Empathy is at the core of Roberto Mandje’s training methods. He believes in meeting people where they are, which is also where he believes running will meet you. His philosophy stems from his multi-cultural upbringing and his professional running career, when he competed in the 2004 Olympics, the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, and twice in the XTERRA Trail World Championship. 

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Roberto was raised all over the world, and says that growing up in different countries and cultures taught him that “at the base level, we’re all the same. Not to get super woo woo, but we’re all one human race. I think we have more that unites us than separates us. For me, the fortunate thing is that growing up, a lot of times what really broke down any sort of language or cultural barriers was sport, because it’s such a universal endeavor. So when I was in South Africa, I picked up rugby and cricket. Then when I came to the U.S., because of that foundation, I was able to pick up American football and baseball. And then running, which is something I picked up pretty early on, that’s the same in every country and every culture.

“It’s been great to learn to meet people where they are. Growing up in different countries and different cultures allowed me to connect with people at a very base level and understand them and see them as individuals and as just regular people. Maybe there’s a barrier with language, but once you overcome that, it’s very similar. We all want a lot of the same thing.”

One thing that Roberto wanted was to be an Olympian. He achieved his goal, but it didn’t go the way that he had planned. He represented Equatorial New Guinea, his mother’s birthplace, in the 1500 meters, but was tripped early in his first heat. He finished, despite injuring his ankle, but his injury forced to withdraw from the 3000 meter steeplechase. That experience taught him the importance of enjoying the journey, since the destination is never guaranteed.

“Don’t live too far ahead because you’re going to miss out so much in between. Obviously there’s balance and discipline that you need to have. But putting your happiness on something that may or may not occur in four years, even if everything along leading along the way is checking off boxes, like you’re doing the right races, you’re finishing well, you’re placing whatever, that still doesn’t mean that you’re going to get that result on year four of your current journey. And if you focus so much on that, you miss out so much and your happiness is really laying on one particular event that again, you may or may not make. So for me, I had to learn through at least one, if not two, Olympic cycles that, ‘Hey, there’s more to life than this.’”

Even if you do reach your desired destination, he believes that happiness lies in having many dimensions to your life. “There’s so much more to life than that one pinnacle moment,” he points out.  “And if you are lucky enough to get to that pinnacle moment, whether it’s in academia or sports and the Olympics specifically, then fantastic. But even when you get there, then there’s the ‘Now what?’ Like, okay, you got there and you won Olympic gold. And now what? There’s still probably so much more that you can accomplish. And you could feel, then, a little bit unfulfilled. 

“By being more well-rounded and being appreciative of the journey, if you do get to that pinnacle and you do get that gold or what have you, then that’s like the cherry on top of a well-crafted sundae, if you will, versus a cherry on top of nothing because you’ve sacrificed so much of your happiness and your mental health well-being.

“For me, there were many times where I wasn’t enjoying the process or the journey. I was doing it just because I was trying to reach something, and it was almost like I was chasing a ghost version of myself that didn’t really exist, but I somewhat created, and that’s not the way to go about really enjoying yourself.”

Roberto believes that it’s also important to understand the reasons behind your aspirations. “Something I preach a lot is your ‘why,’ you know, determining what is your ‘why.’ Like running a marathon, are you running it for yourself or in honor of a loved one, or are you trying to run under three or whatever, whatever that ‘why’ is, keep checking in with that because that’ll sort of serve as your North Star.

“The more you train to chase a specific goal, you’re gonna encounter those days where the weather’s crummy, you don’t feel like going, your body’s giving you feedback that it’s tired or what have you, and distance running is naturally challenging. So you have to know the difference between, ‘I’m not enjoying this run because I’m tired, but it’s part of the whole that I’m training for,’ versus where it’s like, ‘Not only am I not enjoying this run, I don’t even like what I’m doing, but I feel like I’m a bit of a prisoner because I don’t have anything else to fall back on. I’ve invested so much time in this where I feel trapped by this goal that I’ve chased.’”

If you do feel trapped by your goal, you may recognize that it would be for the best to set it aside, at least temporarily, but that can be hard to do. Especially if others are aware of your ambition, it can seem like admitting failure to change course. “Running meets you where you are,” Roberto says. “And that’s true regardless of what ability you have. You really can’t fake that. So for somebody going through that, it’s your running. You and only you should own that; running shouldn’t own you. You should be the driver of your own happiness, your own destiny. 

“It’s a hundred percent okay to pivot and pivot could look a myriad of ways. Pivot could mean taking some time off, stepping away; it can be changing courses, like instead of running on the roads, you start running the trails; it could be different distances; it is whatever you want it to be. And it’s okay, as long as it works for you. Your running doesn’t have to make sense or appeal or resonate with anybody else because it’s your running. If you need to take a break, take a break, because chances are if you’re brave enough, you’re actually going to come back a lot better with a new found love for the sport than if you just kept pushing through, pushing through.” 

Whatever running journey suits you, Roberto encourages runners to not limit themselves.” I think many citizen runners, as I tend to call runners who are not at the professional level, don’t allow themselves to dream in the way that maybe elites do. Running, physiologically, doesn’t care who you are. If you put in the work, the right amount of work, and you recover, you’re going to get better. Some people’s ceiling is maybe ten feet, some people’s ceiling is maybe five feet, but regardless, as long as you get as close to your ceiling as possible, that’s success. 

“The challenge for a lot of people I work with is to first and foremost, get them to believe in themselves as much as I believe in them. I tell them at the beginning, it might be a hundred percent me believing in you more than you believe in yourself. But hopefully, by the end of this training cycle, it’s more 50/50, if not 60/40, where you believe in yourself almost more because that ability to allow yourself to dream also frees you up from setting limits. Obviously, operate in  reality, but allow yourself to dream and just chase to see how good you could be.”

“Be present, in your running, in your life, because you’re never going to be as young as you are today,” he concludes. “And tomorrow is not guaranteed for us. So just enjoy running as much as you can. Make it your run. Don’t let the run own you and just enjoy it, because you are in control of that.”


Roberto’s website

Roberto’s Instagram

Roberto’s X (Twitter)

Roberto’s Threads

Roberto’s Strava

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