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The Champion Within: Saint Mary's Mario Mendoza Runs Through the Record Books

Nov. 5, 2008

Saint Mary's cross country runner Mario Mendoza had a record-breaking season this year as he twice broke the school record for an 8K race and had the best finish of any Gael in school history at this year's West Coast Conference Cross Country Championships, finishing fourth overall.

This week he took some time to sit down with us to talk about his goals for his senior year, the rush of running cross country, and the mental preparation it takes to compete.


Q: Competing in a sport that can be viewed as individualistic, how have you as a senior provided leadership to the team?

MM: I would have to ask all of my teammates whether I have been successful in accomplishing my goals as the captain of the team. It is something that has been as important to me this season, as accomplishing my individual goals. The goals have been 1) to make sure the team believes in the training they are doing, 2) to make sure that the members of this team get something more than just good races from the sport, something they can apply to their life, 3) to instill in each individual that they should believe in themselves and their abilities, 4) to inspire my teammates as a leader on and off competition, 5) to develop team bonding and reiterate the importance of doing the best each person can during a race for the benefit of the team.

Q: How long have you been running and how did you begin the sport?

MM: I've been running for five straight years now, with only a 2-week break between each season (cross country and track). It still doesn't feel like I've been running for that long since I am always learning new things about the sport and how to train. I started running full time my senior year in high school. I use to play other sports like football, baseball, and basketball. But the main sport I played all the way through high school was soccer. I actually was recruited for soccer before I was for cross country. After getting all-league MVP my junior year I had some good offers to play soccer for Division I schools. However, when I tore my MCL at the end of spring during a club soccer match, I was told by the doctor I needed to do a lot of running to get my knee strong and stable again. So I decided to run all summer and then was convinced by the cross country coach to run for the season since it wouldn't conflict with soccer. That year I improved 3 minutes on my 3-mile time and ended up getting fifth in the state for Division V. I fell in love with the sport and decided to pursue it.

Q: Many people talk about the natural rush that comes with running. Describe how you feel mentally and physically after a race?

MM: Haha! Well there isn't much of a rush at the end of the race because you are so tired and can't really think straight. The rush comes more during training and workouts. It is an adrenaline rush and you become addicted to running. The hardest part of getting into running is the first couple of months. After that, your body loves it and responds so well when you're out there doing what it was naturally built to do. When you have great workouts and you are in the zone you feel unstoppable. You really feel like you are a machine and that you are faster than everyone out there. Its almost like you think you can hold that rhythm forever, even though realistically you can't. In a race, the adrenaline is there even before you start. Part of being a good runner is learning how to control that adrenaline and use it throughout the race so that you are completely spent right as you cross the finish line. I always have those moments where I ask myself why I push my body so much and make it go through so much pain. I've contemplated going back to other sports like soccer. But the feeling you get when you cross that finish line and know you have pushed your body beyond its limits is unmatchable. It's like when you score a winning goal or a winning touchdown but times 10. The feeling is greater because you have just done something amazing with just your body. You have just defeated your biggest enemy, your mind, which is telling you that you can't do it. And even though you are completely spent and have no strength left in your body, you know that as soon as you recover from this stress you will become even better.

Q: What goes through your mind before a race, and how do you mentally and physically prepare yourself to compete?

MM: Every race is different and therefore you can have a variety of things going through your head. Sometimes if you let too much get into your head then it really affects your race in a negative way and doesn't let you to properly prepare for it. What I have learned is that you have to have a balance. For example, in training I let myself think a lot and analyze whether I am training correctly. But in a race I don't allow myself to think about how I am racing or how I am doing. Why, because as soon as doubts creep up in your head your race gets ugly. The best thing to do is to just get in a race and do what is natural in most of us, which is to compete! I just get into a race and compete against people. I let the other things take care of themselves. Like the times I have broken the school records I haven't thought about breaking records, just about racing hard. What I do tell myself is that I am ready, and I have confidence in my preparation. I remind myself of all the miles and workouts I have put in, and the great races that I have run. When a really important meet is coming up, such as conference, I like to mentally visual being successful and winning the race (even though I knew realistically I probably wasn't going to beat a guy who was 7th at nationals the year before). Obviously, you want to make sure you rest up more for the big races by tapering down your training volume and intensity so that you feel fresh and ready to go. Then, you tell yourself that when the pain comes, you have to accept it and almost trick yourself that you enjoy it so that you can push through limits and reach new levels.





THE CHAMPION WITHIN



Q: As a WCC All-Academic team member, how have you been able to balance your academic workload with your athletic commitments?

MM: I'll be honest, this semester I'd say has been the best in terms of setting time aside for school. It has certainly showed as right now I have all A's and I hope to keep it that way. Part of the problem was that I knew I could get away with not studying so much. But now I've decided I need to put as much effort in other things in my life that are just as, if not more important than running. If I properly manage my time I can do really well in school and in running, and that has been my new philosophy, which I know will help me balance being a full-time student and a Div I athlete. Even if I decide to get sponsored next year and keep running, I will have to keep this same attitude because obviously I won't always be able to depend on running to survive.

Q: Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?

MM: Hands down the most influential person in my life is my mother. She has taught me the importance of having the right people in your life and always standing up for what you believe in. My mother has seen me when I excel and when I am at rock bottom, and never ever stops believing in me. Her support gives me confidence and strength in my own abilities. She has taught me all the great things that life has to offer, and how all the obstacles in our lives only make life more remarkable.

Q: You turned in a terrific performance at this year's WCC Championships, placing fourth overall, the highest finish of any Saint Mary's men's cross country runner. What does that accomplishment mean to you?

MM: I must admit I am still having trouble being completely satisfied with 4th place. My goal was to get 2nd and I thought I had it until the last 200 meters. However, through years of competing in the sport I've certainly learned that other than preparing and doing the best you can do on that day, you have no control over how you will do on a given day. Sometimes you don't have that great kick at the end of a race and you just have to be content with giving it all you can. I am definitely happy with 4th place and glad I represented my school well. I know even if I had gotten 2nd I probably would still not have been completely satisfied as that is part of human nature. But it is a good thing because it just makes you want to work harder and do better next time around. I'm definitely proud of myself for what I did, and what I have done this season. But there is always room for improvement, especially in a sport like running!

Q: You have had a great senior season, setting several school records. What can you attribute to your success this year?

MM: Training is certainly a huge part of it. I put in a really solid summer full of good miles and smart training. The other part of it is staying focused and knowing what your goals are. For example, the first race I ran I didn't really race and just used it as a rust buster because I know it's a long season. Yeah I still broke the school record but I knew that would be broken by a lot in the next race. I also kept in mind all season that when I wanted to run well was at conference, and especially at regionals, which is in two weeks. Regionals will be the first race I really taper down for and I'm excited to see what I can do.

Q: As a Psychology major, have you learned anything that has helped you during your athletic career?

MM: Yes, psychology has helped me understand how important the mental aspect of a sport is. But it also works the other way around; my athletic career has made me understand myself more mentally, which has in return made a better student in the psychology field. They go hand in hand, and it's nice to be able to learn from all the things you are involved in.

Q: How will the experience of running in last year's NCAA West Regional help you prepare for this year's upcoming regional?

MM: Well for one thing, last year I forget to take spikes, so I know this year I won't do that again! It really affected my race last year since the course got pretty muddy after 2 loops around. But more importantly, just having that experience and not being intimidated by running against some of the best runners in the nation will let me get out there and compete better than I did last year. Also, last year was an eye opener and I realized there was a lot more that I could do to become a better runner and compete better.