On a Greater Mission: Mario Mendoza Finds Purpose, Community in Ultrarunning

More than 700 runners will toe the line for the 40th running of the Leadville 100 trail race

Photo: Courtesy of Mario Mendoza

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Mario Mendoza will be first to admit that training for longer ultra-distance races takes a lot of time.

But, he knows, it also takes patience and thoughtfulness to manage the complex juggling act training for a 100-miler requires to be able to keep everything else in life in proper order and perspective without overdoing it in any one area. That’s especially true for Mendoza, who, in addition to training long hours every week, purposefully uses his platforms as a trail runner, Christian minister, and youth coach to inspire people and build community.

And while the 37-year-old Brooks-sponsored runner from Bend, Oregon has been training hard for the Leadville Trail 100 on August 19, he’s also been making sure his young family—his wife, Jade, and their two young sons Jair, 4, and Ezekiel, 1-1/2—is his top priority.

And because of that, among the 700 or so Leadville entrants, he’s probably run the most training miles while pushing a running stroller. Mendoza typically runs 65 miles a week in training, but in the past two months he’s logged several 100-plus-mile weeks, a good chunk of which have been with Jair rolling out in front of him.

As a younger trail runner, he might not have patient enough to make it all work. But as he’s gotten older and endured more life experiences, he’s gained new perspectives that have helped him become more intentional in his approach to running.

“I’ve got to give credit to the little guy because he’s been joining me on a lot of these runs,” he says. “I’m just gonna be honest, it’s hard. When you’re pushing the stroller, it’s challenging. But it’s also good to have him along knowing it’s part of our family journey, and I do think it builds a little bit of extra strength.”

Mendoza has accomplished a lot as a trail runner since he started racing in 2010, and is quick to credit his faith and his family, as well as his friendship with running industry insider Adam Chase, who signed him to the Salomon trail running team in 2011 and then brought him along to the Brooks team in 2018. Aside from that, Mendoza says Chase has become a friend who is always willing to offer insights and assistance. “He has always looked out for me,” Mendoza says. “Like an angel.”

In addition to being a five-time trail running national champion—Mendoza has won USATF titles from 10K to 100K since 2013—he’s also earned three top-10 finishes at international championships in Europe, finished 15th at the Western States 100 in 2018, 14th at the CCC 100K in 2019, and won the Broken Arrow Skyrace Triple Crown last year.

This year, he notched a fifth-place finish at the competitive Chuckanut 50K in Bellingham, Washington, and won two smaller 50Ks in Bend. But, Mendoza says, he’s always considered his running to be more than just an individual pursuit and more of a reflection of everything—and everyone—in his life.

He says he’s always gained strength by blending his running with life purposes, which is something the Leadville 100 and longtime organizers Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin have always been about. Since the race’s inception 40 years ago this summer, they have continually preached the notion of digging deep, and using “grit, guts, and determination” to not only finish the 100-mile race, but to apply it to any difficult challenge that life presents.

Mendoza’s faith-based determination has led him to running 100 miles to honor his Mexican-American heritage—his parents were both born in Jiquilpan, Michoacan, Mexico, became U.S. citizens on a work visa program and raised him while working on an avocado ranch along California’s Central Coast—and breaking the treadmill 50K world record to inspire Oregon high school kids about their future.

In Leadville, Mendoza will mostly be running for his family and the love and joy he and Jade are sharing as they raise their sons. She works part-time as a public health nurse, so they share the household and parenting duties most days, as necessary. They’re also both involved in the Bend Friends Church, where she is the worship leader and he is the lead pastor. Many of Mendoza’s thoughtful weekly sermons blend elements of what he has learned as a trail runner, including a recent sermon about running with perseverance.

“I remember watching him run up the last climb in the CCC, in Chamonix, about 85K into the race at a point when no one else was running,” Chase says. “It was so impressive. You could tell he was driven by some kind of higher power to be able to run like that.”

Mendoza, who arrived in Leadville on August 11 to get acclimated to the altitude, humbly thinks he’s pretty well trained to aim for the top 10. He and Jade will have a temporary calm before the storm in the days leading up to the race, as their sons are staying at home with relatives. That also means they’re getting a break from sleeping in the altitude tent he had installed in their bedroom in Bend.

“She’s happy to be done with that,” he says with a laugh. “I know that to have success with these kinds of ultra-distance races, part of it is that you just have to spend so much time out there running, and invest so much into it. For some of the athletes who are doing this full time, I understand that’s just part of their investment. And, for me, it’s not that I don’t want to be the best runner I can be, because I do. I love it. It is just more that I have some priorities, you know? And so I wanna make sure that I honor those first and that’s part of my investment. My wife and my kids are instrumental in my life and we’re all in this together as a family unit, not just my running but everything we do.”

