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.”