Take 5: MTB pro and MS survivor Grace Ragland at her first Copper Triangle
2016 Copper Triangle
What: An annual road ride on a classic Colorado route with three mountain passes (Fremont Pass, Tennessee Pass and Vail Pass) to benefit the Davis Phinney Foundation, a Parkinson’s nonprofit founded by the Boulder pro cyclist
When: Saturday, Aug. 6 beginning at 8:30 a.m.
Where: Copper Mountain start and finish
Cost: $155 on-site only
Registration is still available on Friday from 4-8 p.m. or Saturday from 5:30-8 a.m. at the Copper Conference Center. Registration includes a custom jersey, on-course support, a post-even lunch, swag bag and more. A portion of all proceeds benefits the Davis Phinney Foundation. For more info on the event, including course maps and distances, see the website at http://www.coppertriangle.com.
“This is my home away from home, I feel,” Grace Ragland told me from Leadville on a rainy afternoon two days before the Copper Triangle. “I love the cool temperatures. You don’t get that in Tennessee. I think it’s about 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity right now.”
Ragland’s lungs, on the other hand, were still at home in the muggy lowlands of her native Knoxville. She flew into Colorado about a week ago for a slate of women’s mountain bike clinics at 10,200 feet — a clever way to prep her body for the Copper Triangle, a 78-mile road ride she tackles today with 3,000 fellow cyclists — and spent the past few days riding her favorite Colorado trails. At 55 years old, the pro mountain biker is no stranger to the demands of traveling for races, but the Rocky Mountain altitude still takes a toll on her breathing.
“I feel like I’m so out of shape and I’m not,” she said in a soft and disarming Southern accent. “You try to ride with your friends and talk, and it’s just so hard up here.”
Not like it’s about to slow her down. Ragland learned early on to take things in stride, beginning with one of the most unexpected moments of her life: At 10 years old, she was diagnosed with a relapsing form of multiple sclerosis. She noticed the symptoms early on — numb fingers, loss of vision, weakness on her entire right side — and, back then, she says few people recognized MS for what it was, even doctors.
“I have this super-cool, eccentric mom who made it more of a game than a worry for me,” said Ragland, who had her first spinal tap before she was a teenager. “Next thing I knew I was at a hospital to make new friends and help them feel better, when really I was also there for treatment.”
It might have spelled the end of an active life long before Ragland ever went pro, but that was never in the cards. In 1992, she bought her first mountain bike and was instantly hooked.
‘Think about it: In the south, I had one of the very first mountain bikes, and I was the only female riding bikes there,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone to teach me when I was riding with the guys. It’s amazing I didn’t kill myself. I learned everything the hard way, but I wanted to pay it forward.”
In 2006, right after a year of sickness spurred by her MS symptoms, Ragland entered her first mountain bike race — and won. Again she was hooked, and soon enough she was competing in ultra-endurance races like the Breck Epic and Leadville 100 MTB, even when she had to hike-a-bike on steep stretches with her “Elvis leg,” her term for a numb right side. She also got certified to teach clinics through the International Mountain Biking Association — she’s been teaching for 20 years, some 15 years before IMBA introduced a curriculum — and now splits her time between racing and ladies-only workshops.
Today is Ragland’s first time riding the Copper Triangle. It’ll take a toll on her lungs, for sure, but that’s never stopped her before.
Summit Daily News: This weekend is your first time tempting the Copper Triangle, right?
Grace Ragland: Yes, it will be. I’ve done bits and pieces of it before but never all at the same time. I’m super excited about it. This is kind of scary: we go over three mountain passes, and even though I’m an endurance rider I’m not sure about it. I’ve completed two double centuries since March — that’s two 100 milers in a day — and so 78 miles doesn’t seem so bad. But you add the attitude and it makes such a difference. Right off the gate we’re going up Fremont Pass (laughs).
SDN: Does the route itself make you nervous, or is it all the elevation?
GR: Well, that’s the thing, is attitude. If you don’t have the right attitude and somewhat a level of fitness, you don’t do something like this. The main thing that worries me is the altitude combined with distance. I’ve done the Leadville 100 four times and I do not like that race. I checked that box and don’t plan to do it again. That race is just so hard on me — it’s hard on anyone, but you factor in my age and the fact I have MS, and it just hurts.
SDN: Have you done much road riding in Colorado? I’m wondering if altitude impacts mountain bikers and road cyclists differently.
GR: Well, the Leadville 100 is a mountain bike race, but what’s interesting is that it is very similar to a “gravel grinder” — it’s not very technical singletrack. It’s very similar to road biking and I’ve done a lot of training rides in Colorado. I like to bring my road bike into the mountains. This will be my first organized road bike event. I’m excited for it.
