The 30-year-old from Fresno headlines this weekend’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon.
Six years ago, Fernando Cabada shocked the American running scene. At the 2006 edition of the U.S. 25K Championships in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the obscure 24-year-old who attended a backwater college, Virginia Intermont, shattered Ed Eyestone’s American record of 1:14:38 by 17 seconds.
Later that year, Cabada capitalized on his fitness and ran 2:12:27 at the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan, his first, becoming the fastest American that day. That time made him the seventh-fastest U.S. marathon debutante in history.
The sky appeared to be the limit for him. Cabada expected to qualify for the 2008 Olympic team; he expected to be mounting podiums and donning laurel wreaths. His future was going to be a road paved in glory.
“I honestly don’t know how I did it,” said Cabada, now 30, of his incredible racing streak. “It was the best and the worst, because I did it with ease. I thought that everything was going to be easy from there on out. I thought I’d land a six-figure contract.”
But in 2007, things went south for Cabada. “I guess I got caught with my pants down,” he says. “I kind of stopped being hungry.” Even though he made the U.S. cross-country team that year, Cabada could only finish 50th at the world championships. Never shy of speaking his mind, Cabada sums up that year with one word: horrible.
Cabada attributes his slump to being too far removed from the running scene. At the time he was located in Bristol, Virginia — hardly a distance-running Mecca. So in 2008 he moved to Boulder and began training at high altitude. This change proved good for Cabada, and he ended up winning the U.S. marathon championships by over a minute that year, running 2:16:32 at the Twin Cities Marathon. But this success was short-lived. At the end of 2008 Cabada injured his lower leg and was forced to give up his slot on the U.S. team at the world championships in Berlin. From there things began to steamroll in the wrong direction.
“My contract with Reebok was on the rocks,” Cabada recalls.
In 2010, he didn’t re-sign with his sponsor and by January of 2011, he was broke and had been forced to move in with his mother and even borrow money from her. He faced a tough decision: stick with running or hang up his racing flats.
“I got pissed,” Cabada says of that difficult time. “But I also got focused.” It was then and there that Cabada climbed back from the brink. He first got healthy and credits the physical therapy performed by Jay Dicharry — who worked on Cabada’s core and teaching him about muscular balance — for allowing him to return to training at a high level.
“For the rest of 2011, I was a man on a mission,” Cabada says. After steadily increasing his volume, he logged multiple triple-digit training weeks and at the U.S. 25K Championships last year, he repeated his 2006 performance with a win.
Cabada is now working with coach Brad Hudson in Boulder. “Brad’s a 50 percent coach,” he says. “I still do what I want. I feel like a veteran and know that I’m responsible for myself.” He’s even recently picked up a new sponsor, Newton Running.
Cabada’s 2012 season started with a bang when he finished seventh at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston, running 2:11:53. Though he didn’t make the team, Cabada was pleased with a PR and now thinks he can go under 2:10 for that distance.
In fact, he’s confident he will be one of the men to beat for the U.S. team that heads to Rio in 2016, and also believes that with veteran marathoners such as Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman likely retiring before the next Olympic cycle, and Ryan Hall showing signs of vulnerability, the opportunity to make the team is wide open. “Those guys are good, but they have seen their prime,” Cabada says of the most recent U.S. Olympic Marathon team. “No one is afraid of these guys anymore.”
Cabada’s hunt for the Rio Olympic team kicks off in full this weekend at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon benefiting the ASPCA on Sunday. Originally from Fresno, California, he says he’s heading back to his roots and hopes to impress friends and family in the area. He hasn’t raced in California since 2007.
“I don’t just want to race there,” he says. “I want to go win this thing. Life is a rollercoaster. Now that I’ve got my new sponsor and I’m healthy, I’m heading back up again.”
Cabada admits that he’s learned some hard and important lessons along the way. “I’m more mature,” he says. “I used to not know how to act. I drank too much on the weekends and didn’t get the sleep I should have gotten. I didn’t know how to examine myself. All this is behind me. I feel like a different person now.”
About The Author:
Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first running book, RUN SIMPLE, was released in July.