By Maribel Villalva
His shoulder hurts.
Nick Irons puts his left hand on his right shoulder and rotates his arm, grimacing because of the discomfort.
The pain is a tolerable remnant of his 1997 crusade, when he made a name for himself by swimming the length of the Mississippi River in four months to raise money and awareness for multiple sclerosis.
But the pain is not a deterrent. It serves as a reminder of his mission to raise enough money to find a cure for a disease that afflicts his father.
"I felt helpless," says Irons, 28. "This is my way of doing something for him."
On Monday, Irons began a second journey. But this time, instead of gliding through the heart of America on water, he is riding his bicycle for 10,000 miles around the perimeter of the nation in a fundraiser he has named "Going the Distance for MS." The starting point: Arlington, Va. He expects to complete the ride Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C., and hopes to raise $3 million in the process.
Along the way, Irons will make stops in big cities and small towns to talk about multiple sclerosis. And he estimates that, during the nearly five months, more than 5,000 other cyclists will join him at different points throughout the ride.
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease of the central nervous system, characterized by a variety of symptoms that can come and go, including slurred speech, numbness in the limbs and loss of vision. More extreme symptoms include paralysis and loss of coordination.
Symptoms are caused by the degeneration of myelin, a tissue that surrounds and protects nerve fibers. The disease affects more than 350,000 people in the USA.
Talking about multiple sclerosis didn't always come easy for Irons, especially because his father, John Irons, was uneasy about discussing the disease.
For years, he kept his condition a secret from friends, colleagues and patients. But when his son embarked on a fundraising campaign, he knew he would have to overcome those fears -- and fast.
"I went from being extremely secretive to being on national television," says John Irons, 55, an allergist in Bethesda, Md.
The disease, once a hushed topic in the Irons home, is now what bonds the family. During his 1997 swim, it was Nick's younger brother, Andy, 25, who led him in a small boat. This time, Andy will be part of a support crew following Nick around the country in a recreational vehicle.
His brother John, 29, has created a Web site (www.goingthedistance.net) to help Nick get some exposure. His mother, Connie, helps with publicity.
Nick Irons became the second man (after Fred Newton in 1930) to swim the length of the Mississippi River. In four months, Irons swam five hours a day, six days a week, through 10 states. It was a total of 1,600 miles, beginning in Minneapolis and ending in Baton Rouge. Although he did not raise the $5 million he had hoped for, Irons did manage to raise $100,000 for research.
Irons has dedicated the past few years to his multiple sclerosis fundraisers. After graduating from Boston College in 1994, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a production assistant for the TV show American Gladiators.
He has spent his days training physically and organizing the event, lining up speaking engagements along the trail of stops and making sure he has corporate sponsors to back him. Biogen, a manufacturer of drugs used to treat multiple sclerosis, is one of the event's major sponsors.
"I guess some people could say I'm putting my 'real' life on hold, but I like to think that this is what I'm doing with my life right now. And I'll keep doing it until they find a cure," Irons says.
His father says that may not be too far off.
"I'm convinced it (a cure) is something I'm going to see. It just takes putting the money in the hands of the researchers."
Heidi Crayton, a neurologist at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, says more research is being done on multiple sclerosis today than ever before.
Crayton says researchers are close to identifying the gene that causes the disease.
"There's a lot more awareness of MS, and that translates into more scientific
research," she says, adding that a cure could be found within 15 years.