t's early in the morning Jan. 1, 2013, and the town of Boulder, Colo., 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 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 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 Year's 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 version of himself.
It's been a long year since the Olympic trials, in which the then-unsponsored Cabada set a personal record of 2 hours, 11 minutes, 53 seconds and placed seventh in one of the fastest 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.
It was a year of enlightenment for Cabada after he spent 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 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."
Hanging on by a whim and after nearly two months off from training, Cabada flew to England in April as a hired pacer for the London Marathon. 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 a 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, the transition seemed complete. "I needed a new focus," he said. "It was time to be a man and make some money."
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 raked in $27 per hour. "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."
He passed the time by coating his desires with whiskey, but that couldn't suppress the flame that was beginning to burn brighter than ever. 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, and with seven NAIA national championships, three USATF national road championships and a 2:11 marathon to his name, he was finding he yearned for more.
Despite the ailing hamstring, Cabada began jogging 4 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 again and headed back to Boulder.
On the Front Range, Cabada returned to the grind he knew so well, and life began to click again. With a stopwatch in hand, Cabada's coach and mentor Brad Hudson was ready to whip him back into shape. Despite his understanding of Cabada's move to North Dakota, Hudson was relieved his pupil had returned.
"I was very happy; one of the things I want people to see is how good he really is," Hudson said.
Similar to the pre-Olympic trials mindset, the hungry Cabada had to return to training and racing as though his life depended on it, chasing paychecks on the roads.
"Brad knows I have to race, and knows my mentality," he said.
Already armed with one of the most respected coaches in the country, Cabada signed a contract with locally owned and Boulder-born Newton Running.
"I wanted to do things a bit different this time and couldn't do things on my own anymore," he said. The support he needed was fitting into place.
Cabada’s fresh start came with a new outlook.
"Before, I would get fueled by the people who doubted me," he said. "For years I did this. I paid attention to the wrong crowd then, I focused too much on the negative, and it blinded me from all the positive."
Despite his former perspectives, Cabada's talents couldn't be denied, although his passion for the sport would force him to alter his approach to one that would keep his hunger and his intensity in line with each other, on stable ground.
"I run for many reasons now, not just myself," Cabada said. "I run for the poor kid, the one without confidence, for the kid raised by a single parent or the kid who gets picked on. I run for all the people who struggled in life at some point and who were born into a life already down."
His new approach has already taken him to new heights. In December, Cabada raced the Costa Rica International Marathon. It was yet another training run in preparation for Houston, but he entered with the intention of setting a course record. That would entail running it in less than 2:27 -- not a meager goal, but for Cabada well within the realm of possibility.
Racing in all-black Team Alchemy gear provided by Newton, Cabada crossed the line in 2:19:27, crushing the 17-year-old record.
Similar to those 4-mile runs at 7:30 pace nearly half a year ago in the hills of North Dakota, the joy of feeling the air brush across his cheeks while he ran brought a giant smile to his face as he crossed the finish line. The return of Fernando Cabada was well underway.
The passion and zeal of the new Cabada buzzed from workout to workout as he began stringing together new goals, always pushing the pace and eliminating the ghosts of his past. The focus that came attached to his attitude even kept him indoors and sober on a night that nearly all of his friends would be kicking back and downing a few shots. Cabada, ever the socialite, spent New Year's Eve quietly in his home, preparing for a workout the next morning.
"There is a time for just about everything in life," Cabada said. "Time to drink, time to work hard and time to sleep. I've come to learn to have a pretty good feel on when to do things."
Just as it seemed the stitching was coming together, misfortune would strike with a hint of irony. Less than two weeks before the race in Houston, the city where he ran his PR more than a year ago, Cabada caught the flu.
"It made me stay in bed for a couple of days, and I couldn't move," he said.
In the final week of his preparations, when his body would yearn for time to absorb the hard workouts like a sponge and prep for the battle ahead, it was forced to continue pumping hard, fighting the infection.
Still, Cabada continued to be optimistic.
"I was still hopeful I could pull off a decent marathon performance," he said. "I never gave up hope."
As it would go, the stars wouldn't align, not just yet for the eager Cabada, as his body would be weary from fighting all week.
"The night before the race, I couldn't sleep a wink. I felt like something was stopping me from running this race. It just wasn't meant to be,” he said.
Cabada would make a go of it anyway. But the race was a nightmare, he said, and 16 miles in, he conceded that it wasn't his day.
"My heart wanted to run fast, but my legs and body couldn't respond," he said.
Cabada did not finish for the second time in his life and the first time in a marathon.
It wouldn't be long before Cabada would turn his eyes toward a new light and a new challenge: the Boston Marathon.
Before the Houston Marathon, the John Hancock Financial Group had recruited Cabada for its elite field at this year's race. He would run alongside the best marathoners in U.S. history and the top three at last year’s Olympic trials: Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman.
In the past month, however, Cabada's hopes of running with those three legends were dashed when the trio pulled out of Boston for different reasons: Hall because of a strained quad, Keflezighi with a bad calf and Abdirahman with the flu.
"When I got the invitation to run Boston, I got scared, and I hesitated, because I knew this was it," Cabada said. Here was a chance for him to show the world who the new Fernando Cabada is. The Cabada who nearly retired last spring, took a real job and worked 10-hour days; the Cabada who would launch a comeback off 4-mile runs at a 7:30 pace.
Still, the new Cabada embraces the challenge. "I questioned if I was ready, and the answer: I was now, more than ever," he said.
Cabada knows who he'll face at Boston. He knows their credentials as well as he knows his own. Unlike some of his competitors, he doesn't have an underwater treadmill; he doesn't train on an AlterG machine or have a six-figure contract. He lives at 8,000 feet outside Boulder, deep within the pine trees with mountain views, and he trains twice a day and pushes on with the passion of a man who loves everything about what he does. He might not have all the high-tech gear like other professionals or the funds to travel the world whenever he pleases, but he has an intensity and heart unique to him.
"I don't run to get rich," he said. "I will run even if I'm barely making it. I won't quit until I know I can't get any faster."
When he toes the line in Hopkinton, Mass., on Monday, Cabada won't be thinking of the doubters or the sponsors who passed him by after numerous national titles and stellar performances. He won't be thinking of missed opportunities or failed races. He'll be thinking of those who have struggled in life and how his performance could inspire them to pull themselves up -- as he's done for himself.
It’s not about the contracts, the paydays or making right what was wrong. It's about all the joy and woe that comes with a 26.2-mile footrace. When he sprints down Boylston Street to the finish line, the smile on his face will be only a glimmer of the journey, a tiny glimpse of the evolution of Fernando Cabada.