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Pedaling through any challenges

Multiple sclerosis doesn't slow down couple when biking across Iowa
by: submitted photo West Linn residents Jane Brown, left, and Terry Paddon, who both have multiple sclerosis, pose for a photo during RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), a bike ride spanning the state of Iowa.

Terry Paddon and Jane Brown both have multiple sclerosis. Brown's is progressive. At times her symptoms are so severe, she suffers paralysis down her left side. Paddon's aren't as drastic and are mostly not visible to the average observer.

But MS is not what defines this couple from West Linn. It is their joy for life and their determination to not let the disease slow them down.

Paddon, 62, and Brown, 56, just returned to West Linn Aug. 1 after biking across Iowa.

They participated in the annual RAGBRAI (The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) ride July 24 to 30. The seven-day trek across the state averages more than 470 miles. It is the oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event in the world, according to the RAGBRAI website.

Brown's brother-in-law, who lives in Michigan, has completed RAGBRAI for the last 10 years. She said he was always talking about how great it was and that she and Paddon should do it with him and his wife this year.

Had he asked a few years earlier, however, the answer would have been 'no.'

According to the Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms include numbness, paralysis and loss of vision.

Paddon was diagnosed with MS while in her 20s. She suffered from numbness, infection of the optic nerves and fatigue for five years before she was officially diagnosed. She has also had several joints replaced, including her right knee and left hip. The other knee is next on the list.

Brown was diagnosed five years ago with primary progressive MS. She suffers weakness in her left arm and left leg. Several times a day, she suffers paralysis on her left side.

Although the couple enjoyed riding bikes prior to Brown's diagnosis, the advancement of MS prohibited her from balancing on a standard bike.

Then, she discovered recumbent tricycles. Don't think of a kid's tricycle here. These bikes are sleek, low to the ground and the third wheel provides the balance Brown needs.

The couple was back up and riding again, and the adventure of RAGBRAI sounded exciting.

Brown said she was always active in sports and that the MS required a lot of adjusting and limited her activity. But, she could ride her bike.

'For me, it was like, 'I want to complete this,'' Brown said. 'I really wanted to show myself that I could do it.'

After speaking with her neurologist and with a dietician, Brown got the go-ahead. Paddon said she wasn't as enthusiastic, but as training got under way, her excitement grew.

During training, the couple rode three to four times a week, about 25 miles per ride. On the weekends, they did a longer ride, building up to 50 miles. As the week-long ride involves camping in a tent every night along the way, the couple also needed to stock up on its cycling and camping gear.

'They went to REI at least once a week,' said their daughter, Adrianne Brown, 20. 'It was the only thing they talked about every day before they left.'

As the ride got closer, the anticipation grew.

'I felt like a kid getting ready to go to summer camp for the first time,' Brown said.

Finally, they were at the start line at 5:45 a.m. in Glenwood, Iowa, which is on the western border.

'We were just grinning from ear to ear,' said Brown describing the energy of the crowd of cyclists.

RAGBRAI caps at 8,500 cyclists. Often the crush of bikes causes accidents.

'It was a big rush,' Brown said.

The ride is known for passing through many small towns across Iowa. Many of the towns host the riders by offering food, accommodations, entertainment and lots of cheering.

'It was like a street fair in every little town,' Paddon said.

'It's like the circus is coming to town for them,' added Brown. 'They are so excited to see us.'

But it wasn't all fun. The hills were tough. So tough that Brown started counting them - 40 hills the first day and 52 the second day. Even in hilly West Linn, the couple said it wasn't prepared for the magnitude of the hills.

And then there was the heat and humidity. With temperatures in the 90s and low 100s, Brown and Paddon had to exercise extreme caution. Heat is one thing that exacerbates MS symptoms. Brown said she drank between 11 to 15 bottles of water and four to five bottles of sports drink every day of the ride. They also used ice packs to help stay cool.

Brown said she was able to continue riding even through bouts of paralysis thanks to a strong right leg and the tricycle. To help her get around off the bike, she stashed a collapsible cane where the tire pump normally goes.

Each morning of the ride, the couple got up around 4:30 a.m. and got on the road early so as to get as many hours of cool weather as possible. It averaged 11 to 12 hour days.

But it was worth every drop of sweat. They recalled seeing the sunrise each morning, the people they met and the stories they shared.

'As hard as it is, the people on RAGBRAI are happy. It's a week where you are smiling and laughing,' Brown said.

In the evenings, RAGBRAI set up tent cities in fields, school grounds, fairgrounds and city parks. Because the riders got up so early and exerted so much energy during the day, it was quiet after 8:30 p.m.

The ride ends on Iowa's eastern border, the Mississippi River. Tradition, marking the official end of the ride, is to dip your front tire into the Mississippi. Brown said she got chills when she reached the river, the magnitude of their accomplishment hitting her.

'I think that it was a great goal for them to reach for,' said Adrianne Brown. 'I'm proud of them. Not one time did they give up. They just kept pushing through.

'This is an inspiration for anyone battling a serious disease or disorder. Setting a long-term goal of RAGBRAI helped them tremendously because they could look to the future and not let the little obstacles in their lives get them down.'

Brown said the experiences of training and doing the ride have changed her.

'I feel healthier,' she said. 'I'm stronger, my body fat is down, my circulation is better and my walking is better. And now I know that, despite having a progressive form of MS, there are things I can do.'

Brown and Paddon enjoyed the adventure so much, they are already thinking of tackling it again next year. They might even be able to talk their daughter into joining them.