Forging Fitness from Adversity

By Chad Nelson – February 1, 2014
Photography by Abbie Pell of His Art by Abbie

Fighter: [fahy-ter] a person with the will, courage, determination, ability, or disposition to fight, struggle, resist, etc.

Max Cardenas knows a little about adversity. He knows a lot about fighting it.  

Imagine being 19 years old, the recipient of a hard-earned college football scholarship, and, midway through your freshman year, a seizure ends your dream before it really begins. Then, imagine that exploratory brain surgery reveals a parasite that is 95 percent fatal.  

Football had motivated Cardenas to excel on the field and pay attention in the classroom. But for a year and half after his diagnosis, Cardenas fell so deep into depression that it caused him to miss a significant point—he was the other 5 percent. His eventual realization, that he was fortunate to be alive, would prove more important than Cardenas could know at the time.
“One of the first businesses of a sensible man is to know when he is beaten, and to leave off fighting at once.” – Samuel Butler
Eighteen years had lapsed since the end of his athletic career and Cardenas’ body was beginning to reflect the layoff. He decided in January 2011 that he had been inactive long enough. As a husband to Amber, father of two young girls—Maddy and Sophia—and owner of a flourishing restaurant and namesake, The Maxican, his life was full.   

Cardenas wanted to focus more on his body and began running to lose weight. It was working, too. His endurance and confidence increased, and after his employees invited him to play football one day, Cardenas stepped back onto the field. But his athletic reemergence ceased just as suddenly as it had years ago—a false step tore all but one ligament in his right knee and bones were fractured. The physician mentioned that amputation was a possibility if it could not be repaired properly. Knee replacement was very possible because of the damage.

“The lowest point with my knee was thinking about how I might not ever be able to play soccer with my girls,” Cardenas said. “The thing that gave me focus and kept me going was family.”  

Knee replacement surgery has a success rate of nearly 95 percent, but Cardenas chose the more difficult road of rehabilitation. He was determined to show that, in his late 30s, he was not ready for knee replacement, much less amputation. The physicians did what they could, but the rest was up to him. After a chance meeting with Sonny Wilson of Mad Dawg Fitness in December 2011, Cardenas determined that he would be in the best shape of his life by the time he turned 40 in November 2013.
“Victory is always possible for the person who refuses to stop fighting.” – Napoleon Hill
Cardenas is a physical miracle. Not only was he alive and standing on his own knee, but he was also walking and, soon enough, running. Friends and family marveled at his steel will and absence of self-pity. He worked out, ate better, and amazed people along the way. But Cardenas had bigger plans. He registered for the 2012 Spartan Race and finished in just more than three hours, calling it “one of the hardest things” he had ever done.   

Perspective is a funny thing. Cardenas had lost nearly 45 pounds and six inches from his waistline. He left his fears of death and amputation behind him, but Cardenas can vividly recall that the winner of Spartan finished in 45 minutes. Emboldened, he pressed forward, and, in April 2013, entered the Bluebonnet 5K in Burnet and won his age group. Cardenas entered his second Spartan Race the next month and cut his time in half (though he fell short of his goal of an hour). His perspective was that as long as he wasn’t dead, he was going to keep living in pursuit of “better and stronger.”
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Plato

Today, Cardenas is down by 75 pounds, and eight inches have burned from his waist. He and his good friend Jeff Beyer have started the Saturday Morning Breakfast Club, a running group that meets every week. He has also started, a race planning and promotion site he co-manages with Wilson. He completed his first half marathon in October and, just as planned, celebrated his 40th birthday with family and friends this November in the best shape of his life.  

 His restaurant has its own healthy eating menu, and he and Amber are expecting another daughter in March. While his attitude and fortitude have moved many, those who really know Cardenas will tell you his greatest quality is his kindness. He is always available for a friend, always a resource for those in need, and is content to be Amber’s husband and his girls’ daddy. Cardenas is proud of his journey, but he takes greater pride in how he is seen by others.  

 “Max is a genuine good guy,” said friend Damon Beierle. “He is always there with great advice, supports everything I do, and pushes me to be my best inside and outside of the gym.”
 Sounds like a legacy worth fighting for.



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