- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

Fernando Cabada sees himself on the medal stand one day at the Olympics.

Call it brash, even arrogant, but consider that a week ago the rising distance star pulled off a stunning marathon debut in Fukuoka, Japan. His ninth-place time of 2:12:27 was the seventh-fastest debut in U.S. history.

“I thought ‘Wow, I’m leaving my mark,’ ” Cabada said last week, back home in Bristol, Va.

Still, Cabada is aiming higher. He plans to run 2:11 or better in his next marathon and says times of 2:07 or 2:08 will become common.

“When I finished, I felt more relief than happy,” he said. “You know us runners, when you get to a certain point and you want to get faster and faster. I am more happy because I know that the training I am doing is what I need to be doing. If I had gone 2:15, that would have been OK but I would wonder what I’d need to be doing. Running 2:12, I know I don’t have to change my training.

“People run a lot of years to get to 2:12, and I haven’t even reached my potential in training and racing,” said the 24-year-old Cabada, who ranks sixth among American marathoners this year. “There is so much room for improvement, from A to Z. I got away with such minimal training to run this marathon.”

Cabada was amazed he handled the marathon distance with relative ease, even holding back more than he thought he should have.

“At 10K to go, I was so ready for whatever was going to come to me,” he said. “I was waiting for the pain and it never came.”

Little has come easy for Cabada. He grew up on welfare in a rough neighborhood in Fresno, Calif., with a father who was in and out of prison and a mother he calls his best friend and hero doing all she could to hold her family together. That upbringing helped Cabada developed a sense of survival that he has injected into his running career.

A talented high school runner, he made it to the big time with a scholarship to Arkansas, one of the best track schools in the nation in 2000. Two years later, he was gone. Too much intensity, too much pressure. He went back home and tried Fresno State in 2002 but that school cut its cross country and indoor track programs. Cabada gave Arkansas another shot, sans scholarship, but that didn’t last long.

Again, it was back to Fresno where he laid tile for a while, not running for eight months to try to clear his head. Then one day, he decided he needed to go back to school and run. An Internet search yielded a small school that the prior year had won the NAIA track and field championships.

Cabada left for Minot State University in North Dakota, but before he could don the school uniform for his first race, his coach Scott Simmons transferred with several athletes to another small school in the mountains of Bristol along the Virginia-Tennessee border. Cabada followed, and home became 1,100-student Virginia Intermont College for two years.

Cabada needed a calming environment free of distractions, a place like Bristol. He has thrived since, bringing the school many titles and recognition and putting himself on the map with a stunning professional debut in May, winning the Fifth Third River Bank Run 25K in Grand Rapids, Mich., in an American record 1:14:21.

“After the 25K, I thought I’d broken the American record in my first run at the distance,” said Cabada, a tall runner at 6-foot-2, 150 pounds. “I really didn’t know when I was going to do it.”

Cabada wanted to run a marathon, but didn’t know which one to choose. Chicago was too soon. New York was a little early as well. In July, his coach told him about Fukuoka.

“I know that the Americans used to go there and I wanted to go somewhere nobody was going,” he said. “I just worked out perfectly.”

Cabada had a few goals, first to run under 2:15 to make the 2007 World Championship team in Osaka, Japan, just nine weeks before the U.S. Olympic trials. Then, after Dathan Ritzenhein ran 2:14:01 in New York, Cabada set out to break that time.

“I wanted to run under 2:13 but in my heart I wanted to break 2:11,” he said.

Cabada makes many comparisons to Ritzenhein, as if to validate his own successes or prove something to his critics.

“The thing that I don’t understand about myself — I need critics,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going. I want to prove someone wrong. This season went great before the marathon. I just wanted to prove to myself that I belonged. Forget about proving anything to anybody else, I just wanted to prove to myself that I belong. Even though I did good at the 25K six months ago, I knew that it was time that Cabada did something that would turn heads.”

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