Keep Your Eye on the Prize: One Mountain Biker’s Race Against MS

Photo via Grace Ragland.
Photo via Grace Ragland.

Grace Ragland is an avid mountain bike racer, coach, IMBA-certified instructor, NICA league board member, Liv Ambassador, motivational speaker, and professional seamstress. She lives in Huntsville, Alabama, but spends an extended period of time in Colorado each summer to hang out and race her bike. She’s raced the Leadville 100 four times, the Breck Epic three times, the BC Bike Race, Laramie Enduro, Trans-Sylvania Epic, and a multitude of other races all over the country. She brought the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) to her hometown of Huntsville, and is currently the mountain bike coach and skills instructor for the team. She is a Level 2 IMBA-certified instructor, and she conducts small group clinics both in her hometown and in Colorado when she travels. She is also a former ultra runner, but switched to mountain biking because it was easier on her body. She’s committed to being active, fit, and paying it forward in whatever ways she can, both on and off the bike.

Oh, and by the way, Grace has MS.

Multiple Sclerosis, aka MS, is a neurological disease that results in unpredictable symptoms, including blurred vision or blindness, poor coordination or loss of balance, numbness, muscle tremors, extreme fatigue, and problems with memory and concentration. Its causes are still unknown, and it affects each patient differently. Symptoms may come and go, and may persist or worsen over time.

Grace’s disease manifests itself in vision issues, fatigue, and a much weaker right side than left. She struggles with balance and clumsiness. When she was growing up, her friends even joked about her being named Grace. You wouldn’t think these symptoms would be conducive to being a great mountain biker.

Photo via Grace Ragland.
Photo via Grace Ragland.

But this badass mountain bike diva has never let anyone or anything get in the way of her achieving her dreams. Not other people, doctors, society’s conventions, and certainly not MS.

When she was 10 years old, Grace lost vision in one eye. She experienced numbness in her legs and hands and was often too tired to play as much as she wanted to. But no one knew what was wrong until eight years later, when she got an official diagnosis. Grace’s mom gave her a stack of pamphlets, told her to read them, and then disregard everything they said. “You have MS, but you’re not going to dwell on it. You’re going to live life to the fullest.” Being the proper southern girl that she was, Grace obeyed: “yes, ma’am.”

That is what she did, and continues to do to this day. For years, Grace couldn’t even remember the name of the disease from which she supposedly suffered. She knew that she was different, that she struggled with things that other people didn’t, but that never stopped her from hiking, trail running, and later, mountain biking.

Grace fell in love with the sport in the early ’90s. She had been hiking in Yosemite a few years prior and seen her first mountain bike. Its owner let her try it out. “This is the funnest thing I’ve ever done,” was her reaction. Her first MTB was a size large Specialized Stumpjumper, which she rode on a regular basis with a group of guys, because there were no other women on the trails. She fell a lot, but always resisted tears or complaints. “I didn’t want to cry because I didn’t want the guys to not invite me back.”

She decided to try racing, and ended up winning her first one, the 17-mile Snake Creek Gap Time Trial in Georgia. This was an especially sweet victory, because she was just gaining her strength back after taking nearly a year off of riding her bike due to a particularly bad exacerbation of MS symptoms.

After that race, Grace was hooked. She started doing harder and harder events, including endurance and stage races. Her first stage race was the BC Bike Race. She’d always wanted to ride the trails there, and they didn’t disappoint.

More recently, Grace has become involved with NICA, and she is highly passionate about getting kids on bikes. She also loves teaching MTB skills clinics and encouraging women to ride. She’s extremely active as an MS advocate, inspiring others to live successful lives with the disease and push through whatever setbacks they encounter.

Photo via Grace Ragland.
Photo via Grace Ragland.

Over the years, through trial and error, Grace was able to figure out what works for her and makes her feel better–eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of rest, finding a disease-modifying therapy that lessens her symptoms, and riding as often as possible. Though she still has to live with MS on a daily basis, she doesn’t let it get her down.

Grace swears by the power of positive thinking, being happy, smiling and laughing a lot, and focusing on the cans, not the can’ts. Her goal every day is to “keep her eye on the prize,” whether it’s finishing a 100-mile mountain bike race, making a difference in the lives of budding cyclists, or even just getting out of bed when she’s not feeling well. Grace reiterates the importance of keeping up momentum (which she likes to call “mo”). “You gotta have ‘mo,'” she says, as she relates tackling a gnarly rock garden on a mountain bike to getting through life in general. “If you slow down, obstacles are going to take you out.”

Now stop making excuses and go ride your bike.