The ride of her life

Marjorie Perry isn’t giving in to MS, she's putting her all into finding a cure

The ride of her life

Marjorie and Greg Perry begin their 34-mile ride through Callaway Gardens, flanked by members of Team (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

The bike with the basket of pansies breezes past the finish line, a smooth stop on a difficult journey for Marjorie Perry.

To the sounds of “Mustang Sally” coming from a nearby tent, Perry and her husband Greg Perry get off the tandem bike they pedaled in the Bike MS: Atlanta Ride 2008, sponsored by the Georgia Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The pansies are Marjorie Perry’s signature touch, which her husband endures with good humor.

“I always ride with pansies on my bike, so, poor Greg,” Perry (AB ’91, MA ’93) says with a smile as she takes off her helmet and runs a hand across her sweaty cheek.

A UGA graduate, Perry’s hobby was to push her body to its limits. She conquered marathons and triathlons, hikes and multi-day adventure races, like the one in Fiji where she built her own boat and spent a week trekking through the jungles on only a couple of hours of sleep each night.

So when the sporty blonde powerhouse was diagnosed in 2004 with multiple sclerosis, an incurable disease that strikes the central nervous system, it was a shocking blow.

To Marjorie Perry, now 41, it only seemed natural to turn to an athletic event to fight the progressively debilitating condition.

She channeled her competitive juices into teambuilding and fundraising for the Bike MS tour at Callaway Gardens. The annual event culminates in a two-day bike ride that participants individually tailor from 25 to 165 miles.

Last year, Marj@Large, Perry’s friends and family team that sports the well-known flower basket logo, registered 53 cyclists and raised just over $53,000, the fourth highest fundraiser in the Georgia competition. Team Marj@Large raised more money than teams from corporate giants such as UPS, AT&T, Georgia Power, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. and KPMG.

Ailena Gibby Parramore, development manager for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Georgia Chapter, said that of 80 “outstanding” team captains for the Bike MS tour, Perry “just shines.” Parramore has been to Perry’s house to help organize jersey orders and marvels at how Perry balances a household bumping with three kids, a dog and countless charitable obligations.

“I’ve never seen her use MS as a crutch,” Parramore says. “I’ve never seen her stop. I’ve seen her push through during times when her MS has flared up, and it only made her push harder.”

This year, as the mid-September bike tour approached, Perry—who often uses a cane to compensate for her increasingly immobile right leg—realized for the first time her body was not up to the task of cycling alone. She made the difficult decision to ride tandem with her husband.

“Someone saw us riding tandem and said, ‘wherever your [relationship is] headed, you’ll get there faster,’” said Perry, after finishing the Bike MS ride. “I said, ‘That’s so true.’ ”

The diagnosis

About 400,000 people in the United States have MS and 200 more are diagnosed each week. The disease affects more women than men, and most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Perry’s symptoms began in 2003, when she was 36. Her vision had become blurry and an eye doctor couldn’t seem to correct it. She battled an unexplained case of the shingles, which was not related to MS. During the 2004 Peachtree Road Race, she lost mobility in her right leg and, uncharacteristically, rested at a Publix and ate “a doughnut or two” before finishing the run dragging her leg behind her.

“It was very discouraging,” Perry says. “I went from running marathons and full-day adventures to barely finishing the race.”

A chiropractor told her she had problems with her sciatic nerve, and a massage therapist said something was wrong with her iliotibal band, a common injury to the outside of the thigh. An osteopath thought she had an issue with her lower back. It was an orthopedic doctor who took an MRI and finally sent her to a neurologist. The MRI confirmed the disease.

Though difficult to accept, it was almost a relief to have a reason for the myriad of mystery physical problems that had plagued her. Perry and her family were finally able to focus their energy on a known enemy.

“This is someone who never tired,” Greg Perry says. “I was always wondering how I would keep up with her for the rest of my life, and unfortunately I’m keeping up with her now.”

A family affair

A stay-at-home mother, Perry has two boys, Ben, 10, and Galen, 14, and a daughter, Sarah Miller, 15, a relative whom the Perrys adopted in 2006. All three children wake at 5:30 on Saturday mornings to ride their bikes 30 miles, sometimes more. After the training rides, the family usually stops at McDonald’s for a spirited lunch.

The children recognize the need for a cure for MS. Galen asked his friends to bring donations to the MS Society instead of presents to his birthday party. After one year with the Perry family, Sarah biked 126 miles during the Bike MS tour. And Ben, the youngest, helps his mother get through some of her most challenging days by sweeping the kitchen floor and setting the table. Perry let Ben ride 125 miles in the MS tour last year, before a junior race was implemented.

“Most people don’t let their 8- or 9-year-olds do that,” Ben says.

An early commitment

Perry, who lives in Marietta, worked her way through UGA by waiting tables at downtown restaurants.

“I loved hanging out on the old part of campus around the big trees, throwing a Frisbee and then hiding out in a corner of the library and studying into the wee hours,” she says. “It was in my mind the perfect college experience.”

She received her undergraduate degree in political science in 1991 and a master’s degree in social science education in 1993. She relished classes with political science professors Charles Bullock and Arnold Fleischmann, and worked on a campaign for former Athens Mayor Gwen O’Looney. She was youth director at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, participated in Students for Environmental Awareness and discovered her love of the outdoors during backpacking and canoeing classes at the university.

In more recent years, her involvement in her children’s education and charitable causes keeps her schedule packed. Before she was diagnosed with MS she helped organize events for the American Cancer Society, the Leukemia Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

A winning team

In 2004, Mark Neville, manager of property accounting at The Coca-Cola Company, started the company’s Bike MS team, which is one of only three teams that beat Perry’s fundraising feat last year. He and Perry serve together on the board of MS Cycling Inc., and he remarked that Perry has “created something people can connect with.”

“She’s a cyclist with a basket full of flowers on the front of her bike,” Neville says. “That’s not your normal cyclist image. … The image she’s portraying is the image you really want when you’re fundraising—you’re enjoying yourself.”

And Neville can’t help but enjoy himself when he’s around Perry. After each race, while other teams scatter, Perry’s team members gather for an awards ceremony. Last year she gave Neville a spray-painted gold Coke bottle.

After the race this year, Perry opens the back of her family’s minivan to reveal a stash of bejeweled and gold-painted awards for her team members and friends. She has a gold clock for a family that’s notoriously late and a spray-painted apron (with rhinestones, of course) for the “mom of the year.” She has pom-poms for the most enthusiastic new riders and candy in the shape of baby bottles for her two youngest team members.

Perry has built a growing community. As of the race this year, she had 81 team members who she expected to raise at least $55,000. She is motivated by the idea that she can help change the future for the 8,500 Georgians and 400,000 Americans battling the disease. She knows the insidiousness of MS firsthand—the way it strikes people in the prime of their lives, creeping in with relentless energy. Although she says she does not experience much pain, her limping gait, fatigue and the threat of decreasing mobility loom over her.

“If I didn’t have MS tomorrow, I would never do another marathon, and I would never do another adventure race,” she says. “But I would take the handicap sign off my car, I would park in the very last spot in the parking lot and I would walk without a cane. I would take hikes with my kids and climb mountains, just for the sake of climbing mountains.”

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About the Author

—Kate Carter is a freelance writer living in Atlanta.