lauren and her dad battle frog copy
Lauren Cisneros and her father compete in an extreme endurance competition. Photo courtesy of Lauren Cisneros

Lauren Cisneros almost seems out of place on the muddy, trodden fields of the typical testosterone-ridden obstacle course race. Tall and sinewy, with dirty blonde hair cascading in natural waves that fall just below her shoulders, the brown eyes of the 22-year-old athlete sparkle at the challenge of the race before her. She feels as comfortable covered in dirt and blood, and surrounded by masses of crazy people willing to crawl on their stomachs through mud, as she is at home watching “Breaking Bad,” a tumbler of bourbon in hand.

“She will encourage you to reach achievements beyond what you imagined you could,” said Ann Marie Reilly, Cisneros’ racing partner. Cisneros is known for encouraging people, whether repeating something for a hard-of-hearing senior citizen in line in front of her at Starbucks, or helping a teammate haul a 50-pound sandbag up a Black Diamond slope in Killington, Vermont.

“I remember this one lady who was in her fifties who was really struggling,” Cisneros said. “She tells me her name, Lucy, and that she was just really tired. So I started singing a song with her name, something like ‘All right, Lucy! We’re gonna go up the hill! Lucy, we’re gonna make it through together…’ And she started laughing, but it got her up and following me. So I kept singing, ‘Lucy, we’re going up the hill!”

They trundled along until they’d completed the course.

“She totally hated me when I was singing, but when we got to the bottom she was so thankful that I pushed her to do it,” Cisneros recalled.

In August 2014, Cisneros lost her best friend, Amanda Gambacorto, in a tragic racecar accident, on Amanda’s 21st birthday. Five months later, Cisneros lost her mother to cancer.

“Those were essentially two slaps in the face,” said Cisneros, “It reinforced to me how precious life truly is.”

Cisneros was skiing in Utah with family when she received a call from her dad, explaining her mom’s rapid deterioration. She was supposed to give her father a call when she had boarded her flight home to New Jersey, but, running late, nearly forgot. As her plane was taxiing, she called him.

“I started explaining, but I didn’t hear anything on his end. I thought the call had dropped, because all I heard was silence,” said Cisneros. “And then finally I hear him go, ‘do you really want to know?’ He tells me she’s passed as the flight attendant comes over and tells me I need to hang up.”

The aisles shrank, the ceiling pressed in, and she imagined the Boeing 747 nose-diving towards the ground.

“All I wanted to do was run,” Cisneros said, “but I was trapped.”

Lauren and her mom.
Lauren and her mom. Photo courtesy of Laura CIsneros

She chose to work out her grief in 8, 10, and even 20+ mile obstacle course races. It was what she did best. Cisneros has completed 30 races around the country, including the Spartan Death Race, the Spartan Ultra Beast in Killington (which she describes as “60 hours of craziness, and the unknown”), and the Trans Rockies in Colorado. She doesn’t compete to win, but to gain perspective, and take in the beauty of the course.

“Being honest, being real, not concerning myself with getting on the podium – that’s what sets me apart,” she said. “If you look at the time sheet for the Trans Rockies, I finished dead last. But I did that on purpose, because I wanted to go slow. I wanted to enjoy the experience.”

She’d been close with her mom, and wanted to find a way to pass along her mother’s selflessness.

“Before she died, I [told her] ‘Listen, I’ll always pay it forward. I’ll help anyone whenever I can.”

Her mother didn’t always support her racing.

“She was worried I’d hurt myself – typical mom stuff. But before she died, she realized why I did them, why I do them currently – because its not so much about me winning a race, or me doing this for me and getting a medal. I don’t care about that stuff. The reason I do these races is because every race, I help someone. One person, three people, 10 people, whatever – I always make sure to help at least one person finish the course,” said Cisneros.

“There’s always that one person who says, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t get over that wall, I can’t throw the spear, and I can’t do the burpees [training exercises].’ And I look at them and I go ‘yes, you can.’”

“People are inspired by her,” said Victoria Joel, Cisneros’ close friend for more than 10 years. “Its funny to her sometimes, because that’s just how she is, so willing to see the beauty in everything. The interactions she has with people from different walks of life, encouraging others to see them accomplish tasks they never thought they could, being a leader, a team player, a friend, a mentor; Lauren loves it all.”

In obstacle course races, where most competitors see a means to prove their strength and worth, Cisneros sees a way to honor her loved ones. Every labored breath that others take for granted, Cisneros celebrates for her mother and for Amanda.

“I’m a big believer in impermanence — the idea that nothing lasts forever,” she said. “I think everyone should learn that, and cherish the time that we have here, because at some point it all comes to an end.”