It was part of his overcoming grief and is still a big part of him: Cisco Ekegren just wants to make his grandmother proud.
Looking at him now, you’d think he’s succeeding. The 35-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant revels in the OCR lifestyle. Broad shoulders and bulging trapezius muscles reflect a disciplined lifestyle as Ekegren splits his time between lifting building materials at construction sites and weights at the gym; his physique is the one of a man who takes his life seriously.
“It’s manual labor,” he says. “So it’s always a good workout.” He knows he wants to gain endurance to compete in longer Spartan events, so when he comes home tired from work, he’s only more motivated to hit the gym and continue the grind. Ekegren has a close relationship with his mother, who lives in Milwaukee, and his girlfriend, with whom he lives in Worcester, Massachusetts. From all exterior indications, his grandma, Ruth Ekegren, is proud.
Ekegren wasn’t always this way. His grandma never saw this side of him—the in-shape OCR athlete with a steady job and a rewarding lifestyle—because Ekegren’s grandmother died suddenly four years ago, when a very different Cisco was still avoiding his family to drink and use drugs with friends. Now, he lives with that sentiment, but what fuels him is the belief that regardless of his past, she’d be proud of the man he’s become.
Prologue to a Transformation
Ekegren has no idea who his biological parents are, or how he ended up in a Nicaraguan orphanage. “I don’t remember much of my childhood,” he says. “But my sister was adopted as well, just my mom and my sister and I and that’s pretty much all I know.” His mother was involved in an adoption program to bring Nicaraguan orphans to the United States, and in the process, she met Ekegren’s sister, then Ekegren himself. When he was two years old, she filed the papers and brought the siblings to live with her in Milwaukee, where she lived with Ruth, who became Ekegren’s de-facto grandmother.
He didn’t know any English when he moved, but quickly learned upon arrival in the States. “Growing up, until about freshman or sophomore year in high school, I was very active,” Ekegren says. “I played soccer and basketball, and I’d go hang out with friends and play whatever game everyone was playing.”
But as junior year began, Ekegren started hanging out with what parents might refer to as “the wrong crowd.” He began drinking, using illegal substances, and partying; he became all-consumed by the lifestyle. He quit sports to hang out with like-minded friends, and as he says, Ekegren became a kid that parents don’t want you to be.
Ekegren has no idea who his biological parents are, or how he ended up in a Nicaraguan orphanage. “I don’t remember much of my childhood,” he says.
“I’m sure they knew,” Ekegren says in retrospect, referring to his mother and grandmother’s knowledge of his whereabouts and activities. “In the back of my head, I know parents know everything, but they never spoke to me in person about what I was doing.” Using more general terms, though, his mother would ask what he was doing with his life, and whether he couldn’t be making better choices. He went to great lengths, however, to keep Ruth in the dark. She meant the world to him, and regardless of his reality, disappointing her wasn’t an option. “I tried to keep things from her and do right by her,” he says. “Everything was a secret from my grandma.”
Ekegren began high school wanting to be a computer programmer. “Once I got into bad habits,” he says. “That went out the window.” Such was the story for the next decade: he worked a nine-to-five with General Electric Healthcare and came home to drink and watch TV with his roommates. By age 31, he was working as a car mechanic, eating a lot of fast food and drinking too much. He’d play pickup football or basketball, but at five-foot-five and 234 pounds, he wasn’t particularly healthy.
He describes his past relationship with his mother and grandmother as distant. “I chose my friends and partying over being with my family,” he says. “I’d always find an excuse or a way out of being with my family. I always loved them, and they always loved me, but during that time I chose friends over family.”
It was Easter Sunday in 2014 when Ekegren went to Ruth’s house to find her slumped in a chair dead.
“I felt guilty, mad, sad,” he says, reflecting on the moment.His initial choices to help with overcoming grief led to darker places. He quit his job and started drinking more. “I just kind of let go of everything. I was homeless for a month or two,” he says.
One day, browsing on his computer, Ekegren saw an ad for a Spartan race in Milwaukee’s Miller Park. He figured he’d try it out and see what OCR was about, and after running the race with a friend, he sought his next challenge. “It just so happened that two weeks after her passing, there was a Beast out in Ohio,” he says. “My grandma was from Ohio, and I did that race in honor of her.”
At the Ohio race, Ekegren learned about the Spartan Trifecta, which presented an opportunity to strive through the overcoming grief. “OCR wasn’t something I was looking for,” he says. “It came across me.”
Including the Ohio Beast and Miller Park Sprint, Ekegren has completed 26 Spartan races since his grandmother’s passing, and his impressive present-day physique is proof he’s taking things seriously. He met his girlfriend at a race, and at the end of 2016, he moved to the Boston area to live and train with her. “I no longer have to look back at who I was,” he says. “I look forward to who I’m becoming.”
Proof It’s Never Too Late to Change
Ekegren didn’t used to see himself as an athlete, but when asked about how he views himself now, he’s changed his perception. “I would say [I’m an athlete], yes,” he says. “Many people know my story, and I like that I can motivate people with the things that I’ve gone through.”
He’s currently nursing a nasty ankle sprain, but Ekegren has big plans for 2018, including the Ohio Beast, and Spartan races in Killington, Lake Tahoe, Boston, Chicago, and New Jersey. The memory of his grandmother is ever present, but he isn’t letting his regrets hold him back. “I always tell people, ‘Don’t let what’s happened dictate what you are and who you become,’” he says.
Finding peace in overcoming grief hasn’t been easy, but nowadays, he can take solace in the fact that he’s living the way he’s supposed to be. “I know she’d be proud,” Ekegren says. “I don’t know exactly what she’d say, but I know she’d be proud.”