In 10-plus years of putting on races around the globe, we've heard literally thousands of remarkable stories about why people race. Now, our mission is to bring them to life. In Why I Race, we're highlighting the infinite reasons that people take to the course, and the unbelievable, transformative impact it has on their lives, and the lives of those around them.
During Isabel Zamora’s first marriage, she was a victim of domestic violence. Zamora knew immediately that this was not something that she wanted to define her or her two children, so she did something very few people have the strength to do. She picked up her stuff, her kids, and her life ... and left. What got her through such a tough time? Focusing on the things she could control — with athletic training falling at the forefront.
Zamora has been a runner almost her entire life, pounding pavement as a track and cross country runner since her preteen years. Through those early competitions, she found an affinity for being pushed outside her comfort zone — only then, she said, do you really grow. So when she was 25, Zamora signed up for her first triathlon in Georgia, followed by a few Ironmans as her confidence grew.
“Finding yourself in the middle of a lake where there is no shore near and people are kicking you — that’s definitely out of my comfort zone,” Zamora said. “But once you’ve accomplished that, it’s like, ‘Okay, I did it.’ And then you’re able to translate that into the rest of your life.”
Zamora attended college on a sports scholarship, studying business administration just to keep running — but she always knew her true calling was to be a coach. And after counseling soldiers at Fort Benning, the triathlete started triathlon coaching in 2014, where she helped push ambitious athletes closer to their physical goals. Sometimes, that meant just helping them take the first step.
“Life gets messy, with kids and work and everything else," she said. "One of the things that I tell my clients is that sometimes the real goal is getting to the starting line.”
Little did she know that getting to the Spartan starting line would be her next life-changing feat.
Getting to the Starting Line With a Spartan Surprise
A few years later, Zamora mentioned to her husband, Robert Castillo, that she wanted to do a Spartan race, but made her initial apprehension very clear.
“I was a runner,” Zamora said. “I didn’t have any strength in my arms or anything else.”
Castillo, who Zamora praised as her right-hand man and someone who would never hold her back from doing anything she put her mind to, surprised her with a ticket to a Beast in Mexico — in the elite heat.
“I was like, ‘Thank you so much for your faith in me, but I don’t know if I can do that,’” Zamora said, laughing. “And I suffered. That first finish line, I was in tears. I was sore in muscles I didn’t even know I had, but — sure enough — I did it.”
A half marathon, 25 obstacles, and 150 burpees later (the Multi-Rig was just as unforgiving as usual), Zamora crossed the finish line in third place. Snagging a podium spot on her very first go-round was a moment of epiphany for the “runner with no strength,” and she never looked back.
Bloody Burpees Over Disqualification ANY Day
Zamora was years removed from that first Beast when the Multi-Rig yet again proved to be a tough adversary in San Antonio in 2019. When her hand slipped from a ring prematurely, Zamora hit her forehead on one of the rig’s poles, breaking her nose and creating a wound that would later require eight stitches. But — like a true Spartan — even a staggering injury was no match for her grit and perseverance.
“I was fifth place, 30 seconds from third and fourth,” Zamora said. “I stood up and I went to do my burpees and the blood was gushing out. This guy started saying, ‘She got injured!’ And I was like, ‘Be quiet, you’re going to get me out!’”
And after giving in to medical advice that she should forfeit the race, Zamora succumbed to tears once again. She made it clear, however, that they were NOT tears of physical pain — she was crying because she had wanted to finish her race so badly.
What Is Her Why?
The intense drive to complete her race — even when hurting — is a familiar feeling to most Spartans. Everyone has a reason, a driving force, behind why they train hard to toe the line and crush those unrelenting obstacles. But Zamora has three.
1. To Feel a Sense of Freedom and Peace
“As a woman — and as a Mexican woman — there are so many expectations of us,” Zamora said. “Once I’m racing, I feel free of all these expectations. I’m there, I’m in my presence, I’m able to just find that strength to make it to that next mile. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do that 13 miles or the next obstacle, I’m just in the present.”
Zamora said that being out on the course gives her a unique ability to be free from all of the assumptions that her culture and society impose on her. These expectations, she said, make it so easy to be too hard on yourself. But when you’re trying to finally conquer that Multi-Rig, you’re far too focused to be hard on yourself.
“Whenever I’m close to the finish line and there’s dirt on your teeth, it’s like, ‘This is what peace looks like for me,’” she said.
2. To Learn Something New Every Race and Find a Flow
Even after years of competing in Spartan events, Zamora said every race is a surprising new challenge that keeps you pushing past your comfort zone. Sometimes it’s muddy and rocky, sometimes it’s extremely cold or blistering hot, and — almost always — it’s uncomfortable.
Related: Get the Hell Out of Your Comfort Zone
“And that’s how life is,” she said. “As a mom, once you have the toddler figured out, then it grows up. Now I have a teenager, and it’s a new challenge. That’s what keeps you on your toes. That’s life.”
The key, she said, is showing up and being open and ready to learn, every single time.
“You HAVE to be ready to learn,” Zamora said. “It’s all about being able to find that flow, and being able to carry that flow into my everyday life.”
3. To Set an Example for Her Children
Zamora started running Spartan races to prove her past didn’t define her, and now she hopes to show her kids that no matter what they set their minds to, they can and will accomplish it. And as it turns out, her kids may have already gotten the unbreakable memo.
“I was really frustrated in San Antonio because, before my accident, I was on point for that race,” Zamora said. “I was so close to that podium, and my kids were like, ‘It’s OK Mommy, you’ll get them next time. There is always a next time.’ So sometimes you’re teaching them, and sometimes they’re teaching you.”
And just for the record, there WAS a next time. Zamora returned to San Antonio’s 2021 Sprint with a vengeance, and got her third-place podium.
Today, Zamora lives in El Paso, Texas, continuing her Ironman coaching. Now a Spartan SGX Coach and a Spartan Mexican ambassador, she and Castillo have also co-founded CAZA Multisport, a personalized training team offering coaching in trail running, cycling, swimming, and — you guessed it — OCR.
And even with a full schedule, Zamora will be racing across the globe this year, making appearances at the Spartan World Championship in Abu Dhabi and the Trifecta World Championship in Sparta, Greece. She’s even qualified for the elite heat at the 2021 Ultra World Championship — which will take place in the U.S. for the first time this year — and is currently running 40 miles a day (20 in the morning, 20 in the afternoon), taking it 5K by 5K, she said.
“You get to a point where time doesn’t matter," Zamora said. "There is a lot of internal conversation where you’re trying to convince yourself why you should keep going or why you should just stop. But if you have a goal in mind, you’re just going.”
And she’s still going.