All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for December 2002

His body was a machine . . .

until it turned against him Multiple sclerosis brought triathlete back to beginning

December 1, 2002, Sunday
John Maher, American-Statesman Staff

When a long line of tired cyclists pulled into La Grange for the night's stopover in the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's fund-raising race from Houston to Austin, they couldn't help but notice Rick Kent speeding by them in the opposite direction.

Kent, accompanied by a van blasting rock music, had taken off from Houston the same morning, had reached Austin and already was pedaling frantically back to Houston. He would make the 340-mile trip in 16 hours and 34 minutes, fast enough to break his own Ultra Marathon Cycling Association Record for that trip.

"I wasn't stopping for anything, and I was going 20 miles an hour," Kent recalled fondly.

That was nine years ago, just before Kent moved from Houston to Austin. A scene like that could have happened as recently as nine months ago -- but not today. Once used to doing the near-impossible, Kent now struggles with the simplest of feats. Although he can still work out, just putting one foot toe-to-heel in front of the other and walking in a straight line can be as hard as walking a tightrope.

The man who once lapped the field in that race for multiple sclerosis now has MS.

For years, pushing his body to insane limits was what Kent, now 46, did for kicks and to pay the rent.

"Rick was one of the premier endurance athletes in the U.S., if not the world," said friend Rip Esselstyn, an avid triathlete. "He is a very, very persistent guy that mentally can go places most people don't even dare to go. He really pushes the envelope."

Kent has run 48 marathons. Five times he finished cycling the Race Across America, a 2,900-mile odyssey of pain, fatigue and sleep deprivation that he has completed in less than nine days. He once rode a record 460 miles in 24 hours and in 1994 came in second in the Circle of Italy, a nonstop 1,030-mile cycling race.

When he competed in and trained for such extreme events, Kent was used to his body staging protests. In the Race Across America, he never had to jury-rig a neck brace to hold his head up the way some competitors did, but the soles of his feet would become two big calluses that would peel off a few days after the race, his knees would swell like melons, and his mind would be overrun by hallucinations and paranoia.

"Sometimes, you think people are out to get you," Kent said.

In the past few years, however, his own body began betraying him in different ways, ways that he didn't then connect.

When he unaccountably swerved his cycle into a ditch in a European race, he thought it was because he was distracted by some schoolchildren. When his vision blurred badly during a local duathlon a few years ago, he reasoned that it was caused by switching between contact lenses and his Oakley sunglasses.

In 1999, his legs completely quit working two blocks short of the finish of the Motorola Marathon; Kent thought he might not have eaten enough before the race and hoped that it wasn't a sign of just plain aging.

But then, a few months ago, he was making a speech before a small group of co-workers at Apple Computer Inc., where he's an account representative. Although the setting was familiar, he felt uneasy, as if he was losing his balance.

He used a hand to brace himself against a piece of furniture. But then he could feel his head beginning to rock back and forth. He reached up and steadied his head with his other hand. Then he began swaying back and forth uncontrollably at the hips. He stopped his speech and sat down.

"It freaked them out," Kent said of his co-workers.

When he went to a doctor, tests revealed that he had multiple sclerosis.

"I didn't know what it was, and I helped organize a race for MS," Kent said. "I told maybe 15 friends, and only one of them knew what it is. Everyone's heard of it. They know it can be serious. But no one knows what it really is. I'm hoping to help change that."

Understanding MS

Kent talked about the recent changes in his life while sitting on the wraparound couch in the living room of his South Austin house.

The room is decorated in classic jock. There's a bike parked in the middle. On one wall is a poster from the 1981 Boston marathon, which Kent ran. On another wall is a raised map of Hawaii's largest island, where Kent ran, swam and cycled in an Ultraman triathlon.

He still likes to hop on his cycle for a ride but has to be wary that the disease doesn't affect his balance.

"There's no two people who have exactly the same symptoms," Kent said. "It's not something there's a cure for. You just have to deal with it."

Multiple sclerosis affects the central nervous system and is thought to be an autoimmune disease, in which the body's defense system goes haywire, attacking and scarring the fatty tissue, called myelin, that protects nerve fibers.

"The body basically turns on itself," said Arney Rosenblat, spokeswoman for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. "The hallmark is its unpredictability."

Symptoms and their severity vary, because the disease can cause everything from balance and vision problems to tremors and paralysis. About 2.5 million people worldwide have the disease, with more than 300,000 in the United States.

"The disease tends to run in families, but you still need a trigger, typically an infection," Rosenblat said.

Kent has considered his life of pushing his body to the limit and said, "I can't say for sure, but it had to be a contributing factor."

Multiple sclerosis is not considered a fatal disease. Although there's no cure for the condition, there are five drugs that help. "The medicines reduce the number and severity of the attacks by about one-third," Rosenblat said.

The drug Kent now takes three times a week, Rebif, has been available in other countries since 1997 but was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in March. It arrives once a month in refrigerated FedEx packages and costs far more than gold: more than $1,000 for a box he can hold in his palm.

"There's people who don't have insurance who can't get this. They just have to go without it," said Kent, who has worked for Apple Computer for the past four years.

The first night Kent injected the medicine, the side effects were worse than the disease.

Although it was warm outside, he became chilled to the bone. He put on a long-sleeved shirt, then cycling tights. That wasn't enough, so he turned on the heat, put on a thick sweatshirt and doubled over the bedspread. He was still cold the next morning, even after sweating all night. The medicine can also produce flu-like symptoms and at first could leave Kent more sore than a triathlon would.

Longer was better

Kent became interested in distance events as a student at Southwest Texas State University, running in the first Austin American-Statesman Capitol 10,000 in 1978.

From there it was on to marathons -- where he had a personal best of 2:47 -- triathlons and ultra cycling. Kent found that not only did he enjoy pushing his body to radical limits, but that the longer the races went, the better he fared.

The Race Across America, which is like the Tour de France in one-third the time, even allowed Kent to eke out a living from sponsors for six years. To compete in the 1995 Circle of Italy in One Stage, he received a 2 million lira appearance fee. So what if that's only $650? It was another athletic adventure.

It's been a year, however, since Kent has done a triathlon. The last time, the relatively tame half-mile swim turned into a trauma. He couldn't coordinate the left and right sides of his body while doing the freestyle. His vision blurred. He had to let the other swimmers pass and do the breaststroke to finish the swimming leg.

Running has also presented problems.

"If I run in the morning, I have to concentrate for the next three or four hours to be able to walk in a straight line," Kent said.

Cycling with the pack on Saturday also has changed.

"It might be a group ride of 50 or 100 people, but there's really a core group of guys at the front that are making the pace hard," he said. "I'm used to being -- I want to be -- one of those guys driving the pace, making the workout good for everyone. And I'm not one of those guys anymore. That's kind of a blow. It's frustrating; people I normally ride with are riding away from me."

But things are looking up. Kent has worked his way up to tolerating a full dose of his medicine. The low-fat diet he has followed as an athlete is not too different from one recommended by some for those with MS. After laying off for half a year, Kent has started running on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The dreams are no longer of times or records or extreme feats, but of finishing and enjoying events.

"If I get to the point where I can ride with my friends, that would be huge," Kent said. He's already thinking about the BP MS 150 bicycle tour, supported by British Petroleum Co., in April and said, "We're planning to have a huge team from Austin."

© Copyright 2002 The Austin American Statesman