When Fernando Cabada started running, he ran to escape.
Living on welfare in Fresno, Calif., as a child, Cabada ran from his father, who was in and out of prison, and from gangs and violence on the streets.
Now, he runs toward things. Finish lines, mostly.
Cabada, who will turn 31 later this month, will join 25,000 runners for the 117th Boston Marathon on Monday. This is Cabada's first shot at Boston, but he has hopes of finishing as the top American, he said.
The now Boulder-based runner was born in Fresno, Calif. His dad, who often violated parole to get his heroin fix, tried to teach him to play "man sports" like football and basketball, Cabada said, in between prison stints.
Every time his dad went back to prison, Cabada said he'd avoid those sports and instead began running -- one of the only sports his dad didn't "shove" down his throat, he said.
He and his mom Magdalena "Vicki" Cabada, who was for the most part a single parent, lived in subsidized housing for most of Fernando's childhood. But when he was 10 years old, a community housing program allowed them to move to the Fresno suburb of Clovis, a safer part of town, Cabada said, with better schools and teachers, and cleaner neighborhoods. There, Cabada ran his first timed half-mile in class.
"People found out that I was good at running, and it seemed to be cool to be known for something," he said.
So he kept running. Cabada says the "good teachers and families" in Clovis rubbed off on him, and he went on to run in high school.
In college, Cabada kept running. He bounced around starting at the University of Arkansas, then transferring to Fresno State University, back to Arkansas, on to Minot State University in North Dakota and finally, to Virginia Intermont where he won seven NAIA individual titles.
Cabada says he's settled down since college, when he was still trying to find himself as a runner and a young adult. In 2006, he won the 25K national title, breaking the race record in the process. In 2008, he won the U.S. marathon title and then in 2011, he won his second 25K national title. He placed seventh at the U.S. Olympic Trials for marathon in 2012.
He moved to Boulder in December 2007 to train with other endurance athletes and to start fresh, finding his mom a new home in Boulder, too.
"I didn't have that picture perfect, 'go to CU and starting running pro story,'" he said. "I've always had struggles. It takes a different type of person to be a runner in America."
Cabada says he thinks a lot about being a Hispanic runner, and how his successes can help other minorities or kids stay away from gangs and drugs.
"A lot of the time, running isn't considered macho at all," he said. "Being Hispanic, it's expected that when we grew up, all growing up together, and our cousins, our uncles and fathers are gang members. That's what we want to be. Running is the last sport you would ever imagine, it would probably be soccer or football."
He's happy he was able to bring his mom to Boulder, too, where she can now go to work everyday and experience some peace, he said.
Former University of Colorado-Boulder runner Kenyon Neuman trains with Cabada often in Boulder.
Neuman wouldn't speculate on how Cabada would run in Boston but said: "When Fernando's in the race, you never know."
"He definitely analyzes everything," Neuman said. "The temperature, the weather, the wind, exactly what splits he's going to go out on, how it fits into the plan leading up to his big race. He's on top of every detail. He's a methodical runner, he's very patient and never goes out too fast."
Cabada's coach, Brad Hudson, said the adversity Cabada faced growing up has made him a tougher, better competitor during marathon-distance races.
"It's a pretty affluent sport, and a lot of the top athletes come from fairly higher incomes, but there are a lot of people in this sport globally that are coming from tough surroundings," Hudson said. "When there's some odds against you, I think it makes you a lot stronger."
--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.