By Brad Shepard
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Every day for the past 30 years, Grace Ragland has climbed a figurative mountain while battling the recurring effects of multiple sclerosis.
Eventually, she decided to start climbing real ones. And she got good at it.
The 48-year-old Chattanooga native who lives in Huntsville is one of the top over-30 female mountain bikers in the United States.
Near her hometown, she has won races in Dalton, Ga., and the Ocoee area, and she will be in the Southeastern Race Conference's Raccoon Mountain Race this Sunday. She recently won the Bump 'N' Grind in Birmingham.
"I'm an old chick, I have MS and I'm still kickin' butt," she said. "You have to have control of MS. It doesn't have control of me. You cannot use MS as an excuse."
After being diagnosed at 18 with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis -- a lifelong, debilitating neurological disorder characterized by numbness, pain and extreme fatigue -- Ragland refused to let the disease define her. Instead, she immersed herself in walking, marathon running and, eventually, competitive biking.
She used the disease as motivation to help her get through days when the pain or fatigue was so great she didn't want to get out of bed. She was determined to live her life despite it.
"She's to be commended," said Dr. Emily Riser, Ragland's Birmingham-based neurologist. "She's truly an amazing person. In a weird way, the MS has helped enrich her life. It's made her better at the things she does because she works extra hard at them."
Last year, Ragland won the Tennessee Bike Race Association women's division and finished second in the women's 30-plus division at the USA Cycling Championship finals in Vermont.
"I went there to win it," said Ragland, who credits a lot of her success to the endurance training of Chattanooga's Kimberly Flynn Fasczewski. "If I wouldn't have gone to win, I wouldn't have gotten second. It was the hardest thing I've ever done."
That covers a lot of obstacles.
When Ragland was a freshman at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she began noticing numbness on the insides of her legs while walking to class. This wasn't the first sign that something was wrong -- those came years before -- but it was the symptom that led to her diagnosis.
Her father -- longtime UTC director of bands Barry Jones -- had died of cancer the previous November. Naturally, Grace's diagnosis was difficult on her mother, Rosemary, but there would be no giving in.
"I would attribute the root of her attitude to when she was first diagnosed with it, my mom said we were not going to let it get us down," said Andy Jones, Ragland's brother who is on the Chattanooga Bicycle Club board of directors. "And Dad, he was a totally can-do person, and that rubbed off on her, too."
Ragland transferred to the University of Alabama, got married, had a son and began a full adult life. It wasn't until a full-blown flare-up that consumed most of 2005 that MS really showed Ragland what it could do. She couldn't walk or ride a bike and could barely teach aerobics, having to do that from a chair.
It took a year of treatments and a lot of support from friends and family to get her through the ordeal, she said, but she modified her diet, continued stressing daily exercise and began searching for a new drug that would help stave off the symptoms. She began Copaxone injections, which have worked so well that she has become a spokesperson for the drug.
"I've never been where I said, 'No more. I'm throwing in the towel,'" Ragland said. "But I dealt with depression, and I still deal with it sometimes. This is extremely not fun. You have to have a positive attitude and keep it. My glass is always half full."
It's a message she gets to deliver nationally after becoming the newest member of "Team Copaxone," a group of 10 MS-stricken athletes who speak to groups throughout the country.
"That's so right up her alley," Andy Jones said. "If she finds out somebody has MS, she's all over it trying to help them. That's just as exciting to her as winning a mountain bike race."
Ragland still pushes to finish first, however, and she'd love nothing more than to do that in front of the home folks at Raccoon Mountain.
"I can't wait to race at home," she said. "To make the podium would be great, but you know what? I do want to win."
It's just another mountain to scale.