Friday June 19th, 2009

At some point, the nightmare ends. Doesn't it?

At some point, Carrie Larsen wakes up, drenched in sweat, then rolls over and sees her husband lying in bed next to her. She takes a deep breath, because everything is fine after all. It was just a dream. An awful dream.

"That's how I feel," she says. "I want to wake up."

Maybe, just maybe, Carrie is on to something. Maybe this isn't real. Maybe you're not reading and I'm not writing. Maybe this is merely a warped figment of someone's imagination; a fleeting tragic thought to be otherwise filed away with the 1,500 other dreams humans average per year. We've all had these, right? The ones that seem so inescapably real until -- Ring! Ring! Ring! -- the alarm snaps us to attention.

How can Steve Larsen be dead? Yes, across the world 39-year-olds die every day. But they are diseased or risk takers or 400-pound smokers with high cholesterol. Steve Larsen is ... was a 39-year-old elite ultra-athlete; the model of health and vigor and stamina. He has never failed a physical or been told to take it easy. Why, just last month at the XTERRA Las Vegas triathlon (a 1.5K swim, a 30K mountain bike and a 10K trail run), Larsen placed sixth. "Pretty darn good for a father of five working two jobs and approaching age 40," says Michael Nyberg, his friend and partner in real estate and apparel ventures. "I can assure you the top five finishers all train full-time. With Steve, it was more of a hobby."

For those who pay no attention to cycling and triathlons, Steve Larsen is merely a name. Yet within the world of endurance sports, he is near-legend. Beginning in the late-1980s, the native Californian competed in some of the world's greatest cycling events (in 1993, he helped an obscure teammate named Lance Armstrong win the world road championships -- his first world title). When, in the mid-1990s, he switched to mountain biking, peers were dumbfounded. "People don't get how hard that transition is," says Scott Tinley, a two-time winner of the Ironman World Championship. "It confused some, because that type of adaptability is rare." Larsen won national cross-country titles in 1997 and 2000, and in 2001 -- on a competitive lark -- took up triathlon. He qualified for the Ironman world championships in his first try, and is the only American to compete in the world championships for road, mountain bike, track, cyclocross and triathlon. "To put it simply," says Tinley, "Steve was uniquely determined and very, very gifted."

So, again, how can this be real? Why should we believe the events of May 19, when Larsen collapsed during an ordinary track workout near his home in Bend, Oregon, leaving behind a wife and five children? At the time, Carrie was giving a bath to the couple's 2-year-old twins, when a neighbor came running over. "Steve is in the hospital!" she said. "You have to go right now!"

Carrie rushed to nearby St. Charles Hospital, and when the ambulance carrying her husband had yet to arrive, she assumed that perhaps the injuries were not so serious. "Maybe it was mild," she says. "Why take your time if it's such a big deal?" Before long, however, she was told the impossible. Steve Larsen, age 39, was dead. The man with a ceaseless heart had died of heart disease.

Wait. What?

This wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening. Carrie and Steve were meant to be together; to grow old together; to raise children and, one day, grandchildren together. They first met when she was in the fourth and he the fifth grade at North Davis Elementary School in Davis, California. "We started dating when I was 16," she says. "And never broke up." In the early 1990s, Carrie starred as a setter for the Stanford women's volleyball team as Steve traveled back and forth from Italy, where he was trying to establish himself in cycling. "They were wonderful together," says Bev Oden, Carrie's college teammate and roommate. "She was cool and calm and unflappable all the time, and Steve would come to visit and he'd just be this big ray of sunshine. The two of them were a package deal from the beginning. There was no question they would last."

In the days and weeks since Steve's passing, the five stages of grief have stalled at disbelief. It is easier to accept death when one's final moments are spent lying in a hospital bed, a monitor beeping away the remaining moments. But those who know Steve Larsen best expect to see him at the next competition, eyes locked in, determination on high.

In fact, they might have indeed caught a glimpse of him last weekend, when a Larsen entered the Dirty Half, a rugged 13.1-mile race through some of Bend's toughest trails. With characteristic grittiness, Massimo Larsen -- Steve's second-oldest child -- came through, charging across the finish line in just under two hours.

"Massimo is only 11, and he never ran that distance before," says Carrie. "I really didn't feel comfortable, but Steve had insisted that he'd be fine; that we needed to let him give it a try."

In the ensuing days, some have suggested that Steve was running alongside his son; a quiet, invisible companion there to watch over the boy.

"I don't know," says Carrie. "But it's a nice thought.

"A really nice thought."

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