SDN: Why the Copper Triangle for your first road ride?
GR: The course is familiar. I’m used to the area, and when you add the challenge of a 78-mile ride with the logistics of getting here (and) getting around, it can be frustrating. I like to keep things simple — it’s just better that way — and I’ve had friends in the past who spoke so highly of this event. I figured, “This year is the year.” I did the double centuries and I was ready for it. I’m not the fastest out there, but I can ride for days and days and days at a snail’s pace.
SDN: Will you stick around for the Leadville 100? It’s only a week away.
GR: Yes, I think I will. I’ve developed so many lifelong friends just from doing that race and from racing the Breck Epic, and for the first time I’ll have the chance to support some friends at the race. Being on the other end of game will be fun. When you’re supporting an experienced rider they have their own personal nutrition. It’s about, “Let those who ride, decide.” Everyone has something that works for them — just because it works for me doesn’t mean it works for them.
When you get to the aid stops, you need to refuel, you need to lube your chain — the course is very dusty — and so it becomes like a NASCAR pit stop. You really want to limit your time. You get in, you get out and you go. The support crew helps with all of that: someone lubes the chain, someone applies sunscreen, someone is counting down to keep the transition at three minutes.
SDN: You started your career as a mountain biker. Do you still compete in MTB events?
GR: Mountain biking gets in your blood. I plan to ride my bike until I absolutely cannot, and biking has kept me healthy and happy. I share that with my friends. It’s a common attitude all of us cyclists share. I still compete, I do, but this is the first year I haven’t raced in Colorado in years. I was out here for 7 or 8 years in a row, and I decided I wanted to do something different with the Copper ride.
In September, I’ll be doing g the Shenandoah 100. It’s one of the National Ultra Endurance Series races, so it’s long, it’s technical, and that’s exactly what I love. I also love that I don’t have to fight against the altitude. And, everybody that knows me as a mountain biker knows I’m technical rider. That’s what I learned on: roots and rocks. My first mountain bike race I just killed it on the roots and rocks, thinking, “Well, that was easy.”
SDN: Talk about your history with MS: You were diagnosed more than three decades ago but didn’t let it interrupt your life.
GR: Well, I had my first symptoms when I was 10, optic neuritis. I lost the vision in my right eye, and when you’re 10 years old you tell your mom about it. I have this super-cool, eccentric mom who made it more of a game than a worry for me. Next thing I knew I was at a hospital to make new friends and help them feel better, when really I was also there for treatment. I had my first spinal tap at 10 years old. I was so sick that I didn’t want to wear my pajamas — I just slept in my normal clothes.
From age 10 to 18 I had a lot going on with my MS symptoms that I just didn’t notice, but my parents knew all about it. When I turned 18, I graduated high school, my dad passed away from melanoma after 11 months, and then, as a freshman in college, I was doing the typical college thing. I had an exacerbation that put me in the hospital and had another spinal tap. They told my mother (my MS diagnosis) and she waited about a week before she told me. She was armed with information from the local MS society and she told me, “You have MS. I want you to read it, get informed, and then throw it away and never think of it again.”
I don’t know life without MS at this point. I have symptoms, but I don’t know what it would be like to not have numb feet. I still have that on and off, and I’ve had that for years. I’ve had the same thing in my hands. But has it slowed me down? Maybe, I don’t know, but on Saturday I’m going to ride my bike 78 miles in the Copper Triangle.
SDN: What’s been the toughest part about competing with MS?
GR: Well, if you ride with me during a race you might notice. The one thing that drives me bat-crazy is my right leg. You know, mountain bikers always have to get on and off their bikes. In Colorado, the thing that takes me off the bike is the altitude. If I’m in the Breck Epic on those high sections, I’m having to push a bike and drag my right leg at the same time. I call it my Elvis leg, and it sucks (laughs).
I’m a competitive person, and I think, “If I didn’t have to deal with this leg I would get up that hill 15 or 20 minutes faster.” But then I start thinking, “I’m on this mountain and there are a lot of people who are sitting at home feeling sorry for themselves.”
SDN: Do you feel like the diagnosis made you a better athlete, or maybe a more determined athlete?
GR: That’s hard to answer, and it’s because I don’t know any differently. I ride and train with a lot of people who don’t have any sort of health adversity. I also train and ride with people, like a dear friend, who have asthma, and both of us don’t know any differently.
I really don’t know if it encourages me. I think, if I took my MS away, I would still be doing the same thing. I think it’s my personality that helps — I’m the type who doesn’t quit. I have wondered if I would be faster or better without MS, but I don’t dwell on it. I thought, “If I can just encourage one person, that is all I need.” There are a lot of people who think there is no hope when they’re diagnosed, but there is. You have to take the bull by the horns.
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