Liza Uriarte remembers the long hours she spent in the hospital, praying that her son would be healed and that a donor would be found. Michael had developed a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy. But the new heart didn’t arrive in time, and on June 3, 2017, after more than a year on the transplant list, he passed away. He was only 28 years old.
“I didn’t even want to get out of bed,” Uriarte says. “I thought, ‘What does it matter anymore? Eat healthy? Whatever. I don’t care. I don’t give an F.’”
She was battling depression, and while her son was sick, she'd stopped working out. But in the aftermath, to cope, she decided she’d have to reclaim her fitness. Suddenly, Uriarte found herself relying on the strength she’d developed during her first Spartan Sprint in 2014 and the Trifecta she’d completed the following year. “I would think back to when I wanted to give up or when an obstacle looked really scary,” Uriarte, 54, says. “All those things from the race I drew from.”
She began hiking the hill near her home in Santa Clarita, California. It gave her solace, and as she dealt with grief, she began climbing the hill every day.
Uriarte’s siblings had poked fun at her devotion to fitness for years, but in light of Michael’s death, they began to understand its power. One day her sister, Salazar, a lifetime smoker, decided joined her on the hike.
“We get up to the top,” Uriarte remembers, “and she said, ‘I want to do a Spartan race with you.’”
Fitness began helping the family heal. Salazar quit smoking and drinking cold turkey, and she ended a long-term unhealthy relationship. “I never thought about [fitness] until my nephew needed a heart,” Salazar, 53, says. “If it doesn't change your life, there’s something wrong with you.” She began hitting the gym six days a week at 5:30 a.m., and true to her word, she signed up for her first Spartan race, the upcoming Los Angeles Sprint on December 9.
“Michael didn’t get a choice to live, but I have a choice,” she says.
Salazar won’t be alone on that day. To honor her nephew’s memory, she started the Facebook group called Heart4Michael Spartans. The team has grown to almost 20 people for the Southern California event, with more expected. Those committed to racing will celebrate Michael’s life while raising awareness for organ donation, but for most of them, this is their first time being serious about fitness.
“None of them were remotely interested prior to Michael getting sick,” says Uriarte’s cousin, Ali Rosales, a Spartan SGX coach who is advising the group’s training through its early stages. “This pushed them in a direction way, way out of their comfort zone.”
As enthusiasm for race day builds, grief is slowly giving way to excitement. “The whole thing is to support my sister,” Salazar says, adding, “and maybe get myself addicted to this crazy thing they’ve been doing.”
While her son was suffering, Uriarte didn’t know if her prayers were being answered. “The miracles didn’t come in the way I thought they were going to come,” she says. But with all the people that Michael’s life is touching, she now believes there were. “They just came in a different form.”
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