Marathoner outruns a childhood of poverty

Marathoner outruns a childhood of poverty

Fernando Cabada – a poor Latino who grew up in one of the rougher neighbourhoods in Fresno, California – is the first to acknowledge that he was an unusual front-runner for the recent Boston Marathon. “I was born to fail,” he said.

Even so, Cabada has quietly transformed himself into one of best distance runners in the United States, and one of the best Hispanic athletes the country has ever seen. He has accomplished this in obscurity, as an ascendant outsider in an American distance running culture generally dominated by participants who are white and more affluent. And he has done it despite a childhood dotted with reliance on food stamps, stays in public housing and a prison-bound father who tormented Cabada when he was not absent altogether.
Cabada approaches racing with a mixture of seriousness (rattling off sequences of decade-old mile times to the hundredth of a second), self-loathing (“Is anything ever good enough?”) and swagger. But overall, Cabada said his most powerful motivator was his drive to transcend the confines of his background.

“You don’t get points for poverty,” he said. “You just have to work harder. Running taught me that, and it has saved my life. You don’t have to win, but you do have to persevere. And I won’t give up.”

In the Boston Marathon he tried to add a new peak to a volatile running career characterised by records and victories, and by periods working odd jobs away from the sport, supporting himself and sometimes his family by laying tiles or cleaning hotel rooms.
Cabada operates without the bill-paying contracts (he runs for Newton, which gives him shoes and performance bonuses), nutrition (to prepare for Boston, he allowed himself a $60 canister of recovery mix), or medical care (he says he is uninsured) that many top American marathoners regard as normal. Instead, he gets by on a steady stream of ad hoc road race winnings of about $1,000 for each race. He has been known to drive 12 hours to receive a free second opinion on a pulled muscle.

In a sport that rewards consistency, his career has been unusual. The child of Mexican immigrants with middle-school educations, and the product of an upbringing in one of the poorest areas of the country, Cabada struggled to finish college. After earning a scholarship to run for the highly rated programme at Arkansas, he did not feel prepared for the high-pressure environment. He dropped out and transferred to Fresno State.
Regretting the decision, he went back to Arkansas for another semester, but having lost his scholarship, he scheduled his training around a sales clerk job at Sears. After leaving Arkansas again in December 2003, he worked as a mixing assistant for tile layers back in Fresno for $8 an hour.

“I decided I was completely done with running and school,” he said. “For six months I did not run a step. But then I realised I didn’t want to live my life like this. I could do more.” After a semester at Minot State in North Dakota, he ultimately landed at the now-defunct Virginia Intermont College, where he won seven NAIA titles.

Cabada set himself apart when he set a US 25 km record in 2006, and he astonished many when he finished the Fukuoka Marathon in 2 hours 12 minutes 27 seconds at age 24 in the same year. His next milestone proved elusive, but it finally came when he lowered his time to 2:11:53 at the 2012 US Olympic Trials, where he finished seventh in one of the fastest trials fields in history.

By that time, however, he was running without a sponsor, and he moved to North Dakota, where he worked 10-hour days with a cleaning crew while seeking a job in the oil fields.

After running his fastest time yet (2:11:36) in the Berlin Marathon last fall, he ramped up his training for Boston. “I didn’t always win growing up, and I don’t even always win now,” he said. “But I have perseverance, and I won’t give up. And I’m still getting better.” Cabada has had no contact with his father in eight years, a vestige of the past that he says both haunts and drives him.

“Running has been my outlet to escape,” he said. "But maybe it makes me run too much away from things. Until a year ago, I secluded myself from everyone and used running as my excuse. I wonder if maybe it’s like someone who’s training to be a doctor or something. You just focus, and that’s how you get great. Except then I would see, like, on the movies that normal people go do things together, and I started to think, 'Maybe I want to try that.'”

Dress rehearsal
Determined to close his odyssey, he moved back to Fresno last year. By far the fastest runner in the San Joaquin Valley, he trains off regimens devised by Brad Hudson, a running coach in Boulder, Colorado. Sometimes a friend bicycles alongside him to help him keep pace, but usually he pushes himself, logging more than 100 miles a week at times.

“He’s a different Fernando now,” Hudson said. “I think he’s really mature. But he’s always been different. He reminds me of a fighter, like a Mexican boxer. They’re very tough, they wear their heart on their sleeve, and they say what they mean. He’s not
afraid to speak his mind. And this sport needs people with his passion. We need fire.”

Cabada said he has found a new freedom in returning to his roots. “I felt that I ran away from Fresno and my past,” he said. “I thought with my ability, I could run away, but now I’m not trying to. People from poor neighbourhoods need heroes, not just people who are respected because they can beat people up. If kids need advice about leaving Fresno, now they can say, 'You know, Fernando did that.' Maybe I can be that hero for them.”

He turned 33 just days after the Boston Marathon, and he is aware that he has few potential athletic peaks ahead. He wants one of them to be a spot on the Olympic team for 2016, and he views this race as a dress rehearsal.

“I’ve done a lot more than I was ever meant to, and I know I’m supposed to be happy, and I know just coming where I came from, I’ve already won,” he said. “But I keep wanting more.”

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