On the trail of multiple sclerosis
Colorado Trail Jamboree scheduled to raise awareness and funds

SideStory: Take the Colorado Trail challenge

by Missy Votel

Durango climber and mountain biker Ian Altman is asking cyclists to go the extra mile in the fight against multiple sclerosis - 79 miles to be exact.

Altman, 33, an instructor at Colorado Timberline Academy, has become a dedicated activist in the fight against the disease since being diagnosed with it nine years ago. Last summer, he rode the grueling 79-mile stretch of the Colorado Trail from Molas Pass to Durango in a day to raise awareness about the disease. The ride was done in conjunction with CT4MS, a team from Denver that raised money for the MS Society by hiking the 471-mile trail. This summer, Altman will be taking the effort one step further by asking local riders to join him on the Colorado Trail ride over two days, July 15-16.

"It was probably one of the coolest MS things I've ever done," said Altman of the trip. Although it was beset with mechanicals and one of the members of his three-man party got lost, the group still managed to finish in 12½ hours. "Last year inspired me, and with the energy that biking carries in Durango, I decided to go for it."

Riders in the Colorado Trail Jamboree, as Altman has coined it, will be asked to raise at least $100 in pledges for the Jimmy Heuga Center in Vail. The nationally known nonprofit center is dedicated to helping people and families with MS live full, productive lives. It was founded in 1984 by Jimmy Heuga, an Olympic ski racer with MS who served as an inspiration for Altman.

"When I was 24, I found out I might have a lifelong debilitating disease," Altman said. "One of the first things I did was get in touch with Jimmy Heuga, and he gave me a lot of great ideas on how to deal with the disease."

The Heuga Center's approach to treatment focuses on healthy living and fitness, as well as positive mental attitude in keeping the disease and its symptoms at bay. In 2002, Altman attended the Heuga Center's "Can Do" program, where he said he learned how to manage his disease, maintain his health and emotional well-being, and most importantly, focus on what he could do instead of what he could not.

"Jimmy Heuga subscribes to an active living theory, and he has proven that it works," Altman said.

Indeed, some may argue that Altman himself is testament to the approach. With regular cardiovascular exercise coupled with a regimen of the MS drug Copaxone, Altman manages to lead an active outdoor lifestyle that includes biking, skiing and climbing. He also is a member of Team Copaxone, a group of athletes with MS that is sponsored by the drug company. Since being diagnosed, Altman has summited numerous big peaks, everywhere from South America to British Columbia.

Altman said the goal of the Colorado Trail Jamboree is to provide scholarships to Four Corners residents to attend the Heuga Center's program. "It costs about $2,000," he said, "there's no reason why we can't raise that."

But perhaps even more importantly, Altman said the goal of the event is to raise awareness of the disease in the hopes that some day it may lead to better treatments and even a cure.

MS is a chronic and unpredictable disorder of the central nervous system and thought to be an autoimmune condition. It takes place when the body's white blood cells attack myelin, the protective sheathing covering nerves. The ensuing inflammation causes scarring of the sheathing, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. One person may experience abnormal fatigue while another might have trouble with balance and coordination or experience numbness. Still another may experience cognitive issues, blurred vision or paralysis.

The disease is the leading neurological disease among young people and affects twice as many women as men and is most common among Caucasians. For unknown reasons, MS is most prevalent in northern latitudes, with Colorado considered one of the "hot spots" for the disease. According to the MS Society, one in every 625 Coloradoans has the disease, whereas in Southern states, it affects only about one in 10,000.

As Priscilla Mangnall, of the Western Slope branch of the National MS Society, points out, this may just be the tip of the iceberg. "Our statistics come from the people we know about. But we do know there are a lot more people out there."

Altman said he is amazed at the increasing number of local people he has come across with the disease. "I'm meeting more and more people every day with MS," he said.

Despite the statistics, one thing all people who suffer from MS have in common is that the disease worsens. If completely untreated, it can be totally debilitating. And as Altman or anybody familiar with the disease will point out, MS affects more than just the victim, it affects family members, friends and entire communities. As a result, programs like the Heuga Center's even more vital.

"The Heuga Center also does a lot of work with the caregivers, or 'support partners,' which is really important," he said.

And as if these weren't enough reasons to participate, Altman points out that the route will take riders through the some of the San Juan Mountains' most breath-taking and remote scenery.

"It's one of the ultra classic big rides," he said.

But, he warned, the ride, much like the cause it supports, is not to be taken lightly.

"It's not for sissies," he said.



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