For nearly a year, Bend’s Mario Mendoza Jr. has volunteered in Madras, running a youth club that hosts after-school activities and games and provides meals to students who need them.
Mendoza, a world-class ultrarunner of Mexican descent and the director of Central Oregon Youth for Christ, wanted to show these students — many of whom are Latino or Native American and struggle with poverty — that perseverance and dedication to a cause can lead to accomplishment and reward.
“The truth is, it’s a tough area,” Mendoza says of Madras. “I’ve encountered some really difficult situations. But I knew that was going to happen. It’s tough. There’s a lot of need and a lot of brokenness, but at the same time, there is also a lot of potential. For me this was like, a lot of the stuff we’ve been telling these kids and teaching them, just trying to bring it to a very close-in demonstration of what it looks like.”
A five-time U.S. trail national champion, Mendoza, 33, wanted to find a way to bring his sport to the Madras youth so they could see just what long-distance running is like and what hard work can lead to.
“I was really just motivated to get an event that the kids could watch as much as possible, basically,” Mendoza says. “I’d rather be outside racing in the mountains, but the truth is it would be really hard to get a bunch of kids to see that. So I was like, well, I’m going to have to do something I really don’t like, which is treadmill running.”
Last fall, Mendoza came up with the idea to attempt to break American ultramarathoner Michael Wardian’s 2015 50-kilometer treadmill world record of 2 hours, 59 minutes, 49 seconds, as a fundraiser for his youth program. (About a year ago Wardian ran 10 marathons in 10 days in the fastest time ever — 2:55:17 per marathon — for an unofficial world record.)
Mendoza wanted to try for the treadmill record at the Madras High School gymnasium, and he says school officials were excited when he approached them about his plan.
As an ultrarunner, Mendoza is accustomed to running distances of a marathon (26.2 miles) to 100 miles. But to break this record he would need to maintain a mile pace of 5:46 over 31 miles … on a treadmill. Typically, Mendoza says, he avoids training on a treadmill as much as possible because it is “really brutal” mentally.
“For this event I did do way more training on the treadmill, which was not easy,” he says.
On Jan. 14, Mendoza made the attempt. Most of the students watched him start during their lunch break, and then returned for the last 20 minutes of the run during a pep rally. In between was a slow period when students could come and go.
Mendoza’s ultrarunning mentor, Bend’s Max King, arrived to fire up the crowd during the last hour, and Mendoza broke the record by nearly a minute, finishing in 2:59:03.
“That was pretty special for me,” Mendoza says. “They were really into it. The two-hour slow period ended up being a lot busier than I expected. But I don’t think anyone got in trouble for it.”
Mendoza says he almost fell off pace from miles 23 to 25, but he put himself into a “good head space” around mile 25 or 26.
“I was just starting to feel the distance and the fatigue,” he recalls. “I knew that point would come. I just prepared myself to remember why I was doing this and that it would be worth it. I knew once I could sense that finish, we would have it.”
He says he has raised nearly $5,000 for the youth program, mostly from individual donors.
Mendoza grew up picking avocados in the fields near the town of Cambria on the central California coast with his parents and sister.
He was born in California but his parents emigrated from Michoacan, Mexico, when they were children.
Mendoza ran cross-country for St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, and moved to Bend in 2009, shortly after graduating. His parents moved to Bend as well. A four-time USA Track & Field trail runner of the year, Mendoza has won U.S. trail national championships in the 100 kilometers (2018), marathon (2015, 2017), 50K (2015) and 10K (2013).
He finished sixth at the 85K International Association of Ultrarunners Trail World Championships in Spain in 2018.
“Worlds was probably the most important race for me because I’m representing the U.S. there,” Mendoza says. “I’m still the most proud of my sixth there. Those (trail race results) matter more to me for my career, but what makes me proud of this (treadmill world record) is what it did. They (Madras students) saw what I wanted them to see and I was able to show them — this is how much we care. It will have a very special place for me in my career.”