From 6 a.m. until sunset, Mario Mendoza and his family would work the fields in Cambria, California, using ladders to climb trees and pick avocados, filling boxes weighing up to 80 pounds.
Those long summer days of his youth forged in Mendoza, now 29, a work ethic that has helped make him one of the top distance trail runners in the country. No matter how far the race, or how long the climb, nothing will compare to those days in the field.
“That was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my whole life,” says Mendoza, who has lived in Bend for six years. “That’s how I saved money to buy a car in college. I don’t regret it. I think it was really good for me to learn to work. You’re part of the family so you’re helping. We’re helping each other.”
Mendoza’s story sounds like something straight from this year’s movie “McFarland, USA,” which tells the story of a coach leading Latino high school students in California’s Central Valley, many of whom worked long hours in the fields, to an unlikely cross-country state championship.
Cambria is located two hours away from McFarland, on the coast, and Mendoza ran little in high school, but the movie resonated so much with Mendoza’s mother, Maria Teresa Mendoza, that she wept when watching it.
“My entire life I grew up in the fields,” Maria Teresa says. “I cry over that movie, because that’s me. And that was my child, running and working in the fields.”
Mario — who won the 50-mile trail national championship this season and will compete in the USA Mountain Running Championships on July 25 at Mount Bachelor — admits that his work in the fields was not as arduous as what is portrayed in the movie. But that work, combined with watching his parents strive to make a better life for their family, stays with him on his training runs, as he logs up to 90 miles per week on Central Oregon trails.
“The biggest inspiration was just seeing them (his parents) want to always do better, to always improve,” Mario says. “My mom went from being a house cleaner, to now she’s worked 17 years in school districts. My dad was a laborer on the ranch. He worked his way up to manager by the time I was in college. He started at the bottom and worked his way up. There’s no better example than seeing your parents do something like that, and just work hard.”
Mario’s parents moved to Bend two years ago, and they watched their son get married just this past Saturday.
Mario was born in California but his parents emigrated from Michoacan, Mexico, when they were children. Both Maria Teresa and Mario Sr.’s fathers were braceros — migrant workers who were allowed to come to the U.S. to work under agricultural labor contracts. They were able to eventually bring their families to the U.S. legally and permanently after years of traveling back and forth between the two countries. All the family members worked fields throughout California and Oregon, including picking cherries in Hood River.
Maria Teresa is now an early childhood advocate for the Family Access Network in Deschutes County, and Mario Sr. works at the Beaver Coach & Sales RV dealership in Bend.
Growing up on the avocado ranch in Cambria, the younger Mario was willing to try anything, according to his mother, who says he played pretty much every sport when not working on the ranch.
“I come from the fields, so I wanted them (Mario and his sister Lisette) to appreciate working the fields and also appreciate life and know they have to work hard to earn it,” Maria Teresa says.
In high school, Mario’s main sport was soccer. He ran a few cross-country races, but only when the coach asked him to.
“I’d usually be the top runner from our school and place pretty well,” Mario says. “But I loved soccer. It just never clicked until I began to love actually running.”
After suffering a torn knee ligament in soccer, Mendoza was told by doctors that running would help strengthen the muscles in his mending joint. So he started running regularly, and by the time he was at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, he decided to try out for the cross-country team. (St. Mary’s does not have a track and field team.)
“It took me a while, but halfway through college I was faster,” he says.
Mendoza was a scholar athlete at St. Mary’s, majoring in developmental psychology while shaving four minutes off his 8-kilometer time between his freshman and senior years. He finished fourth in the NCAA Division I West Coast Conference in his senior year.
After college, Mendoza landed a job as an adviser for Foliotek, an online portfolio system that specializes in higher education. His work is all online, so he could live anywhere he chose. After ruling out locations in Colorado, New Mexico and California, he selected Bend.
Shortly after moving to Central Oregon, Mendoza met Max King, a longtime Bend resident and perhaps the best long-distance trail runner in the country.
“I wasn’t nearly as fast as him, but he was really open to running with me and training,” Mendoza recalls. “I just got to know him as a friend. Max is a crazy, amazing athlete. I had to be careful, because I couldn’t handle his mileage and intensity. It’s been years of getting closer and closer (to King in races).”
Mendoza was named the USA Track & Field trail runner of the year in 2010 and 2013. But 2015 is shaping up to be his best season yet.
He won the Trail Factor Half Marathon in Portland’s Forest Park on May 23, finishing in 1 hour, 24 minutes. He then won the Trail Factor 50K just two days later, finishing in 3:31:59. Just six days after that, Mendoza won the USATF 50 Mile Trail Championships in Ithaca, New York, in 6:55:28.
“For some reason, something clicked the last few weeks before (the 50-mile race) and I was recovering really well,” Mendoza says. “I felt just really strong.”
On June 14 he finished second in the Dirty Half Marathon in Bend, trailing King by just 22 seconds. He considered it a moral triumph, as they each shattered the course record by more than a minute (King finishing in 1:13:45, Mendoza in 1:14:07).
“Losing to Max, for me, that was still a victory,” Mendoza says. “That probably gave me the most confidence. He’s at the top of the U.S.”
In the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Switzerland on July 4, Mendoza was part of a U.S. squad that finished second as a team to Italy. Mendoza was 19th as an individual in the marathon-distance race on a course that constituted one long climb toward the Matterhorn, an iconic pyramidal peak in the Alps.
“I’ve never raced something like that,” Mendoza says. “That was actually harder than the 50-miler. We were over 8,000 feet (in elevation) for a big chunk of it. We got up to 9,000 feet.”
Mendoza, a lean 5 feet 11 inches and 140 pounds, is part of the Nike Elite Trail Team along with another Bend runner, Ryan Bak. Mendoza, Bak and King often train together on trails in Central Oregon. All three are currently gearing up for the U.S. Mountain Running Championships at Bachelor.
When not running or training, Mendoza enjoys backpacking and fishing. He and his new wife, Jade Mendoza, just returned to Bend from their honeymoon at Lake Tahoe.
Mendoza came into his sport late, but he quickly realized he had the right background to train hard and never give up.
“Once I started training,” he says, “then I realized that running really went with my work ethic.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,