When you can swim with the best pros and have a 10k PR of 31:15 and a half marathon best of 1:11:03 all before the age of 18, most ambitious young triathletes would be chasing the Olympic dream. But Mauricio Mendez of Mexico City, Mexico is not like the average triathlete – and he definitely does not prefer to take his talents to the pavement.
At age 10, his already burning competitive fires were frustrated when he finished second at an IronKids Triathlon in Valle de Bravo. At age 13, he set a still standing 14-under race record at the challenging Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. At age 17 he set the 17-18 age group record at Escape with a 2:13:53 time. As an amateur in 2013, he finished 7th overall at the XTERRA West and XTERRA Southeast Championships. Then, after coming under the guidance of 2-time XTERRA World Champion Lesley Paterson late in the year, Mendez came out of a month long training block in San Diego to win the overall amateur title and place 15th overall at the XTERRA World Championship in Maui.
With a swift swim and running form that Paterson says is poetry and a running speed that multiple XTERRA U.S. Champion and famed runner Josiah Middaugh says he can't match on the flat, Mendez seems to be equipped to go chasing the Brownlee brothers and Javier Gomez on the ITU circuit. But Mendez marches to a different drummer and says that after his very first off-road triathlon, he was hooked on the magic of training and racing in the rugged outdoor beauty to be found in the challenging courses of XTERRA.
So far in 2014, in his inaugural season as an XTERRA professional, Mendez has finished 3rd at XTERRA Costa Rica, 3rd at the XTERRA West Championship in Las Vegas and 4th at the XTERRA Southeast Championship in Alabama. He is responding well and improving swiftly to the coaching of Paterson – whose attention is a bit more available to devote to the launch of her newly formed Braveheart Coaching elite team as she is recovering and rehabbing from leg injuries and a recurrence of Lyme disease.
Mendez is improving so fast, says 2014 XTERRA America series leader Middaugh: "People say Mauricio is the future of XTERRA, but I think the future is now."
In sync with his love of nature, Mendez embraces Paterson’s philosophical approach which requires all of her eight Braveheart elite athletes to give back to the sport by mentoring youngsters in their home towns. Now, in addition to representing his home country, Mendez is aided by and competes for a set of sponsors – Scott Bikes, XTERRA wetsuits, On running, Enve Wheels, PowerBar, Powertap, Oakley, and Tommie Copper Compression -- hoping to benefit from his impressive potential.
Mendez and Paterson were interviewed via Skype during the recent media introduction of the Braveheart Coaching Elite Team in San Diego.
Slowtwitch: What was your first sport?
Mauricio Mendez: I started with swimming when I was 6 years old.
ST: What is it about swimming that you loved?
Mauricio: I was part of the water. This was freedom in my mind.
ST: Did you play soccer?
Mauricio: Not at all.
ST: What led you to triathlon?
Mauricio: Everything that happened to bring me to triathlon is because of my dad, Mauricio Mendez also. A friend of my dad said triathlon was great. So, when I was 10, my dad and I did it just for fun. Training was family time for father and son. And in 2006, when I was 10, we went to a small town in Mexico called Valle de Bravo and I did the IronKids Triathlon there.
ST: Why did you like triathlon?
Mauricio: Because of what is behind the racing – I love the training and being able to be part of the nature and away from all the people. It is time for yourself. It is magical stuff out there and being able to play with what the world has to offer. I like running the trails and swimming in the ocean and lakes. It is a big playground where you can totally lose yourself and live in the moment. Totally pure.
Lesley Paterson: He loves the outdoors. Whenever we are out biking here in San Diego, Mauricio always loves to look at the birds. And when we swim in the ocean, he loves to watch the tortoises under the water. He is very connected with nature and animals and he takes a lot of pictures.
ST: What was first race to where you could believe you might be good at this?
Mauricio: All my life I have been really competitive in everything I did. In my first triathlon, I got second place. I was frustrated with myself because I didn’t get the first place just by 10 seconds. So I knew I was good from the beginning.
ST: Do your friends in Mexico City realize what you do?
Mauricio: I have a bunch of friends who have always been with me and always support me. But yeah, for sure, it is a little strange for them because in the culture of my country, soccer is everything.
