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Mario Mendoza: A Life Built to Lift Others Higher

Mario Mendoza is a trail runner, coach, and pastor who has made it his life work to support others and their goals.

By on June 1, 2023 | Comments

Professional trail runner, coach, and pastor Mario Mendoza finds direct parallels between the journey of sport and his work as a pastor, run coach, worship leader, and philanthropist, all of which supports the local community. In a unique combination of work, the athlete thrives while helping others reach their own potential.

“I’ve found so much joy in seeing others accomplish their dreams. I still want my own joy and achievements but the other aspect is valuable and important: What if my kids or the people I coach do something greater than I ever did, with things that matter in the world and taking care of our environment? What if they do a better job and have better ideas? That’s exciting to think I could hand off my efforts to others who could go further, and I helped to pave a little bit of the way,” says Mendoza.

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Mario Mendoza with his wife, Jade, older son, Jair, and younger son, Ezekiel. All photos courtesy of Mario Mendoza, unless otherwise noted.

Mendoza was born in California and raised on an avocado ranch in Cambria — and now wishes he’d enjoyed eating more of those healthy fats as a kid. The 37-year-old now lives in Bend, Oregon, with his wife, Jade, and two small sons, 4.5-year-old Jair and one-year-old Ezekiel. After 40 years in California and 25 years working at the farm, his parents, who are originally from Jiquilpan, Michoácan, Mexico, followed him to Oregon, too. His younger sister lives in Visalia, California, where she works as a career coach at the College of the Sequoias.

While growing up, Mendoza primarily enjoyed soccer but was also the running back on the football team and a pitcher for the baseball team at Coast Union High School. “My dad would take me to soccer tournaments, and we’d travel to play on really good teams. I played on a youth national league and did really well. I was getting recruited to play for soccer until I hurt my knee at age 15, and that diverted me from that sport,” says Mendoza.

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Mario Mendoza’s earliest running days.

During that 1.5-year recovery, he started consistently running to build back strength for the ball sport but started to fall in love with running, realizing there were nuances and technique, making it a sport in and of itself. By age 17, he was hooked and focused on cross country his junior and senior years of high school.

The athlete pursued track, cross country, and a degree in developmental psychology at the University of California, Davis, followed by Saint Mary’s College of California, where he transferred after three years. “My first few years at Davis were rough. I ran a 16:05 5k in cross country my senior year high school, and I was not running PRs in college at first. I was trying to keep up with training, and my body was not absorbing. Before I transferred, things clicked and my body could handle running 60 miles a week. At Saint Mary’s, I started running PRs,” says Mendoza. He didn’t know about trail running, yet.

After college in 2010, Mendoza moved to Bend, which wasn’t as high on the trail-runner radar as it is now, he says, but he met a few athletes including Max King. “Max started telling me about trail races, and the first few ones I did were pretty flat and not super steep or with big vertical sections. They were flowy, fast, and it was a good step for me, because I might have been too intimated if the route was steep. Trail running grew on me,” he says.

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The California avocado ranch on which Mario Mendoza grew up.

That same year he ran the 2010 USATF 15k Trail National Championships and the USATF Trail Half Marathon National Championships — and got second place in both. By the time he ran his first ultramarathon, the 2012 McKenzie River Trail Run 50k, he stood in first place followed by a second-place finish at the 2012 Flagline 50k two weeks later. Standing on the podium became a consistent trend for Mendoza, in what has evolved into a decade-plus racing career in trail running and ultrarunning events, which is still evolving today.

Among the champion’s favorite races was his win at the 2015 Moab Trail Marathon, a race he won again in 2017. “I remember thinking, if I could see Joe Gray on the high point and keep him in sight from mile 16 to 18, I could win. When we crested that climb and he turned around and saw that I was there, I saw it as a sign that it was possible to win. I hammered down the hill, jumped boulders, caught him, and he was surprised. I was a young, up-and-coming runner at the time — it was unreal,” says Mendoza, who’d gotten second place the first time he raced the Moab Trail Marathon, the year before in 2014, following less than five minutes behind Dakota Jones.

