Going the distance for MS

Posted: Friday, June 21, 2002

Alaskans have a tendency to do things with Goliath-size proportions, and Eric Hart didn't break the mold in planning the first Alaska 600 Multiple Sclerosis Bike Tour.

"We don't do anything small up here," said Hart who has orchestrated the entire 600-mile race. "I knew I wanted to do something big. "

Hart, who raced in marathons and circuits as a young cyclist in New York, got back into biking last summer. It was then that he decided he wanted to do something combining bicycling and fund raising for multiple sclerosis.

"My girlfriend has it, my father, brother, girlfriend's sister, neighbor all have MS," said the Nikiski resident. "It was a no-brainer who I was going to do it for."

Natalie Ringland, Hart's girlfriend, is an ambassador for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. In this capacity, she encourages people to utilize the organization's services and just generally put a face to the disease, said Pattie Scales the program specialist for the Alaska division of the society.

"This is a disease that not only affects and infects (patients), but every component of their life," said Scales. "I think it is wonderful when family members and caregivers get involved."

Because Hart deals with the disease on a personal level, he said he started planning a solo trip. But after a lot of people around the Kenai Peninsula voiced interest in participating, the tour became a group event spanning 600 miles in six days.

"I wanted to work with the MS society to organize a bike tour that would take riders through the heart of Alaska while raising money to fight this insidious disease that affects, friends, colleagues and members of my own family," Hart wrote in a press release on the trip's Web site.

Ten cyclists, followed by Ringland and another volunteer driving supply vehicles, will begin their tour at 10 a.m. Saturday in Fairbanks. Throughout the next six days, they will move south through the Interior's flatlands and rolling hills, the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, the urban landscape of Anchorage toward the peninsula and the group's final destination -- Homer.

Hart said he plans to enter the peninsula sometime on Wednesday, but weather, road conditions and traffic could affect the group's progress.

Even though 1,043 Alaskans have MS, 158 living on the peninsula, this trip is the first race to raise money for MS in the state. Before Hart, Alaska and Hawaii were the only two states without at least one of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's annual 150-mile, two-day rides.

Next year, with more time to plan and publicize the event, Hart said he hopes to have more involvement from the state's chapter of the national society, although the tour will not decrease in length.

Hart said he hopes to get riders from all over the state, the nation and perhaps from other countries. Already, through word of mouth, interested cyclists from as far away as Rhode Island and Ohio have approached him wanting to ride in next summer's tour.

Thus far, Hart and his team of cyclists have raised more than $5,000. People can continue to pledge money through this week and next as they ride, by logging onto the Web site at www.alaska600.org.

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