to help the family. I learned a lot of really good, good, good values from that,” he says. “The work ethic and at the same time just putting my family first.”
As the child of Mexican immigrants, Mendoza has unique perspective of the debate over immigration. He can see both sides of the issue.
“I'm not a kind of person who would say, every person coming in is good, and then they turn evil because there's people that embarrass me sometimes from both sides, from both Mexico and the U.S. And there's always broken people everywhere. But really, if we look at just the root of it, it's always been that the majority of them think they can help their family. So, what you find is a lot of them that did make it, even the ones who don't have citizenship, they work so hard to send money back to their families to keep them going. And I would argue, ‘Is that actually helping?’ Because then, some kids don't have their dads, because their dads were the only one who crossed the border.”
An early wake-up call breeds success
About 14 years ago Mendoza traded in his cleats on the pitch for running shoes on the roads. As a soccer player, he had developed a good running base. In the middle of his high school career, he tore his MCL.
“If I ran and did the therapy it would take maybe a year, maybe a little more, to heal,” he explains. “It’s a ligament that they don't really reattach; it grows back on its own. It’s a slow process to get back to healthy.”
Mendoza did what his doctors suggested: he ran.
He ran five days a week — “that's when things started taking off.”
(Photo by Paul Nelson)
On the first day of cross-country practice, Mendoza realized he was the fastest on his high school team. “I thought ‘I'm actually pretty good at this running thing.”
But his inexperience showed during his first race when he stopped three times on the way to about a 18:30 finish in the 5K. He was so competitive that he tried to stay with the top runners early and go for the win. "I should have paced myself," he remembers thinking afterward.
Mendoza chipped away at his times and gained experience and confidence.
“Soon I was the fastest kid in our league and in our division,” he says. “That really sparked it. I think that my first initial love with running was really because I was good at it. And then it wasn't until later that it really started transforming into something much different.”
‘I’ve always been so competitive’
Among Mendoza’s points of pride is that he won scholar-athlete of the year at every level: middle school, high school and college. “I always wanted to be the best. I've always been so competitive."
That spirit helped Mendoza blossom into an elite athlete. Among his accolades: he is a five-time USA Trail National champion, four-time USA Trail Runner of the Year and three-time top American runner at Trail World Championships.
(Photo by Steve Heinrichs)
“For me, trail running was a very easy transition and the ultra running was really a call for me to push myself, to push what is inside of me,” he says. “More than the physical, I love the way an ultra just breaks you down. Ultras and mountain running have always been really about what they do to me inside. I think that is because really by the middle of my career, running started to transform into my place of rest, my place of kind of refuge, my place of really connecting to my faith to God, to the mountains.”
Like many ultra runners, Mendoza feeds on the raw emotions. He embraces the suck. He redefines his limits.
“The way it takes you to this place of rawness and you're really stripped down of sometimes the emotion and sometimes you're stripped down of desires anymore to win,” he says. “And you just get really down to this real core, perhaps a place of humility sometimes. And I like it because I think I've learned the most about myself from pushing myself in ultras.”
Mendoza has also learned the downside of having a competitive nature.
“I've learned that competitiveness can be very unhealthy and it can make us feel like we're above others,” he says. ”I've noticed I've had to work on that and I can't say I've completely arrived and I've completely stripped myself down from pride. But I can say that, I feel like I've grown a lot. I think that once I've realized how much of it can be kind of in your lives, you start realizing like, 'Wow, I was trapped in my own pride. I was living in it.'
"And so I think those are the things that, for me I'm just so grateful that running has helped me make it more about others, about my family and most importantly for me and my faith.”
Last fall, Mendoza became a father when his son, Jair (pronounced HA-EAR), was born.
“Wow, being a dad just connects so many things, so many thoughts in your heart and your head,” he says. “I had this idea that I knew I would like to be a dad and I knew it would be fun especially trying to see what he'll be like and the activities he'll choose to do as he gets older. But what's really hit me during this as is how much you can love a child and how much you can love in general. For example, my son, I love him so much and yet he doesn't contribute at all to my family.”
When his travels take Mendoza away from Jair, he cannot wait to reunite.
“I would not think twice giving up my life for him,” he says. “I just love him so much and every time I'm gone for like half a day or one day, I just want to come back and hold him. I just want to hug him. And that has been the biggest thing that has shocked me about being a dad, is the fact that you can love, when really there's no benefit to you. It just brings a new perspective to life. And, I wouldn't trade it in for anything. Right now, being a dad is the most important thing along with being a husband. I'm grateful for my family.”
About six weeks after his son was born, Mendoza did the Ultra Trail Mexico 100K.
“I'd never run an ultra in Mexico so that was a big thing last year,” he says. “This is the biggest ultra over there. What was really awesome about this trip is that my dad came with me and he hates flying. We're going to go back to Mexico where he's from and we're going to run the biggest race and we're just going to enjoy this weekend as a father and son.”
Still Mendoza was nervous because he hadn’t been training well. Having a newborn does have its drawbacks.
“I was in a fog the first three weeks after the birth,” he says.
"Whatever happens is just good for me to get back out there and to kind of make a statement that even though I'm a dad now, I still want to give it my best. I still want to do the very best that I can and maybe it won't be as good, but who knows? Maybe it will be."
(Photo by Steve Heinrichs)
Maybe it was having his dad crew him. Maybe it was wanting to inspire his infant son in some way. Maybe it was his competitive drive.
The race, as it turned out, was actually “pretty incredible,” Mendoza says.
He was in the lead a third of the way into the race. By the halfway point, he had extended it. “I had just a very great day,” says Mendoza, who not only won the race, but set a course record. “It was very techie, very, very muddy, more of a sky running type of course. It was challenging at 7,000 feet elevation, but we felt good and I love being there with my dad and having him crew for me.”
His first Father’s Day
Speaking of Mexico, that’s where Mendoza’s son happened to be conceived. And he was born on Sept. 16, Mexican Independence Day.
“It's a very personal thing for me because I am proud to be from Mexico,” he says. “I'll get to share that story with him when he finally understands it, and tell him, ‘You're more awesome than me. You were actually conceived over there and you were born on Mexican Independence Day.’"
Mendoza admits he is “the worst when it comes to birthdays and holidays.” But his first Father’s Day will be special for sure.
“I treat them like most normal days,” he admits. “But I think that I'm going to allow Father’s Day to sink in more. My whole family is going to be celebrating with me and encouraging me and congratulating me. I have thought about this so much. How important the father figure and the mother figure are to kids. I am excited about and honored to be able to celebrate it this year.”
Hometown: Cambria, Calif.
Number of years running: 14
How many miles a week do you typically run: 75
Point of pride: Top American at three world championships
Favorite race distance: 50 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Honey Stinger waffles
Favorite piece of gear: Brooks Caldera shoes
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Native American tribal music
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: mendozarunner
• Website: mendozarunner.com