Firecracker 50 about more than titles
summit daily news
Summit County, Colorado
FRISCO – Grace Ragland refuses to lose.
Every time she gets on her mountain bike, all she thinks about is pedaling past the opponent she feels at her back wheel.
“Losing just isn’t an option,” she said.
Of course, she’s not talking about podium places or medals – although she has quite a few of those.
No, Ragland’s talking about beating the disease she was diagnosed with at 18, the disease she refuses to let control her life.
She’s talking about multiple sclerosis.
“I like to visualize that, sometimes, MS is right behind me and I have to pedal harder,” said Ragland, now 49. “I challenge it every day to catch me and I can’t let it beat me. And I haven’t let it, ever.”
That driving desire – along with her competitive nature – is the reason Ragland has competed in so many races across the country in the last four years. And that’s the reason she’s come all the way from her home in Alabama to Summit County this weekend.
Along with 750 other fat-tire enthusiasts, Ragland will take off in Sunday’s Firecracker 50 mountain bike race in Breckenridge.
The race, which starts on Main Street as the opener of the Fourth of July parade, takes competitors on a rugged and technical 25-mile loop through the trails surrounding Breck. Competitors lap through Carter Park before heading out on the second go-around, eventually ending the 50-mile slugfest back at the park.
The Firecracker, now a local staple of the holiday, also serves as the U.S.A. Cycling Marathon MTB National Championships. So, along with a number of amateur riders, some of the sport’s biggest names will be competing for the title of national champion in a number of divisions.
That’s not what Ragland’s after, though.
John Dunbar was the person who first got Ragland on a pair of fat tires in 1992. He was also the same person that gave Ragland the most critical piece of riding advice she ever received.
After watching her struggle with her balance on the bike, Dunbar told Ragland the best way to handle the momentum of a quick turn or downhill stretch is to simply push through it, let the bike right itself; momentum is your friend.
Little did Dunbar know, that a simple riding tip would turn out to be the best advice he could’ve given himself.
Dunbar and Ragland signed up for this weekend’s Firecracker together in March. Two days later, Dunbar was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to as Lou Gerhig’s Disease.
“Hearing that news,” Dunbar recalled, “well, it’s like getting a death sentence. You don’t know when (death) will come, but it’ll still come – sooner rather than later.”
Dunbar, in the “understatement of his life,” said the diagnosis was “devastating.”
He didn’t know what to do, and that’s when his good friend, Ragland, stepped in.
“I took some time, and then Grace just said to me, ‘Well, now what are you going to do?’ And I hadn’t even thought about it that way,” Dunbar said. “I didn’t even think about doing something about it or to not let it get the better of me.”
Now that simple riding tip he gave Ragland is the motto he lives by.
“If life gets you down,” he said, “turn into it, just push through it. You’ll be surprised by how good it turns out.”
While the top pro endurance riders in the country have their sights on one of the stars-and-stripes jerseys handed out to national champions at the Firecracker, both Ragland and Dunbar have a simple goal: finish the race.
Fifty miles isn’t just a ride in the park, though, and both feel the effects of their respective ailments. Heat wreaks havoc on Ragland’s MS, and Dunbar said his left hand has about “two-thirds” the strength of his right. He’s left-handed.
Still, that’s no reason to make excuses, Ragland said.
“People can always use excuses not to get things done,” she added. “The main thing is to take control and make sure it doesn’t control you.”
They’re in Breck this week with a number of close friends, and while the trip and the training have been therapeutic for getting them through a tough stretch the past few months, both find it more important to set an example this week for anyone who faces obstacles in their lives.
Ragland said, with today’s technology and research, she likely would have been diagnosed with MS at age 10. Back then, she said, the prognosis was bleak.
“They assumed you’d be living life out of a wheelchair,” she said.
Today, diet and exercise are a crucial part to fighting off the debilitating effects of MS. She also takes a daily shot of Copaxone, which happens to be her team sponsor (along with Titan bikes).
Although she enjoys winning races, Ragland said she does what she does for any other “little girl” out there that may have gotten the same diagnosis she did, for someone else that’s looking for hope.
“I would show her, hopefully by example, how much fun I’m having, and I would tell that young girl to look at me now,” she said. “I was diagnosed young, and it never got in my way. Not one time.”
Bryce Evans can be reached at (970) 668-4634 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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