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Mario Mendoza competing in collegiate cross country.

Another relished memory is his comeback after challenges at various editions of the Trail World Championships, while representing Team USA. “I had a really bad first experience. I was in 121st place and had to walk the last 12k. I was shattered and wasn’t really ready for a long Euro-grinding race. I remember thinking, If I do this again, I need to more prepared. The next year, I was afraid,” says Mendoza, who channeled his fear into focus and dialed in his training, earning ninth place at the 2017 Trail World Championships, followed by sixth place the next year, in 2018. He was the top finisher of Team USA both years.

“Being top 10 at the Trail World Championships felt like a dream. Those were huge moments for me that I will always remember — I didn’t think I was capable of being the best from our national team at those points,” he says. Among his accomplishments from the past 13 years, he’s won five USATF trail national championships. He won USATF Trail Runner of the Year four times in the sub-ultra-distance category. He’s also been top American three times on USA teams, including twice in ultra distances.

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Mario Mendoza, wearing Team USA kit, competing in the 2015 Trail World Championships. Photo: Tad Davis

Now a well-seasoned racer, Mendoza appreciates all sides of the athletic experience: of the underdog who overcomes, and of the athlete under pressure to maintain or heighten their ability and achievements.

Though, Mendoza’s running career goes beyond the miles. The legacy he hopes to leave has been interwoven with a pastoral role for 6.5 years, including directing a youth ministry program and his current position as a lead pastor at Bend Friends Church. His wife, likewise involved in ministry and counseling, is the worship leader at their church. Mendoza’s inspiration to work in the ministry field stems from a deep conviction to see genuine growth in people.

“When I consider growth, I look at the big picture of everything a person is: mind, body, spirit, and their whole being. I realized, the spiritual side is really important and produces consistent growth. As I’ve gotten busier in my own life, I’ve looked at what consistent work I can do to leave the best impact,” he says.

Teachings from the Bible and trail running are full of synergy and similarities from a philosophical, spiritual viewpoint: “Patience, sowing and reaping, preparing, victory (and what that looks like), suffering, redirecting the mind to goals during moments of pain, and experiencing beauty in the mountains — these are all in the readings and in the races. These principles play out in parallel in this sport. There is so much intuition, being in the present, and perseverance, which is changing and forming you — that’s what’s exciting. Running the race of faith is so much like an ultramarathon,” says Mendoza. Time running in the mountains can show you your weaknesses and your strengths while challenging who you are, which is connected to creation and nature, he adds.

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Mario Mendoza in his element as a church pastor.

To help support local youth at large, Mendoza volunteers as a part-time cross-country and track coach at Madras High School, which is home to a diverse population with one third Indigenous and one third Hispanic students. Mendoza helps the lead coaches write training plans and guides the distance and mid-distance groups, including one or two weekly meetups for races or practices. “I’ll run whole workouts with the kids and help our faster kids have someone to chase. Other times, I focus on getting them the splits and through intervals. Sometimes, there are kids who need to be held back if they’re ahead of where they need to be and others need a push,” he says.

For the past four years, Mendoza has helped provide training gear for the teams through his partnership with Brooks Running via the Brooks Booster Club, which grants $12,400 toward equipment such as footwear or apparel.

While growing a run community is a collective effort, Mendoza’s world-record attempt in 2020 helped to catalyze a special momentum, inspiring the kids. He set out — and achieved — what was then a men’s 50k treadmill world record in 2:59:03, with a full audience in the Madras High gymnasium, while fundraising to support the youth running community.

