The 26th Cranmore Hill Climb presented by Northeast Delta Dental will be held on Sunday, July 21, in North Conway, New Hampshire. The race is not only hosting the USA Mountain Running Championships, and the NACAC Mountain Running Championships, it has coveted spots on the U.S. Mountain Running Team up for grabs – four for the women, six for the men. Among the athletes vying for a spot on the team is 27-year-old Mario Mendoza who hails from Bend, Oregon.
“The idea of having a shot to make the team, and competing at Worlds is a goal,” said Mendoza, “Coming here and preparing for this race and competition is why I love the sport. Mountain running, it is the most punishing type of running you can do. It hurts way more than the road. You have to be really tough and it’s kind of a cool challenge.
“I thought I was going to make the team in 2011 (the selection race for that year’s mountain team was also Cranmore),” said Mendoza, “Once I looked back I realized I wasn’t prepared. It was my first mountain race and I didn’t have mountain experience. I didn’t know what I was getting into, it was rough. I raced really stupid that year. I hammered the downs and got trashed on the uphills. At one time in the race, I was as high as fourth. Then I lost positions. At the end I made up some ground, but it was too late.”
In 2011, Mendoza settled for an eighth-place finish. He’s learned a lot in the past two years, plus he battled an injury which eventually led to ankle surgery in December 2012. Now fully recovered and training at a high level which includes 80-85 miles per week since late March, Mendoza reflects on the sport he now enjoys more than ever.
“Mountain running is different than trail running,” said Mendoza, “It is one more level up. Realizing that, the next step for me was learning how to train better and prepare better.”
His training has included a lot more steep terrain. “When I was in France with Salomon (one of his sponsors), earlier this month, we did a lot of training in the Pyrenees. Before that trip, I had been trying to hit some technical stuff. It’s important to not be afraid to run fast downhill too. I think guys like Kilian (Journet) are so good at downhill because they do the ski mountaineering stuff and that’s way more scary. I’m trying to break that mental barrier and really let it go on the downhill. I have been working both my up and downhill and feel like I have come a long way. If I was this prepared in 2011, I would have made the team. But now, the competition has gotten so much better in just two years and it’s going to be even tougher to make the team now even being more prepared.”
Besides his second foray into mountain racing at the 2011 NACAC Mountain Running Championships in Mexico where he finished in 13th position, Mendoza has competed in quite a few trail races most recently winning the Dirty Half last month in Bend, and Kilian’s Classic 10K Mountain Race in France earlier this month. “The course in France climbed more than 1500 feet,” said Mendoza, “It was brutal. A lot more technical than anything I’d done since Mexico in 2011.”
Asked what he knows about this year’s course at Cranmore, Mendoza says, “I have looked at the pictures a half dozen times and gone over them in my head. The images are really helpful as they give you a good mental picture of what to expect. I know in my head that the course will be scarier than it looks, pictures don’t show how really steep it is.”
Mendoza has the benefit of racing Cranmore in 2011, even though it was on a different course and plans to run the course once before race day having arrived in New Hampshire on Friday night.
Asked about his expectations Mendoza remarked, “Everyone goes in (at least the top 12) thinking they have a shot. I think I have a good shot at making the team. I’ve looked at whose coming, and in my opinion it looks like it is the most competitive field that I’ve seen. The only more competitive might be Cross Country Nationals, it looks pretty insane. To get top six it is going to take me having a good day.”
One of the pre-race favorites is 2011 World Mountain Running Champion Max King. “I have trained with Max. You always respect him with all the accomplishments and how talented he is. But you have to think in your head that you can stay close. Otherwise, you are not going to make the team,” said Mendoza, “Knowing how good he is, I think he’ll definitely make the team and a really good chance he’ll win. But you can’t be afraid of him, because then you won’t race well yourself.
“What I like about Max is that you can’t see his competitive side unless you’re in a race. He’s not super intimidating like some people his caliber are, but when you get into a race setting, he doesn’t want to lose. That is why he is so good. He loves to race. He’s so strong mentally. You don’t see him having bad races. He welcomes the pain and he’s willing to hurt.”
Asked whether he saw any dark horses in the mix, Mendoza offered up the following, “I would probably pick David Laney. I think there are guys with road credentials, but I think you have to have some experience on hills and trails. On the up and down years, you’ve gotta have some trail experience and he does. Plus he lives in Ashland (Oregon), where there’s a lot of good hill training. Out of the people that are not known, he would probably be my pick. He’s one of the guys who I think has a shot at sneaking into the top six.”
Mendoza does have thoughts about how the race will unfold over the four kilometer loop course which is run three times by the men. “To do well, I think you need a lot of muscle. You need to have a lot of power in your legs to take the amount of pounding – three laps with downhill and then back uphill. I think there will be about 10 guys bombing that first downhill, but I think those guys may pay for it on the first uphill. On the downhill, heart rates are low and it’s just a matter of being a good downhill runner. Later on, there will be some oxygen debt with the uphills. I think the top three will stay in the top three and battle it out, but the remaining spots four to six, through 10 will be switching back and forth through the race.”
Mendoza was realistic and quickly added, “You can picture as much as you want and make as many predictions as you want, but the race still has to be run”
The biggest challenge the athletes will face this year is not the weather, or the course. According to Mendoza, “If you look at history, when you put a bunch of really talented guys in a field on a trail or cross country course, a lot of people blow up. The challenge will be to stay in your race when you are racing against a lot of good guys. For this reason, there might be some surprises. Some people are good with runners all around them, some are not. The pressure with so many good guys in the race is the biggest challenge.”
There will certainly be equal pressure in the women’s race on Sunday. According to Mendoza, “With only four spots, the women’s team is going to be just as hard, if not harder to make. The women’s field is super talented. The factor of having Magdalena (Lewy-Boulet), in there will really make things interesting. Since they are only doing two laps, you’ll find out really quickly in the first lap how she’s doing and how the rest of the field will do. Mountain runners are not really ones to be intimidated. (They’ll) Look at Magdalena, a road runner, and think maybe she’s not that good on trail and downhill. I think they’ll challenge her. Look at two years ago and how close that last team spot was. I think it’ll be even more intense this year.”
There will be a separate start for men and women. The women’s race will begin at 8:15 a.m. while the men will set off one hour later. The chairlift will be running at the mountain starting at 7:00 a.m. on race day so that both competitors and spectators can get to the start and finish area.
Follow the race Sunday, July 21, live on Twitter @usmrt. Learn more about the sport at www.usmrt.com and www.usatf.org. For a full listing of races, visit www.trailrunner.com.