ST: After IronKids, what was your next step?
Mauricio: When I was 13, I did the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon in 2009. I still have the record for the fastest time for guys 14 and under [2:41:35].
ST: Escape is very difficult, especially for a relative newcomer. The water is cold. There are lots of hills on the bike and the run is hard. What was it like?
Mauricio: I think I was just flying on adrenaline. The swim was the scariest part of the triathlon. Before the race, we studied tide charts. I was going crazy. Then when I was running and I started passing all the old guys, they were encouraging me, ‘Come on kiddo!’ and clapping when I passed them. It was a big day for me. I started to think this was my home in sport.
ST: Ever daydream about what Alcatraz was like when it had prisoners? Did you see that movie with Clint Eastwood?
Mauricio: I saw the movie. Pretty cool. But I wasn't thinking about it when I raced. CHUCKLES
ST: What did you think about the sand ladder? Did you walk some of it?
Mauricio: It was tough. I was a kid and I was so excited I didn’t think about it. I thought I was running the whole way, but I might have been walking up a few steps.
ST: What subjects interested you in school?
Mauricio: I finished high school one year ago. I am interested in psychology, sales and I am always interested in business. My dad is in sales and insurance.
Lesley: Mauricio has a passion to start a business with his dad. They would like to work together.
ST: How does your dad help you train and do triathlon?
Mauricio: Everything. He was my coach until I met Lesley and my dad and I are still being like a team for everything. He knows me better than I do. My relationship with him is really amazing and that is something I want to continue all my life.
ST: What kind of training would you do at age 13?
Mauricio: Back in Mexico I had a swim coach. In cycling, my dad was always watching me and studying my form a lot. Most of my runs were on the treadmill.
ST: Mexico City might be a place where you have to be careful on the streets?
Mauricio: You are not mistaken. We have to take care. Those places we have for triathlon training, the [small] triathlon community takes care of us. There is no support from anywhere else.
ST: When did you do you first XTERRA race?
Mauricio: I did XTERRA Mexico in Jalisco in 2012. I was 16 and it went really good -- I got 5th place overall.
ST: How was the field?
Mauricio: It was mostly nationals. But there were a few international guys like Sam Gardner
ST: Do you do any running races?
Mauricio: I do a lot of races like that. My personal best in the half marathon is 1:11. [5:25 per mile] I would say my best for 10k is 31:15 or so.
Lesley: At the XTERRA Southeast Championship in Alabama this year, he ran 2 minutes quicker than anybody else [31:53 for the advertised 10km trail run] – even quicker than Josiah Middaugh.
ST: With a run like that you would do well in ITU racing?
Mauricio: I was racing a lot of those [pavement] triathlons in Mexico and I had very good results. But after that first XTERRA, I fell in love. I really felt that was my place.
ST: Does he ever get discouraged?
Lesley: In our team it doesn’t matter how hard the session is, no matter if he is covered in mud or how many crashes, Mauricio always has a huge smile on his face. I always try to break him. I ask “How are you Mauricio?” And no matter how hard the session, he says, “Good.”
ST: You never got a groan out of him?
Lesley: Never. Ever. Maybe when I pick him, up in 5 in the morning to go to a swim session. It starts early.
ST: When did you face your first international field in an XTERRA race?
Mauricio: At the XTERRA World Championship in 2012. It was my second XTERRA.
ST: Who came to Maui with you?
Mauricio: The whole family - my dad, my mom, and my two sisters. It was my mom’s birthday. The whole family got the opportunity of knowing Hawaii.
ST: What was that trip like?
Mauricio: It was pretty cool. The day before the race we had a tsunami alert. Crazy stuff. They took us out of the hotels to be safe.
ST: How was the course?
Mauricio: I really love the water there. It was a really good swim for me. But on the bike I really learned what mountain biking was about.
ST: What was the toughest part?
Mauricio: I think I am very good on climbing and strength. But the technical parts are so full of twists and sandy stuff -- I am still working on that.
[Mendez finished in 2:50:09 – 45th overall, 12th overall amateur and 2nd in Under 16 to Neilson Powless].
ST: How did you feel you did?