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Mario Mendoza on his way to setting a then men’s 100k treadmill world record. Photo: Luke Webster

Next that year, Mendoza achieved a then men’s 100k treadmill world record in 6 hours, 39 minutes, and 25 seconds, while fundraising for underprivileged youth in Central Oregon. He sought the record alongside Max King and Renee Metivier, who each simultaneously pursued their own 50k treadmill world records. The trio’s $9,615 fund was used to support a youth running camp with the aim of bridging racial and stereotype gaps.

“We brought in guest speakers and good food, and we got Suttle Lodge [in nearby Sisters, Oregon,] to host — it was such a cool camp. The kids still talk about this camp and how awesome it was for them. They were all 20-something years old. It was a small group with a specialized focus on trail running, track, cultivating the culture of trail running and Leave No Trace principles, and teaching the kids how to take care of the places we love,” says Mendoza.

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Mario Mendoza (bottom row, third from left) helping to host a running camp.

To help elevate others’ personal growth through the community and experience of running, Mendoza also got involved as a board member of the Madras Runners run club in Jefferson County less than two years ago. When founder Jamie Hurd started considering closing the club, Mendoza dove in to help. He revamped engagement and increased the participation of runners and walkers through website development, spring challenges, short races, a running festival, and leading club meetups.

Mario Mendoza - coaching the Madras Runners

Mario Mendoza coaching the Madras Runners group.

“The head coaches and board members are doing a really good job and that I could not do any of this alone. A lot of the pieces of what I do are tying together and flowing parts of the community into one another. Some kids [on the track and cross-country teams] will run these club events. The parents are connected to what the teams are doing, and the community is more supportive of all the run teams in the area, which have been growing — our teams from Madras High School and the local middle schools have a combined 180 kids including 80 on the track team and 19 recently competed at state,” says Mendoza.

Looking ahead, Mendoza hopes to streamline his efforts and time by teaching others how to lead, so they can step into those same roles as pastors, mentors, coaches, and organizers. He has joyfully given up time from training and racing the past few years, though hopes to end his career well with a strong 100-mile finish. To date, he’s finished several, including the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile and Western States 100, though doesn’t feel he’s reached his full potential.

Formerly, he trained 15 to 20 hours per week and today, his logbook is closer to 10 hours. “You can get away with 10 to 13 hours of training per week for racing a 50k, but it’s harder to do well in a 100 miler,” he says. Often his training takes the form of doubles with an early morning treadmill run and an evening trail run. Sundays are dedicated to church and family time followed by a long evening run, which is hard on his family, he says.

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Mario Mendoza combining his loves of parenthood and running with his son, Jair. Photo: Paul Nelson

“I know my wife is tired, and every time I’m out training, she has to have the kids or someone else has to help. In terms of me being motivated, I’ve always been motivated to work hard and be disciplined: I like structure. I love running so much that it’s still such a really special time for me. I’ve noticed that as my life is busier, I like running by myself more. I’ve enjoyed solo time in nature. I am maxed out in my social interactions that I need time by myself,” says Mendoza.

Somehow Mendoza finds balance between fatherhood, giving back to the community, and his personal running goals. A huge part of his motivation is to help raise leaders who care.

Mendoza says, “People older than me have a lot of passion — so many want to leave a mark on this world. If you help cultivate that passion in others through mentorship, while you experience your own goals or achievements along the way, that’s really the win-win.”

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Mario Mendoza with his wife, Jade, older son, Jair, and younger son, Ezekiel.

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Morgan Tilton

Morgan Tilton is the WeRunFar columnist of iRunFar and a Staff Writer for GearJunkie and AllGear Digital. Morgan has covered outdoor industry news, adventure travel, and human endurance for nearly a decade. Aside from iRunFar, Morgan has written for more than 70 publications, including recent contributions to Outside, Forbes, Trail Runner, Runner’s World, Bicycling, and NewsBreak. She’s a recipient of more than a dozen accolades for her travel writing from the North American Travel Journalists Association. Based in Crested Butte, Colorado, Morgan enjoys mountain running and exploring the high alpine in the summer when she’s not splitboarding or mountain biking.