30-year-old American is in the midst of a comeback, and he hopes his hard work pays off in Boston.
It’s early in the morning on Jan. 1, 2013, and the town of Boulder, Colorado is still asleep. Snow and ice coat the landscape as the sun rises steadily to the east, illuminating the Flatirons in an orange glow. Many of Boulder’s athletes are nursing hangovers with a day off or an easier run. A lone pair of footsteps taps lightly along Marshall Road, however, just to the south of town.
The figure is tall and dark, and he powers off his toes, taking silky, efficient strides as he glides effortlessly. His cadence never changes as he consistently clips off 5-minute miles. He’s focused and determined, and he’s just 12 days away from the Houston Marathon. The figure isn’t short on sleep, or working out through a hangover; Fernando Cabada did not go out on New Years Eve.
Not only did he not go out, but he avoided alcohol entirely, as the new Fernando Cabada exudes a focus unlike any other previous versions of himself. It’s been a long year since the Olympic Trials, where the then un-sponsored Cabada PR’d in 2:11:53, and placed seventh in one of the fastest Olympic Trials marathons in U.S. history. The year saw a variety of new things in Cabada’s life: extended time off from running, moving to North Dakota to work 10-hour days, and a new sponsor.
He also said goodbye to his 20s, as he celebrated his 30th birthday in London. 2012 was a year of enlightenment for Cabada after spending much of 2011 surviving by racing on the roads and living paycheck to paycheck. The realities he knew as a professional runner were slipping out the window, and he was faced with difficult decisions.
Even after his Olympic Trials performance, sponsors still weren’t knocking at his door, and the decision to search for a real job became his reality. “After the Marathon Trials, I figured that running 2:11 and placing seventh, I should be able to get a contract,” Cabada said. “Well, that didn’t happen.”
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Hanging on by a whim and after nearly two months off of training, Cabada flew to London as a hired pacer in April. The talented Cabada managed to do his job, leading the sub-2:12 group while running a 1:05:43 through the half-marathon in challenging weather. Still, he was having trouble making ends meet and coming to grips with the growing truths of being an unsponsored professional runner. With the lack of financial support, along with a nagging hamstring injury, Cabada took an offer to move to North Dakota and supervise a hotel cleaning crew.
“I didn’t see myself getting any better at running, and I was tired of struggling,” Cabada said. “I started to get really depressed and question the whole running thing.” The idea of retirement was becoming a recurring theme in his mind. In May, Cabada packed his bags and drove to North Dakota.
With a job and a steady paycheck waiting for him, the transition seemed complete. “I needed a new a focus,” he said. “It was time to be a man and make some money.” Cabada wouldn’t just be cashing in for himself; he would also help support his mother back home. “I told my mom I’d buy the biggest house for her and the family.”
As the consistent paychecks came in, Cabada began to realize that the fire inside him hadn’t died. It had been hiding out in the shadows of his heart. As a supervisor, Cabada racked in $27 per hour and worked 10-hour days, “You would think that would’ve made me happy,” he said. “On the outside it looked like it, but I was dying on the inside.”
Cabada passed the time by coating his desires with whisky, but even the alcohol couldn’t suppress the flame that was beginning to burn brighter then ever before. The questions all runners face began to haunt him, and Cabada knew he wasn’t done yet.
“What I couldn’t forget is how much I’d regret it if I were to quit now,” he said. Ghosts of old races and the gravity of the “what-if” game toyed with his mind, taunted him and urged him to come back. At 30 years old with seven NAIA National Championships, three USATF National Road Championships, one American record, and a 2:11 marathon to his name, he was finding that he yearned for more.
Despite an ailing hamstring, Cabada began jogging four miles a day after work, “I was running a 7:30 mile pace, and it was bringing the biggest smile to my face,” he said. From then on, he knew what he had to do. There were no more questions, only answers. “I didn’t care if I had to live with my mom for the rest of my days as a professional runner,” Cabada said. “Most of all, I want to represent my country one more time before I call it quits.” So he packed his bags once again and headed back to Boulder.