The XTERRA World Championship race is an off-road triathlon that combines a one-mile swim, 20 miles of mountain biking up and down the rugged West Maui Mountains, and a 6 1/2-mile run over forest trails and beach sand. One’s body must be in peak physical condition to tackle a grueling task of this magnitude. But the power of the mind may be paramount.
Laura Becker needed to recapture both.
The 34-year-old STEM teacher at Bowers Elementary School in Manchester will head to Hawaii this month, but her goal on Oct. 27 isn’t to win or place. Becker, who also lives in Manchester, simply wants to finish the race. Considering she’s a little over a year removed from almost losing both of her legs, just finishing this race would be the biggest win of her life.
Becker was not an athlete growing up in Glastonbury. Her only sport was swimming, which she quit at the age of 9. After college she immersed herself in her teaching career, neglecting exercise and healthy eating habits. Becker was also doing some babysitting work on the side, and the couple she sat for encouraged her to join their gym. A self-described Type A personality, Becker hit the ground running.
She did her first 5K in 2010. A half-marathon was on tap for 2012, the same year she got married. In 2013 she became a vegan. Becker was developing into the picture of health. Running was great, but it didn’t satisfy her. Someone suggested Becker compete in a triathlon, even though she didn’t own a bike and hadn’t swam competitively since quitting the parks and rec team.
As she always does, Becker gave it her best shot. She went to Lake Terramuggus in Marlborough where they have a small triathlon every other Thursday night in the summer. “When I crossed the line, I’ve never had that feeling,” Becker says. “I looked at my husband and I was like, this is for me. I love this. I’m gonna do an Ironman. And he was like, ‘OK, honey, you can work your way up to that.’ ”
And work she did. She completed three Ironman races, two in Lake Placid, New York, and one in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec. Forever in search of the next challenge, she went off-road to find it. Becker placed third in her age group at an XTERRA race in Alabama in 2018, earning a spot in the world championships in Maui.
But after the race she was in more pain than usual. Becker could barely walk, and struggled to board her flight home. Back in Connecticut she went to a walk-in and was told she was dehydrated. Two more days went by. Becker couldn't climb the stairs at school. At the behest of the principal, Becker acquiesced and headed to the hospital. An ultrasound showed less than 30 percent blood flow in each leg.
It’s called iliac artery endofibrosis, an extremely rare condition most common in elite male cyclists. Becker had no pulses in her feet or ankles and says she felt like she was in a bad episode of the TV show House where every physician assistant wanted in on the case. Her arteries were 100 percent closed. In the four days following the race, in which Becker went back to work and even rode her bike, her body had built collaterals around the block.
Dr. Thomas Divinagracia, chief of vascular and endovascular surgery at Hartford Hospital, performed two six-hour surgeries on Becker, using veins to reconstruct her arteries. “We found the one superstar that was capable of doing an insane surgery that has never really been done,” Becker says.
She returned to Alabama this spring, calling it mentally the most difficult thing she’s ever done. Becker gave the medal from that race to Dr. Divinagracia when she got home. “Her willingness to continue to fight through everything has been a delight,” Divinagracia says.
XTERRA made an exception for Becker and carried over her qualifying spot from last year to this year. She’s been training hard with her coach, Ed Vescovi, and trying to physically, and mentally, build herself back up. But Becker isn’t going there to win. She’s going because she earned it, and because she wants to conquer a seemingly insurmountable adversity most couldn’t fathom.
“Every damn day I am so grateful for the ability to move now,” Becker says. “I am so grateful I still have my legs.”