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Thousands of 'champions' ride for those who can't in Bike MS

Sunday, September 8, 2013 | 8:12 p.m. CDT; updated 1:23 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 24, 2013
A storm Sunday morning delayed the 2013 Bike MS ride by two hours, but many riders waited out the storm to complete the ride at the Central Missouri Events Center.

UPDATE: A previous version of this article misstated the name of Shelly Ludwig Lovell.

COLUMBIA — She's in pain as she waits at the finish line. You can tell by the way she shifts her weight from leg to leg.

But she's always smiling, always cheering.

Most people see Shelly Ludwig Lovell as a volunteer, someone who's helping out at Bike MS. What they don't realize, she says, is that every cyclist on the course is helping her. She was diagnosed with MS in 1994.

That's why she's standing at the finish line, in pain but ready to hand out a medal to each member of her team and to any supporter who came out to Bike MS who wants a medal. After all, not everyone for whom this event matters is physically able to participate.

On Sunday, the local Bike MS event came to a close. During the course of the two-day multiple sclerosis fundraiser, Lovell almost never left her post at the finish line and never stopped congratulating the almost 3,000 participants who had already raised more than $1.4 million for her cause this year.

The money raised helps serve 6,900 people with MS in 90 counties in Missouri and Illinois and funds research on the disease, said Kathi Taylor, the senior executive assistant for the local MS chapter.

Multiple sclerosis is an often debilitating disease that attacks the central nervous system, according to the National MS Society's website. The myelin sheath surrounding nerve fibers is damaged, resulting in disrupted or distorted signals from the brain.

Lovell has relapsing-remitting MS, which means she has clearly defined attacks followed by recovery periods. During her first major MS episode, she lost all feeling and movement in the right side of her body. She has regained both since.

"The worst part is the uncertainty of when it will hit, where it will hit and how long it will hit," Lovell said.

When she gets up each morning, she tries to pinch her fingers together and wiggle her toes, just to see if they are working.

Lovell said when she was first diagnosed, there were no drugs for MS for her to take. Because of research as a result of fundraising, there are currently multiple drugs that can slow the progression of MS, Taylor said.

That's why the money raised at Bike MS is so crucial for people like Lovell. That's why she has been at the finish line each year for the last 15 years.

As of Sunday morning, this Bike MS had raised $1.4 million, said Daniel Friedman, director of marketing and communications for Bike MS. The chapter's goal is to raise $2.3 million by the time the fundraising window closes a month from now.

The cyclists that Lovell is waiting to greet at the Boone County fairgrounds are her "champions," a term that designates people who ride on behalf of a person diagnosed with MS. A paralegal in St. Louis, Lovell formed her team, the Monsanto Mavericks, in 2002.

This year, her team raised about $50,000 for the cause.

Although Lovell cannot ride — her MS causes balance problems that make riding difficult — more than 30 cyclists at this year's event had MS.

For one of them, this is her 13th year at Bike MS. Anita Klopfenstein hasn't missed a year since she started. Lovell was the volunteer who would help her stabilize the quad bike that Klopfenstein rode with her children as all of the cyclists climbed on.

Klopfenstein rode 40 miles both days of the event. Cyclists opted to ride 20-, 40-, 75- or 100-mile routes.

She doesn't ride the quad bike anymore; she's on her own on a light blue bicycle, equipped with a level that makes it possible for her to keep her balance. But her children still ride alongside her, and Lovell is still there to hand her a medal at the finish line. 

At the end, Lovell is always full of enthusiasm, even though she's in pain.

As Brian Bilyeu came in view on Sunday, he pedaled faster and faster towards the finish line with one of his teammates. He was tired and sweaty but had a grin on his face as he spotted Lovell.

He's one of her champions, and as he appeared, she shouted "That one's mine! That one's mine!" and ran forward with an armful of red-ribboned medals.

She ran despite the pain. The long hours she spent in the sun with temperatures in the mid-90s on Saturday exacerbated her MS symptoms. And the standing wears on her.

Last year her legs were too sore for her to walk after the two-day event. She expects the same to happen this year. 

But the money raised and the research it has funded, she said, is what makes it possible for her to keep on standing and cheering. And that's what makes it all worth it.

Supervising editor is Edward Hart.


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