Benefield: Montgomery grad Larissa Connors has one last endurance race on her bike
It’s hard to ride hard with a heavy heart.
But 2004 Montgomery grad Larissa Connors, the reigning champion of one of mountain biking’s greatest races, rolled into the Leadville 100 in Colorado on Saturday in a kind of mourning.
Connors, 32, was carrying the weight of the Holy fire - which by Tuesday had torched nearly 23,000 acres of wilderness in Orange and Riverside counties, including Cleveland National Forest, where she now lives and trains.
“Trabuco Canyon shaped who I am,” Connors said. “I spent a lot of the week leading up to the race mourning the loss of the trails and spent a lot of time crying.”
The blaze ignited on Aug. 6 in Holy Jim Canyon. A Southern California man has been arrested on suspicion of arson.
An endurance athlete, Connors spent more hours on the steep trails of that canyon than most other places in her life. When she raced across the sky in Leadville, she remembered the trails that won’t look the same when she gets home - that likely won’t look the same for years.
“I kind of raced for the canyon,” she said.
She finished the epic race in 7:40.13. It was nine minutes slower than her finish last year, but no matter. It was still 27 minutes faster than the next woman to cross the line. For the second year in a row, no one was even close.
“Leadville is such a big deal,” she said. “There are so many fast women, so many fast girls I raced road bikes with, so many fast girls I raced against in college.”
Leadville is one of the marquee events in mountain biking. And Connors’ name is now etched in the books, twice.
“It was a pretty fantastic day,” she said.
Leadville doesn’t take it easy, even on those carrying heavy hearts. The route starts 10,000 feet above sea level and climbs to 12,400 feet before sending riders back down into town. The day’s climbing totals approximately 14,000 feet.
If the physical pain isn’t enough, Connors had the weight of the fire as well as the weight of expectations as the reigning champion. And Leadville pulls in big names in cycling - it’s that kind of race.
But a happenstance ride with longtime race announcer Dave Towle a couple of weeks back helped the seemingly perennially positive Connors gain needed perspective on what she expects to be her last season of racing as a pro.
“I have so much joy in where I am in life,” she said. “I think the place that I found, being so content with my career, overpowered my nerves.”
If her mind switched to nerves over the super-elite field of racers that usually line up at Leadville, she dialed it back and thought about having fun on the bike. Well, as much fun as one can have when the physical suffering is so intense.
“I didn’t have to win to find joy in the race,” she said. “I didn’t even feel too much pressure to win. I feel like I have gotten everything out of bike racing that I needed.”
But apparently she also needed another Leadville belt buckle and a trophy carved to look like an ore cart full of fool’s gold.
She called Leadville a cap to her racing career, a celebration of a “season of racing my guts out.”
But she’s not done. Not quite.
Connors being Connors, in her swan song as a pro she smoked the National Ultra Endurance Series this summer. Every time she turned around she won. She won all four NUE series races she entered: True Grit Epic 100, Tatanka Epic, High Cascades and Pierre’s Hole 100.
Her “prize” for that string of victories that makes her the series champion? An expenses-paid ticket to La Ruta de Los Conquistadores, a three-day hell fest in Costa Rica in November that is commonly described as the world’s toughest mountain bike race.
The weather is usually muggy and sweltering. The climbs are almost comically steep and long. The bridge crossings are treacherous and the waters below are rumored to be the home of crocodiles. In 2015 a racer got swept away in a river and wasn’t found for more than a day. At least he was alive.
Sounds like something that might give one pause, right? Wrong.
“An all-expenses paid trip to Costa Rica? Heck ya,” Connors said.
What a way to go out. This season, and perhaps the La Ruta, will be Connors’ last hurrah - for a while. She is leaving the racing circuit. She is planning to let her body rest and her muscles regenerate from a pro career that takes a toll. She and her husband, Brendan Connors, want to start a family.
I asked if there were any misgivings - heck, even any bitterness - to hanging up her bike when she’s at her professional peak, whether she feels ripped off that something has to give.
“I’ve thought about it,” she said. “But a lot of women come back stronger. Also, I have always wanted to have a family. I didn’t even want to be a bike racer when we moved to Orange County.”
So mountain bike racing, and her indisputable success with it, has been an added bonus to all of the other things she likes and hopes to do. At least, that’s how she sounds when she talks about it.
“I don’t really feel sad about hanging up my bike,” she said. “It might be hard come spring and I’m thinking about not being at the start line. I don’t think the transition is going to be too hard. I’ve been busy for so long.”
That part of life isn’t likely to change too soon. Connors, a high school math teacher, starts a new job at Trabuco Hills High Aug. 27.
And this spring, instead of ripping across the trails in Cleveland National Forest, maybe she’ll slow down to experience a different side of the canyon as it comes back to life.
But she’ll always ride. And she might even race again. But she knows she doesn’t have to. She’s leaving her pro career on her terms.
“I’m happy with what I’ve gotten to do,” she said. “It feels like enough.”
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”