Never too sick to compete
Ivan Mendez placed 18th at state and set an MHS course record
Looking at Ivan Mendez’s list of accomplishments this season — from a top 20 finish at state to setting a school record at Woodward Park — it’s hard not to ask: what would’ve happened if Mendez never got sick?
In his second straight season being named the Recorder’s Orange Belt Cross Country Runner of the Year, the Monache High School senior placed top three at the CIF Central Section Division II championships and made a third-straight trip back to the CIF State meet where he placed 18th out of 204 runners.
But it’s still almost mystifying how he was able to accomplish so much while fighting off constant illnesses.
Last season, Mendez won the Woodbridge Classic — the largest cross country meet in the nation — and placed second at Valley after getting injured and becoming sick in the weeks leading up to the section final. This season he avoided injury, but managed to get sick before Valley and then again before state.
“I did get sick more often last season than I did this season,” Mendez said. “Surprisingly, I [was] able to make it all the way through to the state meet. I was still healthy all throughout my season, but where it really hit me was towards the end of the season.”
Prior to the Nov. 15 Valley meet, Mendez felt a lasting side effect from a sinus infection when a sudden movement while playing with a friend’s dog made him too dizzy to even drive home.
“I didn’t go to school for two days because I couldn’t look down without getting dizzy,” Mendez said. “And so when I went to the doctor, I was still recovering from my sinus infection that I had before and that’s just a side effect of what’s happening and I should be fine. But I couldn’t run for four days and the day before Valley I just managed to run two miles, the next day I just gave it all I could.”
But at Valley, Mendez still did well and ran a 15-minute 50-second, 5,000-meter time for third place on the Woodward course in Fresno. Nine days later, while fighting a cold that would later become a throat infection, he ran a 15:41.9 for 18th at state — the highest state finish for a Marauder ever.
“I was in the process of getting sick,” Mendez said about state. “I was doing my best to fight it off but when you’re trying to fight off an infection and try to train through it, it’s still really hard. I did run faster than the week before but it still wasn’t fast enough to get in the top 10.”
Hitting top 10 wasn’t just a dream for Mendez, it was a realistic goal that he and MHS head coach Seth Ishida had their sights on since early in the season.
“We thought he had a chance to win it even, we just had some really fast guys come out this year,” Ishida said. “If he wasn’t sick, yeah, I think he’d [could’ve done it].”
Mendez fell short of winning a state medal but still placed a lot higher than his 58th and 61st finish in the two years prior. He also finished with the best time out of any Valley Div. II runner, including Valley champion Xavier Gonzales (16:01) of Atascadero and Valley runner up Jacob Resendez (15:47) of Liberty-Bakersfield.
Mendez said runners tend to hit their personal records, like Gonzales and Resendez did, at Valley so they can reach the state meet. However he was focused on accomplishing the goal he set at the beginning of the year, to have his best race at state.
“In terms of training, when it came apart and all the sickness came, I still tried my best to reach that goal, regardless of what was happening,” Mendez said. “I still had the mindset to keep going. I didn’t really think about the other runners in our Valley because in my head I knew that if they were going to beat me it was going to be on my worst day. That goes to show they did beat me — [Valley] literally was my worst day.”
Sickness hampered Mendez’s training for both Valley and state, forcing him to miss training and build up miles while the team was cutting back on miles to rest themselves for the postseason. But even at his worst, Mendez could still compete and Ishida trusted him to make decisions on how much and when he could run.
“If he says, ‘Yeah I think i can do it,’ then I believe him,” Ishida said. “… If he says he doesn’t feel good or something, he knows. One way or the other he’s very sensitive to that and he has an honest effort, and he honestly knows. He’s not overconfident, he knows. It just seems overconfident cause he’s good.”
Mendez missed days of training before state, making both his and Ishida’s goal for a 15:10-finish — which would’ve placed him in at least the top five — nearly impossible.
Throughout the season, Mendez hadn’t touched anywhere near his personal record time of 15:14 that he had set last year at a course in Visalia. The closest he got to the time was a season record of 15:23 in a first-place finish at the Roosevelt Roughrider Invitational at Woodward Park on Oct. 12. It was a school-record finish for the course and Mendez set it while coming off a cold.
“I was really excited that I was able to hit that time without any rest,” he said. “I only rested for one day. When we’re resting for a state meet, we’re taking three to four days off or cutting our miles off. And to be able to hit that time with only one day rest was really exciting for me.”
With it being his last season and college on his mind, Mendez was focused on remaining healthy while still going his hardest in every race. Despite not hitting a personal record, he still believes he had a strong season.
“Mentally, compared to last season, I came into races a lot more stronger and confident, just cause I knew that I had to leave everything out there cause this is my last season,” Mendez said. “And I guess that goes to show, all my times that I hit, I really did leave everything out there.”
Between the section championships, Woodbridge and other invitationals; Mendez has remained one of the top runners in the Valley since he was a sophomore. At Valley he never finished lower than fifth, while at Woodbridge and the Roughrider Invitational he always placed in the top 10.
Reflecting on Mendez’s humble beginnings, Ishida said with a laugh, “The best story is freshman year he comes in and he can’t even make it down the block and he wants to quit. I mean that’s the best story because that tells me any kid can be that good, so you have to treat every kid [equally].”
Now Mendez, who was both the Orange Belt Runner of the Year for track and cross country last season, looks towards one more successful track and field season. After that he is headed off to the University of California, Davis, where he connected with coaches this season and verbally committed too for next fall. It’s still about a year away, but Mendez said he plans to make it to the NCAA finals in his freshman year.
“I talked to a lot of coaches and what stood out from other coaches was that [Davis’ coaches] were always checking up on me,” Mendez said. “And regardless of what race I ran, they were always super supportive and offering their own help. When I went on a visit to UC Davis, it just felt like home and that’s what I’m really aiming for.”
It’s almost perfect that Mendez is competing for not only an NCAA Div. I program but also for one of the best medical universities in the country that is well equipped to take care of any of his illnesses.
Even before he began running, Mendez said he was well aware of his weak immune system and that when he did start running, his doctors cautioned him against it. However, sports have opened him up to so much and he said there was no way he was quitting something he loved.
“When I started running, they thought it was a bad idea but if it’s something that I love I’m going to keep doing it,” Mendez said. “And honestly, I feel like sports have really helped me. Before this I had a lot of trouble with anxiety also but with my team and everything, they helped me overcome that. So I’m really thankful for cross country and track and field showing me that.”