Noe Valley Voice October 2011

Adventures of Ultraman

How a ‘90-Pound Weakling’ Became a Triathlon Star

By Corrie M. Anders

Accompanied by his support team—wife Andrea Setterholm and friend Bryan Kodama—Donato Cabal crosses the finish line at Ultraman Canada, placing fourth in the run and 11th in the competition.    Photo © Rick Kent 

Noe Valley resident Donato Cabal is somebody who knows how to go the distance.

This summer, Cabal was one of 29 elite competitors in Ultraman Canada, a gruel­ing three-day race that tests endurance in swimming, cycling, and running.

He didn’t come in first—he finished 11th overall, fifth in the run. Still, it was an incredible achievement for a guy who once avoided exercise, gobbled junk food, and allowed himself to pork up (in his mind) to 165 pounds.

Noe Valley resident Donato Cabal prepares for a 6.2-mile swim in Skaha Lake during the first day of competition at Ultraman Canada 2011.    Photo © Andrea Setterholm

“When I first started [racing], these were things I’d never even dreamed I’d be doing,” says Cabal, 43. “I was the asthmatic 90-pound weakling in high school…the furthest thing from being athletic.”

Cabal looks every bit the picture of health and vitality as he stands to welcome a visitor to the Emeryville headquarters of Jamba Juice, where he is a senior manager in information technology. He now carries just 130 pounds on his lean five-foot-six frame, his solid abs clearly delineated beneath his company’s casual T-shirt.

Cabal says he got into endurance racing about six years ago, after becoming “fed up with being out of shape.” At the time, he was putting in long hours at work (for a different employer), not exercising, and dining on burgers, fries, pizza, even rich French delicacies like foie gras.

“I was wearing suits back then,” Cabal says. “At the point which I could no longer fit into my fat suit, I decided enough is enough.”

He purchased a bike—his first in 20 years—took up swimming, and started jogging. He entered several small races, and “they got longer and longer and longer” as he challenged himself. Since then, he has run eight marathons, 15 of the longer-distance ultramarathons, and 28 multi-sport triathlons, including Ultraman Canada.

Cabal’s dedication to his sport doesn’t mean he’s all work and no play. In 2008, he ran the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco wearing his wife’s pink Halloween gown, silk gloves, and a shoulder-length wig. The next year, folks in Scottsdale, Ariz., saw him whiz by in a French maid’s outfit. And last year in the city, he reappeared at the Nike marathon as Wonder Woman.

“It’s just in fun,” he laughs. “It is San Francisco.”

At his long-distance races, Cabal is accompanied by his loyal support team, composed of his wife of eight years, Andrea Setterholm, who works as a paralegal for a downtown law firm; and Bryan Kodama, a longtime friend and fellow member of the Golden Gate Tri Club. They function as a mobile aid station, providing water and food, as well as tips on what hills or obstacles are coming up along the course.

As you might expect, Cabal follows a regular routine to stay in shape. Five days a week, he commutes 17 miles roundtrip on his bicycle—weaving through Noe Valley from the couple’s home on Elizabeth Street to the Embarcadero BART Station, where he grabs the subway to the West Oakland stop, then pedals to his office in Emeryville. On two or three days, Cabal subs his lunch hour for a 7.5-mile run along San Francisco Bay. On several other days, he interrupts his evening commute to swim laps at the Embarcadero YMCA. All of that adds up to about 15 hours a week.

But his workouts double when he’s in serious training mode. On weekends, early-rising neighbors might spot Cabal running through Noe Valley over to Glen Park Canyon or out to Golden Gate Park, or spinning by on a bike trek to Pt. Reyes in Marin County.

Though he didn’t take up serious bike racing until a few years ago, Donato Cabal was chosen to compete in the elite triathlon, held in Penticton, British Columbia.    Photo © Rick Kent

The 2011 Ultraman Canada, one of the toughest triathlons in the world, held special appeal for Cabal. It was a battle among superjock racers competing by invitation only, and it represented a chance to push “my comfort zone,” he says. He looked for Ultraman to give him “that newfound sense of awe and wonder.”

The event took place July 30 to Aug. 1 in Penticton, British Columbia, a lakefront town in southwestern Canada surrounded by rolling terrain. The race, which covered more than 320 miles, drew athletes from the United States, Brazil, Canada, Argentina, and Australia.

On the first day, participants had to swim 6.2 miles in Skaha Lake, and then bike 90 miles along hilly roads. Day two was a demanding bike ride of 171.4 miles. Competitors on the final day had to run a double marathon of 52.4 miles.

A bagpiper kicked off day one, and Cabal started out with confidence. Halfway through the swim, he began to feel nauseous, but managed to persevere and complete the segment in 3.5 hours. Less than 10 minutes later, Cabal was on his bicycle, a Cervélo P3c racing bike. He survived scarily strong crosswinds, dangerous curves, and a flat-tire repair to complete the ride in five hours and 52 minutes, ending the day in 18th place.

Cabal says he was worried about day two because the long bike ride had to be done in 12 hours or he’d be eliminated from the race. He’d never beaten the time during training, but he finished with exactly an hour to spare—and moved up to 17th place overall.

The double marathon on day three was the equivalent of running the Bay to Breakers seven times. Nonstop. But this event was Cabal’s sweet spot and he started at a nice, relaxed pace.

Like on previous days, he soon got into a meditative rhythm—looking at the water, the hillside vistas, even a couple of deer standing by the road. “The sun was shining. The air was clean. The sky was blue. It was a great time,” Cabal says.

That was until the second half of the run, when his calves cramped up, making his descents “incredibly painful.” Cabal says he forced himself into a mind-over-matter mode, knowing the race was nearly over.

As the finish line came into view, Cabal spotted Setterholm and Kodama, waiting to jog alongside him for the last 500 feet.

“I got to finish the race with my wife and one of my best friends,” Cabal says. “They’d been supporting me for the entire race…and it felt like a group accomplishment, not just something I did and they were on the sidelines watching me.”

Cabal completed Ultraman Canada in a total time of 28 hours and 49 minutes. (John Bergen of Seattle won the race in 23 hours and 48 minutes.)

Cabal weighed 135 pounds going into the contest and barely registered 130 pounds at the end. So, without guilt, he indulged himself and ate half a pizza.

“I think I had earned it,” he says.

Donato Cabal shows little strain as he cruises through a double marathon of 52.4 miles on the final day of Ultraman Canada.    Photo © Rick Kent