It’s 8:25 a.m. and Eric Mendoza just finished registering for the 10th annual Welles Remy Crowther Red Bandanna 5K race. Athlinks.com ranks him among the top 2.4% in 5K events. He came with no phone, no iPod. Just his B.A.A sweater, Greater Boston t-shirt and a small string backpack. He ran 7 miles from his Dorchester home to Boston College to warm up for the race. “I’m training for a marathon so I should be able to,” Mendoza says laughing. No sign of fatigue.
As the runners gather in front of the golden eagle on Linden Lane, Mendoza runs up and down to stay warm. Standing front and center, bib number 8813, his eyes are wide open, standing upright with a stern look on his face. He’s focused.
“Are you ready?” screams Jefferson Crowther, the father of Welles, into a megaphone. The crowd screams back. Mendoza smiles and claps. He’s ready.
Ready. Set. Go.
Alison Crowther waves the red bandana like a green flag at a NASCAR race. Mendoza doesn’t jump out into the lead out of the gate, but stays within the lead group turning right onto Commonwealth Avenue. By the end of the race, Mendoza would complete about 10 miles. 7 pre-race, 3.1 during the race. And he would do it by crossing the finish line first for the fourth consecutive year in a row.
Mendoza started running in middle school and it’s a skill that has grown with age he says. “It’s funny. I’m very competitive, but I have zero hand-eye coordination. So running was the only sport I could do well.” Born in Kent, Washington, about a half an hour south of Seattle, he continued running in high school and walked onto the track team at Gonzaga University.
Mendoza knew what he wanted to do after college. When asked the fabled “What are you going to do?” Mendoza would say he wanted to teach. He majored in history and secondary education at Gonzaga and wondered what his next move would be: Stay in Washington or take a leap of faith and head eastward? “If I didn’t do it, I’d stay in Washington forever.” So Mendoza took the leap and applied to the Lynch School of Education at BC. Upon acceptance, he joined the Urban Catholic Teaching Corps of BC, a two-year volunteer program of the Lynch School of Education.
As part of the requirements of UCTC, Mendoza was placed at St. Columbkille, where he stayed for another four years after graduating in 2009. “When I joined, it was the height of the recession," said Mendoza, "so I stayed out necessity because there weren’t that many teaching jobs.”
But even with a recession, Mendoza cared about the students, going as far as buying school supplies for the underprivileged Brighton students, which made the decision to take a job at Boston College High School a tough one. “If I kept doing it, I wouldn’t leave."
All this time, 3,000 miles away from home, Mendoza found solace in running. He joined the Greater Boston Track Club and became acclimated with the Boston running community. To a degree, running kept him in Boston. What solidified him being a part of a community wasn’t a race or a particular free run. It was a wedding. Being a groomsmen for one of his friends in the running club made him feel like he had a second home in Boston.
His best marathon time (2:35:29) was in the 2011 Boston Marathon. In 2013, Mendoza didn’t run in the Boston Marathon, but after the bombs exploded on Boylston Street, Mendoza knew he was going to run in 2014. “Being a part of it was awesome. I knew the crowd would be huge but even in places like Framingham, Natick, the crowds were crazy.” The last stretch, Mendoza says, he couldn’t hear himself because of the roar of the crowd.
Mendoza says he prefers marathons over 5Ks because “it’s not as competitive." He competed in the 2010 Athens Marathon, the original marathon. “Picture Route 1,” he said laughing. Strip mall after strip mall after strip mall. Probably a lot different from the scene Pheidippidies had 2,500 years ago to the date when Mendoza ran. “It wasn’t my best race. I flew in on Thursday and suffered terrible jet-lag.”
Because of running, he stills has ties with BC. He knows Tim Ritchie, assistant coach of BC’s track and field and cross-country men’s team. And since 2011, he’s competed in the Welles Remy Crowther Red Bandanna 5K.
“I didn’t know about Welles until the ESPN documentary,” Mendoza recalls. At the time of the Outside the Lines feature, Mendoza was teaching religion. He incorporated Welles’ story into the curriculum and continued doing so when he went to BC High.
“He embodies the idea of selflessness and the strength of selflessness,” Mendoza says. He was what it meant to be a man for others. And running in the race furthers the sense of community Mendoza feels in Boston, seeing everyone in red bandanas to commemorate someone who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
The police motorcycle siren blared along College Road. Behind the police escort was Mendoza, the teacher, wearing a red bandana, pumping his arms and sprinting toward the finish line. He crossed the line at 16:17 and bent down, catching his breath with a smile. Alison, wearing the same red bandana patterned fleece Steve Addazio and the football coaching staff wore at the USC game, walked up to Mendoza and gives him a hug. “I was looking for you,” she tells Mendoza, congratulating him on winning yet again.
He may not compete in next year’s race because he’s looking to run in the Chicago Marathon so the streak may end at four. But while he looks to break 2:30:00 in a marathon, Mr. Mendoza taught us a lesson at this year’s race.
Not by beating the other 1,800+ runners, but by teaching us how Welles’ story stretches far. Farther than a 5K. Farther than Lake Meridian in Kent, Washington. Farther than a marathon. Welles’ legacy stretches forever.