Age, autism no match for passionate pair of racers

Age, autism no match for passionate pair of racers

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - It’s a physical challenge for the fittest of the fit. The world famous Spartan Race combines obstacles with distance on tough terrain.

Watching from the sidelines, 73-year-old Marla Sweeney of Tucson got a glimpse of the guts and sheer will-power it took, seeing her own sons compete.

Sweeney decided to jump in, herself.

"You never know, when you get a little bit older, how long I could maybe even think about doing this. So I thought, 'I'm going to do this,'" she told Tucson News Now.

For more than two years she's been carrying big buckets, sprinting with sandbags, flipping tires, and throwing spears - some of the many obstacles that make up each race.

Starting when she was 70 years old, the now 73-year-old Sweeney has collected more medals than she ever dreamed. She has already completed eight Spartan races this year and has another 4 scheduled to help her complete 3 Spartan Trifectas, which is completing a Spartan Beast, Super and Sprint within a calendar year.

There is no fear in her incredible feat.

"I was so ignorant of what's entailed," she said, talking about when she first started. "You can go and spectate and have spectator routes. But you don't get the full comprehension of what it takes to climb up a 30-foot cargo net or carry a bucket of rocks down a ravine and back up, climb over a 12-foot or 10-foot wall. I really had no idea. But I said, 'I want to do this.'"

Those challenges sparked interest and inspiration in a new friend. They are quite opposites on the age spectrum and the development spectrum, too.

14-year-old Kayla Miller has been attacking her autism with attitude.

"Doing Spartan, you have those obstacles, and you have people that will stand behind you," Kayla said. "They approach you, and just give you a high five and a hug. It's awesome."

Kayla's mother, Shana Miller, said her daughter was once signed up and participating in soccer leagues in her hometown of Surprise, Arizona, but her lack of competitive drive had her overlooked for other children taking the sport more seriously. She found herself stuck on the bench, involved in a game she wasn't enjoying.

"She is the least competitive person out there," Shana said, explaining her daughter has found that fun in Spartan races. "Almost every race she's been in, she is the last one off the course. It's not because she's the slowest. It's not because she can't do it. It's because she finds someone else who needs help and helps them."

"Here's a young lady that found an outlet from those negative things in her life," Sweeney said. "She found this outlet, that she can run, and be treated as an equal."

Kayla Miller, 14, from Surprise, Arizona, practices for her Spartan race (Source: KOLD)
Kayla Miller, 14, from Surprise, Arizona, practices for her Spartan race (Source: KOLD)

The unlikely duo has also found friendship in the last few months. They’ll race side by side Saturday, October 20, in the same adult open division, during the Spartan Beast in Southern California. They’ll be in lock-step the entire race with Kayla’s mother seeing that friendship flourish.

"She just gets Kayla. So that kind of helps ease a little bit of the worry I'm going to have," Shana said.

"A lot of people with disabilities think they can't do it until they go out and try," Kayla said.

The pair is powering through any problems and standing on the sidelines no more.

“You get addicted. You learn to love this. The family atmosphere on the course - people helping people - it just kind of draws you,” Sweeney said.

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