• Race against MS drives Ragland
    By Linda Freeman
    CORRESPONDENT | October 13,2013
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    Grace Ragland
    Grace Ragland traveled from her home in Hunstville, Ala., to compete in the Vermont 50 Mountain Bike competition in Brownsville last month. However, it is the race against MS that drives Ragland. It is sharing her story and courage (or is it sheer gumption?) that, to Ragland, makes her life matter.

    A young woman’s teen years can be difficult enough, but for Ragland, her 18th year was life-altering. A variety of symptoms led to a diagnosis of RRMS (relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis). Though dubbed the most common form of MS, there is nothing ordinary about the flare-ups, or exacerbations, that sideline even the most determined.

    Periods of remission allow partial or complete recovery. It is during these times that the person suffering with RRMS must take advantage of the remission and live a life replete with functional, health-sustaining habits of exercise, nutrition, hydration and practices designed to combat one of the more insidious and persistent byproducts of RRMS, that of fatigue.

    Ragland chose to be physically active. Not only are strength and fitness important weapons in this contest, so, too, are the benefits of nutrition. Combined, exercise and appropriate fuel support healing, muscle repair and emotional stability thus helping to manage depression, maintain a healthy weight, and increase bone density.

    This sounds like a good idea for everyone, doesn’t it? In fact, Ragland views her role of advocacy not just as applied to and for people dealing with MS, but all who are able-bodied, disease-free or challenged by any number of discouragements.

    “I want to share my story,” Ragland said about others with MS. “I want to encourage them that once you wrap your brain around it, you can lead a normal life.”

    A significant part of Ragland’s “normal life” is mountain bike racing – especially over long distances, or ultras. Why MTB? “It just happened by default,” Ragland said. “I come from a family of campers and was always playing in the dirt. After college I rode my first MTB and thought ‘this is the coolest thing I have ever done. This is not just transportation.’”

    Ragland’s left leg is weak from the MS. “I tripped running on trails so MTB was a great match.” Because of her dropped foot, she found she could stay on the bike on trails, which put her on a level playing field with other riders. Perhaps play is the operative word, as MTB allows Ragland to “play in the woods.”

    As with anyone who MTB races, the going gets tough, but for Ragland it gets tougher. “In certain places you have to get off your bike and push,” Ragland said. “And you know what? Somebody has to be last. It is such a hoot. I’d rather say I tried than that I didn’t.”

    Fatigue often rears its ugliness. “I have been such a long time with MS,” Ragland said, “that I have learned to manage the symptoms. I know how important it is to take care of my self, diet and exercise. I stay strong with exercise. Before I learned management, I took a lot of naps. I know that I must get at least eight hours sleep and being an athlete I need to recover.”

    It is imperative to prioritize and learn management skills.

    Again, these are training and everyday truths that apply equally to the able-bodied. “This speaks to care-takers as well,” Ragland said.

    Everyone experiences an off-day and for Ragland, the off-days can be substantial. “I’ve even picked up my race packet,” she said, “and realized ‘I cannot race today.’ It is frustrating but I’ve had to learn to listen to my body and not beat myself up.”

    Ragland’s list of athletic achievements is long and impressive. One might stand out because of the layers of effort required. “The Leadville 100 is not my favorite,” she said. “It took four years to get the buckle (the coveted award to all who finish within the given time limit). I did not quit.” Ragland thought she had it in her third year, her third try, but, after all those months of training, she missed it by eight minutes. “I couldn’t believe I had to do it all again,” Ragland said. And she did. Rather than just leave it, she tried again.

    “I had trained super hard for the seven stages of the BC (British Columbia) Bike Race,” she said. “Six weeks before the Leadville 100 I was more fit than ever but fatigued from BC. Recovery takes more time with MS. But, ‘I can do anything for 12 hours,’” she told herself. Ragland finished 100 MTB miles in 11 hours, 47 minutes and received her buckle.

    This is just one of many stories Ragland tells, but in a heartbeat she will say, “My biggest accomplishment ever is that I am most proud of leaving MS in the dust.”

    Ragland is a gal with attitude. Perhaps it is her spirit that gets her where she is going. It is easy for just about anyone to blow off a workout, indulge in unhealthy lifestyle habits, back out of a commitment or quit before starting an opportunity that involves effort or instills jitters. It is all too common to say about someone who does reach for personal goals, “oh, it’s easy for him/her.” You simply cannot say that about Ragland or others who wear similar shoes or face like obstacles.

    Realizing that she has MS but must be active, always, Ragland said, “I get really frustrated with people who use Multiple Sclerosis as Multiple ‘Scuses. Also others.”

    What does Ragland say to these folks? “Keep your eye on the prize, whatever your goal.”
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