Fernando Cabada’s sights are set on Rio de Janeiro.
On Saturday, the 33-year-old Fresno native who grew up in Clovis schools will line up with more than 200 elite male marathon runners at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials 26.2-mile race in Los Angeles. The first three men to cross the finish line will secure their spot on the U.S. Olympic marathon team that will compete in the Summer Olympics in Brazil.
Cabada hopes to be one of them.
He’s got a good shot — his marathon personal record of 2:11:36, which he ran at the Berlin Marathon in September 2014, is the eighth fastest in this year’s field.
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Cabada said he feels confident in his training and has made it to the podium in each race he’s competed in during the past few months.
“I’ve built myself up to make this team in Rio,” he said. “I hope that I can finally be an Olympian.”
The road to becoming one of the nation’s top athletes hasn’t been an easy one, Cabada said.
“I didn’t have the best cards starting out,” he said. “But that’s driven me.”
Cabada was born in Fresno but moved to Clovis around 1991, when he entered third grade at Tarpey Elementary School.
“At Tarpey they had us run the half-mile,” he said. “I got second place in my class of 30 and I felt pretty good about that. That’s how my running started.”
Cabada attended Cole Elementary for fifth and sixth grade and then moved on to Alta Sierra Intermediate School. In eighth grade, he came in last at a conference championship meet, but even through defeat he kept his dream alive.
“When I was a little boy I would lay on my bed and daydream for hours about running. I just wanted to be somebody,” he said.
His time came in when he reached his junior year at Buchanan High School.
Cabada was one of the top 10 high school runners in the country in his junior and senior year. He became a six-time individual Valley champion and was the first person in about 30 years of Valley history to break 9 minutes for the 3200 meters, he said.
While Cabada excelled on the track and cross country courses, he said he still felt like “a scared, vulnerable kid.” He grew up poor and on the welfare system, he recalled, and said he often went without lunch at Buchanan.
“At Buchanan where everyone is well-off ... I was embarrassed to go to the cafeteria to get my free lunch, so I just didn’t eat,” he said.
Cabada said he also lacked positive role models — his father and cousins have spent years behind bars in state prisons, he said, — but now holds a sense of pride that he is one of the handful of Hispanic men contending for a spot on the U.S. Olympic marathon team.
“We’ve all got heroes but sometimes we’ve got nothing in common with them,” he said. “I haven’t followed in anyone’s footsteps. I did this all on my own, besides the help from coaches. But really, I don’t know anyone else who has done what I’m doing. Chicano men aren’t always seen in the most positive light. I want to give hope to others who grew up like I did.”
He’s taken a non-traditional path to the Olympic Trials. Many elite-level runners boast noteworthy collegiate running careers. Cabada’s transition from high school to college wasn’t as smooth.
He spent two years at the University of Arkansas but then moved back home and transferred to Fresno State for a semester. When he returned to Arkansas for another semester, he couldn’t afford to stay in the out-of-state school.
At age 21 he found himself back in the Valley, laying tile “at rich people’s houses in the Shaver Lake area for $9 an hour.”
“I wasn’t OK with my life,” he said. “I didn’t run for seven or eight months and I felt insignificant. I wasn’t doing anything.”
No longer eligible for the NCAA, Cabada enrolled in the NAIA national track championship school, Minot State University in North Dakota. But after his first year, his coach, Scott Simmons, took a job at Virginia Intermont.
Luckily, “I was allowed a free pass to go with my coach, so again I transferred,” Cabada said. “I led my team to a national championship and came in third at the NAIA cross country national championships. I found my niche with this coach and earned seven individual national championships.”
It was all up from there.
Cabada turned pro in June 2006 and signed a contract with Reebok. He broke the American record for 25 kilometers in 2006 at 1:14:21. He ran a 2:12 marathon debut in Japan.
“I went from feeling like a zero to being on top of the world,” he said.
He lived and trained in Boulder, Colorado for seven years from 2007 to 2014 before moving back to Clovis. But the runner is hardly ever home.
“I travel 20 to 25 weekends out of the year for races,” he said.
Cabada has been sponsored by Newton Running for three years, and will don the shoe company’s jersey for the race on Saturday.
This isn’t his first rodeo.
Cabada qualified for his first Olympic Trials marathon in 2008 at age 25, but didn’t race because he said he didn’t feel ready.
He was 30 when it was time for the 2012 Olympic Trials in Houston. He ran a 2:11:53 — good for seventh place, but not good enough to make the U.S. Olympic team.
This time around, Cabada has an “all or nothing” attitude.
“I’m just going to bring it and not give in,” he said. “When I start hurting, I’m just going to think ‘If my legs are going to fall off, then they’re going to fall off. But I’m going to keep moving and not give in.”
His legs may not fall off, but he might have to worry about his shoes.
“My last race in Culiacan (northern Mexico, on Jan. 25), I lost my shoes in the last mile,” he said. “I was in a race with two other guys and we’re on pace to run a 1:03:30 or so for a half marathon; that’s about 4:50 every mile. With less than a mile to go, like 0.8 miles left, my shoe came off. But I still didn’t quit. I ran with one shoe on and one shoe off for (several meters) and then said, ‘I can’t run like this.’ So I took my other shoe off and ran barefooted. I just had the heart not to give up; that’s the attitude I need to make the Olympic team.”
Cabada took third place that day, crossing the line in his black racing socks in a blazing fast 1:04:05 for the 13.1-mile distance. The weekend prior he won the Carlsbad marathon in 2:18:14.
Both finishes were of Olympic qualifying caliber.
To qualify for the trials, men had to run under 2 hours and 19 minutes for the marathon, or under 1 hour and 5 minutes for the half marathon. There are 211 registered.
“If I look at the field on paper it’s pretty intimidating,” Cabada said.
The runner is laying low in Mexico and avoiding social media as much as possible in preparation for the race.
“I just need to conserve my energy because this is going to take everything I’ve ever had,” he said. “This could change my life, for my family, my name, my future kids. This will open up so many more doors for me.”
Cabada, who has run as a professional for a decade, said he doesn’t pay attention to gimmicks or diet fads in the running industry.
“I eat normal food and a lot of fruits and vegetables, pastas, rice, carbs,” he said. “I just stick to basic stuff. I don’t train with heart rate monitors and all that. I just worry about competing.”
On Friday, Cabada will stick to his go-to pre-race meal: chicken parmesan with pasta. The morning of the race he’ll eat the same thing he’s had for breakfast daily for the past year and a half: bread with Nutella.
“I know my body … it’s about routine, routine, routine,” he said.
Cabada said he hasn’t trained on the course in Los Angeles, but to him, the course is irrelevant.
“I’m racing people,” he said. “My job is to be in the top three; that’s it.”
NBC will offer live coverage of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials marathon on Saturday, Feb. 13 beginning at 10 a.m. This marks the first time in U.S. Olympic Team Trials history that the men’s and women’s marathons will be televised live nationally. NBC Sports Live Extra — NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices, tablets and connected TVs — will live stream the coverage.