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Leadville 100 Race Details

The Course

The Leadville 100 is run on an out-and-back course situated between 9,200 and 12,500 feet above sea level. It starts in the historic circa-1870s mining town of Leadville at 10,200 feet, winds around Turquoise Lake, goes up and over 11,300-foot Sugarloaf Mountain, then follows paved roads and fire roads to the 40-mile mark at Twin Lakes. From there, runners go over 12,532-foot Hope Pass via singletrack trails to the 50-mile mark and turnaround point at the former mining settlement of Winfield. Runners must finish the race in under 30 hours to be considered an official finisher and receive a finisher’s silver and gold belt buckle. Those finishing under 25 hours earn a larger and more prestigious belt buckle.

Course Records

The course records for the Leadville 100 are two of the older marks in ultrarunning. Legendary runner Ann Trason, a four-time winner in Leadville, still holds the course record of 18:06:24 from her 1994 win, while the men’s record of 15:42:59 was set by Matt Carpenter in 2005. The course has changed slightly since those records were set and pacers aren’t allowed to join runners until mile 60 (at Twin Lakes inbound) after originally being able to join runners at mile 50 (Winfield aid station) and accompanying them on the return trip over Hope Pass, but Rob Krar (15:51:57 in 2018) is the only other runner to break 16 hours, and Clare Gallagher (19:00:27 in 2016) is the only woman to come within an hour of Trason’s mark.

Tracking and Coverage

The Leadville 100 begins at 4 A.M. MT on August 19. There is no livestream broadcast of the Leadville 100 and no runner tracking available, but there will be constant updates posted on the race’s @ltraceseries Instagram account.

Other runners to watch

Elite Women

  • Lucie Hanes, 29, Eagle, Colorado, is making her 100-mile debut after winning the Ring the Springs 100K on June 17 in Colorado Springs.
  • Alexi Pappas, 32, of Woodland Hills, California, an Altra-sponsored runner, New York Times best-selling author, and an award-winning filmmaker, is continuing her foray into ultraunning after a 12th-place finish at the Bandera 100K in Texas in January. An All-American runner for both Dartmouth and Oregon, she represented Greece at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she set the 10,000 national record of 31:36.
  • Ellie Pell, 31, also of Boulder, is an On-sponsored pro who won the 2023 Leadville Trail Marathon. She also won the 2019 Buffalo Marathon on the roads and has racked up numerous podium finishes, including Cayuga Trails 50-mile USATF Trail Championships and the JFK 50 Miler.
  • Devon Yanko, 41, Howard, Colorado, is a Lululemon-sponsored pro who has won dozens of ultra-distance races over the past 15 years, including last fall’s Javelina Jundred 100-miler in Arizona.

Elite Men

  • Tyler Andrews, 33, is a Hoka pro who’s returning to Leadville with unfinished business after a 15th-place finish in 2021 and a fourth-place showing last year. He’s more well-known for setting fastest known times (FKT) on Aconcagua, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Mount Fiji and other routes around the world since 2019.
  • Rob Krar, 46, Flagstaff, Arizona, is a two-time Leadville 100 champion (2014, 2018) and two-time Western States 100 champion (2014, 2015) who is competing in the Leadman competition this year.
  • Duncan Callahan, 40, Gunnison, Colorado, won the Leadville 100 in 2008 and 2010 and is back for another try a year after finishing 16th in just under 21 hours.
  • Matt Flaherty, 38, of Bloomington, Indiana, returns to Leadville after an impressive second-place finish in his 100-mile debut in 2021.
  • Luke Paulson, 31, Asheville, North Carolina, was third at the JFK 50-miler in 2019 and has won numerous East Coast trail races from 18 miles to 50K.
  • Paul Terranova, 49, Twin Lakes, Colorado, just a month from finishing eighth overall at the Hardrock 100, is continuing his quest to finish the Rocky Mountain Slam.

RELATED: Reviving Ultrarunning Toughest Challenge

Other interesting stories

  • Phil Shin, 52, of South Pasadena, California, is attempting to be the first known liver transplant recipient to finish a 100-mile ultramarathon. He received a liver transplant in 2019 when he had liver cancer, and his liver donor will be in Leadville to cheer him on.
  • Jeff Glassbrenner is a below-the-knee amputee from a farm accident at the age of 8, who is a three-time Paralympian in wheelchair basketball, 25-time Ironman triathlon finisher, Seven Summit hiker, and Leadville 100 mountain bike finisher.
  • Brian Reynolds is a double below-the-knee-amputee. To his knowledge (and ours) there has never been a double amputee to complete any 100 mile distance. In the lead up to this race he hiked some of the Seven Summits including Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, and Elbrus.

Leadville Dream Chaser

Leadville resident Rodrigo Jimenez will once again be this year’s Dream Chaser, running as part of a fundraising program that raises money for the LT100 Legacy Foundation. Jimenez, 47, a recovered alcoholic who has become an eight-time Leadville 100 finisher and seven-time finisher of the LeadChallenge Competition, will start last and try to pass as many runners as he can during the race. The more people he passes, the more money raised. In 2021, Jimenez ran as the Dream Chaser for the first time, starting 2.5 hours after the official race began, but still running fast enough to finish sixth overall (19:30:16, based on his chip time) and passing 660 out of the 680 runners.

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