As she crossed the finish line at Cerritos College and concluded a season of growth and records, Burbank High sophomore runner Candela Fernandez took special delight at something she didn’t do.
Strewn across the track and nearby infield were bodies of fellow competitors who had also finished the 1,600-meter run, the first distance event at the CIF Southern Section Masters Meet held on May 30.
Some had succumb to exhaustion, others to emotion, while the 16-year-old Fernandez slumped over after crossing the finish line, battling both fatigue and pain.
After a few seconds, with her comrades still gasping for air, Fernandez calmly walked across the infield at Cerritos College and toward the exit.
On perhaps the biggest day of her career, Fernandez coolly concluded a wonderful season with a feather in her cap.
“I’ve never collapsed after a race,” Fernandez said. “Sometimes I feel bad about it because I think I’m not pushing myself hard enough, but in my head, I know that I am.
“I just think that I don’t want to let my competitors ever see me in that position. I try to stay strong after a race. That’s something I’ve always worked on and wanted to maintain.”
In 2014, there just weren’t many moments in which Fernandez was down or in a position of weakness.
The Bulldogs’ standout set school records in the 1,600 and 3,200-meter runs, was one of only two city athletes to advance to the Masters Meet and was also selected as the 2014 All-Area Girls’ Track and Field Athlete of the Year by the sportswriters of the Burbank Leader, Glendale News-Press and La Cañada Valley Sun.
“The key to her success was passion,” Burbank High distance coach Trevor Marca said. “People can have all the talent and physical attributes associated with being successful, but if they don’t have the passion, it doesn’t matter.
“Everyone can look at Candela’s times and see her progress. What they don’t see, though, are the ice baths she takes for her recovery or that fact that she eats well and makes sure she gets enough sleep. That’s the dedication she has.”
On one hand, Fernandez’ climb up the Burbank High track totem pole was somewhat amazing given the youngster only began competitively running in the fall of 2012.
“There wasn’t really a family member or person who inspired me to run,” Fernandez said. “I remember when we used to run PE at [John Muir Middle School], I used to be the only one who would be happy about it. All my friends thought I was crazy, but I guess it was a good kind of crazy.”
In the same vein, perhaps it would have been a little nutty to have expected Fernandez to have made the giant leap she did after her freshman season.
After all, her best marks from 2013 were 5 minutes, 40 seconds in the 1,600 and 11:59.53 in the 3,200 as a member of the frosh-soph team.
Compare those to her season-ending, recording-setting times of 4:56.5 in the 1,600 and 10:49.6 and perhaps it’s easy to think the times weren’t produced by the same athlete.
“I can see where it looks like two different runners, but that’s Candela,” Marca said. “She’s progressed and is certainly training differently now than last year or two years ago. In that regard, she’s really changed and she’s become a student of the game.
“She reads about running, watches movies and trains hard. She eats right and always has a bottle of water around her.”
One of the biggest changes running-wise was Fernandez’ training. During her freshman campaign, Fernandez ran with the girls during practice.
Fast forward a year and the sophomore was running in the top male pack and seemingly improving on a weekly basis.
“It pressures them more,” Fernandez says through a giggle of running with the boys. “I’ve become really good friends with them and they push me. I’m really glad that I’ve done that.”
Training and mileage aside, Fernandez also developed a more competitive drive that has at times required a little prodding.
Perhaps her breakthrough effort came at the Azusa Pacific University Distance Meet of Champions on March 22.
In a loaded field in the 3,200 rated race, Fernandez fell as far back as fifth before jumping into third around the fourth lap in a virtual three-girl race with Vista Murrieta’s Ashley Cahalan and Great Oak’s Evelyn Mandel.
Over the final few laps it became apparent that Fernandez was able to hang with the race’s best. However, she also seemed comfortable in third.
Eventually, Fernandez took the bronze in a stellar personal record mark of 11:02.95, just on the heels of Cahalan (11:02.56) and Mandel (11:02.80).
“During the last two laps I just kept yelling, ‘Make your move, make your move’ and she just sat and sat,” Marca said. “I was really happy for her and that time, especially, but I don’t think she understood until after the race that she was capable of more. She could have ran 10:55 or maybe 10:50 and she could have won.”
The message, while not heard during the race, was understood afterward.
“I think APU was the first race where I really believed this could be a special year,” Fernandez said. “That’s when I had confidence that I could do more.”
Success at APU put Fernandez within striking distance of the school record of 5 minutes flat, set by former star Nena Manriquez, who also owned the 3,200 record of 11 minutes even.
Yet, those records weren’t put in jeopardy again until the Pacific League Finals when Fernandez locked up with UCLA-bound Veronica Yamane of Arcadia High.
In two classic races, the veteran Yamane outlasted Fernandez for the 1,600 (4:56.71 to 5:00.38) and 3,200 (10:58.08 to 11:04.20) titles at Arcadia High on May 9.
Despite the loss, there was little disappointment.
“Those are the types of competitions that brought out the best in Candela,” Burbank Coach Darin Wolf said. “Sure, you’d love to win a couple of Pacific League titles, but to have that level of competition, to have someone like Ronnie pushing Candela was only a benefit.”
Perhaps lost in the runner-up effort was the fact that Fernandez was in third in both races and surpassed Crescenta Valley runners in the 1,600 and 3,200, respectively, in taking the silver in each event.
That ability to rally, something that Fernandez lacked early on, was starting to be refined.
At the highly-competitive CIF Southern Section Division I preliminaries at Trabuco Hills High on May 17, Fernandez passed up three runners in the 1,600 (5:00.03, eighth) and four in the 3,200 (10:57.51, seventh) over the final two laps in earning advancement to the following week’s divisional championship at Cerritos College. In both races, she also posted personal best marks.
As for the divisional championships on May 24, Fernandez admitted she wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.
However, whatever doubt or anxiety she had melted away before her first event.
“When I got there, I could feel the energy already,” Fernandez said. “It was like the APU race. It just felt magical. I really liked it and I knew that I could get some fast times on that track.”
Fernandez took advantage of the energy by blitzing her personal records in finishing seventh in both the 1,600 (4:57.59) and 3,200 (10:49.60).
“That was the race that I thought she was capable of doing months earlier,” Marca said. “Candela passed up some runners in placing in the top 10 and she didn’t allow the race to control her. It was a proud day.”
While Fernandez was almost certain her sophomore season had concluded, she was informed 15 minutes after the 1,600 that she had placed 10th overall and advanced to the Masters Meet back at Cerritos in that one event.
“All year, the idea had been for her to improve upon times, not to get to Masters,” Wolf said. “This was all a bonus.”
On what turned out to be her final race of the season, Fernandez, who finds pre-race inspiration in ritualized reading of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” completed a season that began with almost no expectations and transformed into a triumphant campaign by placing seventh in the 1,600 at the Masters Meet in another school-best mark of 4:56.50.
In missing the cut to the CIF State Meet, Fernandez knows she left herself some work for next season.
“In cross-country, I want to PR at Mt. SAC and Clovis,” said Fernandez, who already owns five of seven school cross-country course records. “For track, it’s about continuing to get better time and about getting back here at Masters and moving on to state. I’m only going to do that by getting better. I’ll be back.”
Follow Andrew J. Campa on Twitter: @campadresports.