Mauricio: Not very good.
Lesley: What makes you best in the world is never being happy with your results.
ST: When did you first notice Lesley?
Mauricio: I saw her amazing win at Maui in 2012. [Paterson finished 2:44:11 – with the difference in start waves, they were fairly close at the finish] Oh my gosh, she was on fire. She was my idol.
ST: When did you finally meet her?
Mauricio: My dad and I went to the 2013 XTERRA U.S. Nationals in Ogden Utah. I wasn't qualified for the triathlon, so I just did a trail run half marathon. When I got to finish my dad tells me, “Now your dream is gonna come true. It is starting now. I just talked with Lesley.” “Really? What did she say?” “She invited you to train with her in San Diego before XTERRA Worlds.”
I was shocked.
ST: When you finally got to know her personally, what was she like?
Mauricio: Before I met her, it was like she was a super woman. When I met her and started to train with her, she is someone I really admire. I am trying to learn about the sport, and everything she says has something important behind it.
ST: What new training did she have you do?
Mauricio: It was a big change. In Mexico I am always training by myself. I have no training partner. When I got to San Diego I was doing everything with her and some other guys. She kicked my ass every day. With that intensity and that quality, I thought, ‘Whoa!’
Lesley: I had to look through my Rolodex and find every fast runner, swimmer and biker I could find to exhaust him. I was making a lot of phone calls, ‘Look, I have this kid from Mexico. I wonder if you could come out and train with him?’
ST: Basically you were asking, ‘Please some out and make him exhausted?’
Lesley: Pretty much. We did a lot of stuff like race pace work and hill repeats running. And we did some races. We went up to the Big Bear Mountain area in Southern California and did a 50 mile mountain bike race and then the next day a half marathon trail race. So we did a lot of fun things like that. He really got to see the countryside. I took him on the famous Wednesday group ride. through Camp Pendleton. He was on borrowed bike and the gears weren’t shifting. But he just hung on, knuckled down and got it done.
ST: What did those sessions do for him?
Lesley: I think it was the intensity more than anything. At that point, you should have your base. So this was like the icing on the cake. That last four weeks before Worlds you are really bumping up the speed and the intensity with all those people around him to push to him to a different level. Almost every day was just wild. I think it was a real increase. But I also had to be careful not to damage him.
ST: So you were more ready than ever for Maui?
Mauricio: It was an amazing race. It was the beginning of a dream I think. I just turned 18 and I got first place overall amateur.
ST: How did that race develop?
Mauricio: My swim was really good -- the fastest amateur swim and 8th overall. I was in a really good position. On the bike, it was good, just like normal compared to the other guys.
ST: You caught a few pro women?
Mauricio: During the bike I caught the women and maybe two or three guys.
ST: Lesley, when Mauricio caught you, were you surprised?
Lesley: No. I knew how strong he was. I remember he was riding with Nico Lebrun. They came past me on the bike and he just looked like he was having fun. He was on fire.
ST: What happened toward the end of the race?
Mauricio: I had a really good run and that gave me the amateur win for sure. Just crossing the line was the best day of my life. Then I knew that all your dreams can be possible. If you give all you have, you can achieve everything. And it was very cool having my dad there waiting for me.
[Mendez finished 15th overall and 1st overall amateur in a time of 2:45:48 – 11:14 behind winner Ruben Ruzafa and well ahead of women’s winner Nicky Samuels and runner-up Lesley Paterson. His 19:38 swim was 8th overall, his 1:43:04 bike was 24th best and his 39:48 run split was 3rd best overall – better than Ruzafa and 24 seconds behind Asa Shaw’s best on the day]
ST: What have you taken from Lesley about the Braveheart concept of helping others?
Mauricio: The whole philosophy of life. For sure, to give all you are to achieve not just your dreams and goals. It is also about giving all you have to life -- to the people, to the nature, that surrounds you. To help them have a smile.
ST: Lesley says she cannot make you NOT smile.
Lesley: The only way I can make him not smile is if a nice looking girl walks past, I say “No, Mauricio!” Which I can tell you happens quite frequently. They check him out as well.
ST: Lesley, was it difficult for you and for Mauricio’s parents to come to the decision for Mauricio to turn pro at age 18?
Lesley: He is going to be the XTERRA World Champion one day in the not too distant future. So he needs to get in the mix now and learn from his mistakes and mix it up with the best guys and see what it takes to be at the top. He is very mature. He can handle it. And he has the most amazing support from his family.
ST: What led you to decide that racing XTERRA is your calling and not go on to university?
Mauricio: Well, since I was a little kid I told my family I wanted to be a professional athlete. I don’t know why. Back them I didn't even know what sport was. But I said ‘I will be in the Olympics for sure.’ I just grew up with that idea in my mind of being a professional athlete. But it is my passion. But when I am training, when I am doing any sports, I give 100 percent of myself in there. It is just me. I don’t know how to explain how I feel. I just know I am happy.
ST: Lesley you have gone to University and have advanced degrees and know about tough world of making a living. When he was considering turning professional, what were your thoughts?.
Lesley: I really believe he has such talent and maturity already; he needs to follow his dream and his passion. And he has a family that is willing to support him. He is very intelligent and self-aware. He knows the importance of education. But he is getting an amazing life education now. He is traveling the world and meeting a wide variety of people. And so he is acquiring the discipline and all the skills you learn through pursuit of this sport. In all honesty. he is gathering better skills that many young guys and girls in college. Many young people at University are partying up and they don’t have passion for life. In my mind, passion for what you do is everything. It is so evident in Mauricio, why quash that? You've got to let it out. That is being true to yourself.
ST: Do you ever sneak away from training to party with your friends?
Mauricio: Oh of course for sure I have my time with my friends and just hanging out. Yeah, it is important to have a balance in your life.
ST: Do you have any regrets about not pursuing Olympic Triathlon? Javier Gomez has contracts that will likely dwarf anything you will make in XTERRA. Any second thoughts about having a 31:15 10k PR at age 18 – so why not try the ITU?
Mauricio: Of course there is always a possibility to try other forms of racing. I am not closed to anything. I am open about my dreams. But my personal thoughts are about following my passion right now -- which is XTERRA. In the long term, I would also prefer to try some 70.3 races next.
ST: Lesley what is the plan for the next level of racing?
Lesley: He is happy. That is the most important thing. If you follow your joy, that is where the greatest success comes. So when that joy changes or moves around or he wants to try something different, he should go with that because that is where the success comes. With that in mind, I think 70.3 can complement XTERRA. He might try a 70.3 this year at some point. Certainly if not this year, then early the next season. Because it is great training and discipline. You learn so much and it is great over distance work. For sure it is in the plan.
ST: When you watch a really good athlete in action you can get an impression it is an art, like a dance? When you watch Mauricio run very fast on trails and mountains and bike really hard, what is your impression of him?
Lesley: It is poetic. That is the best way to put it. It is very flowing and natural. There is no barrier in his body and his mind to any of it.
ST: Mauricio what do you feel when you are moving fast through the jungle or mountain or deserts courses you face in XTERRA?
Mauricio: I am feeling I am in my own world, just trying to fly a little bit. As you said, I am dancing with the course. Of course I am giving all I have, racing through the suffering. The suffering will always be there. The magic comes when you learn how to enjoy that part.
ST: Mauricio what do you see in your future?
Mauricio: Of course I see myself being a world champion, for sure. And some day I will be having a family. But that is later. Right now I want to be living my whole life in my own way. But not just selfish, not just for myself, by myself. I want to be helping others in my own way.
ST: How will you live out the spirit of Braveheart that Lesley requires?
Mauricio: Back home in Mexico, I will share all this stuff I am learning. I have a really good group of friends and kids where I train. I want to give that little push to them, give them a reason to keep fighting for what they want. And not just about sports. About anything important in life. If they are having a bad day for some reason and crying, I am really involved with the little kids where I live. I want to be sharing the good things in the days I am with them.
ST: In any of your races up against the best, have you had a moment that shows that your dream of being best in world is possible?
Mauricio: Yes this dream is for real. Yes, even when I am training. Still, I know there is a long way to go. It will be hard. There will be ups and downs. I know that it is not just a dream - this is a reality.