By Keysha Drexel
And after pedaling 3,000 miles to help raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Vestavia Hills resident said he’s come to two conclusions–there are no coincidences and most of us don’t know what a real challenge is.
“Everywhere I turned on this trip, I met someone that I knew God had put in my path for a reason. I realized that nothing is random when it comes to God’s plan,” Long said. “I also learned that riding a bike in 112-degree weather may seem like a challenge, but that was a choice I made. A real challenge is when you wake up every day of your life with a terrible disease like MS and you don’t get a choice.”
On April 13, Long will trade in his bicycle for his sneakers to participate in Walk MS at Homewood Central Park. It will be one of many events the 60-year-old has participated in during the last 12 years since he got involved with the National MS Society.
Long, the vice president of fleet operations and trading for Southern Company, said he started biking after a group of guys at his office bought bikes in 2001.
“They were always asking me to go riding with them, so I finally broke down and bought a bike, and about that time, they stopped riding. So I found out a group at my church that had started riding and I joined them. I thought, well, I have this new bike and I’ve got to get some use out of it,” he said.
Soon, Long and his friend of 20 years, Phillip Inman, were biking regularly with the group at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church. Inman suggested they test their skills on a 150-mile bike ride.
“Philip invited me on this bike ride, and after I signed up for it, I found out you were supposed to raise $250 to participate in a ride to cure a disease called Multiple Sclerosis. I knew nothing about the disease at that time and I’d only been biking for a few months. But knowing that I had that 150-mile ride ahead of me and that I would be doing it for a good cause were great motivators,” he said.
The challenging bike ride for MS came at a time in Long’s life when he had been praying for God to show him a way to give back to the community.
“I found out that the top fundraising level for the 150-mile ride was $5,000. I accepted that challenge and raised that much money the first year. The second year, I doubled that to $10,000, and the third year I set a goal of $20,000,” he said. “It was during that third year that I had an ‘aha’ moment and realized that this was the opportunity to give back that I had been praying for for years. By then, I was learning a lot about MS, and so it became my passion to help find a cure for it in my lifetime.”
Long said he doesn’t deserve credit for raising so much money for the National MS Society over the years. Instead, he said, that credit goes to all the people who supported his efforts with donations, contributions, encouragement and support.
“God blessed me to know a lot of wonderful people with big hearts who are just looking for the opportunity to make a difference,” he said. “It’s not about me raising the money, it’s about people’s willingness to give. The reason I’ve been successful at this is because I’ve been able to find the people who want the chance to do good things.”
Since that first 150-mile bike ride in 2001, Long has participated in several other events to support the National MS Society, including an eight-day ride in Australia, a ride from St. Augustine, Fla., to Daytona, Fla., and back, a ride from Miami to Key Largo, Fla., and a ride to Martha’s Vineyards in Massachusetts.
Long has also participated in the three annual Bike MS events sponsored by the Alabama-Mississippi Chapter of the National MS Society for several years.
In 2011, after 10 years of riding bikes to support MS research and awareness, Long said Inman suggested they take their fundraising efforts to the next level and bike across the country.
At first, Long said, the physical challenges of a cross-country trek seemed daunting.
“I really don’t bike year-round and I knew I’d need to be in really good shape to complete this ride. While we were working out the logistics, Phillip and I decided we’d plan in 2012 and ride in 2013, but one morning, I woke up and realized that I was about to turn 60 and if I were going ride a bicycle across the country, I better do it sooner than later,” he said.
So Long talked to Mindy, his wife of 40 years, about the cross-country trip and how that would mean he would be away from home a lot during 2012.
“I could not have not done the ride without the support of my wife, Mindy. Including travel time, I was away from home for 49 nights from March through September,” he said.
Long said he also couldn’t have gone on the ride without the support of his company and co-workers.
“Southern Company and its affiliates, including Alabama Power Company, are leaders not only in the electric utility industry but also locally in the community. They have been extremely supportive corporately and as individual coworkers,” he said. “My administrative assistant, Prissy Daly, has provided invaluable support since I began 12 years ago.
“I ride as a member of a bicycling team sponsored by Alabama Power Company known as the Power Pedalers. Also, we were blessed to have five wonderful friends who volunteered to drive our support vehicles. They were critical to our success”
Long and Inman began their ride across the country in St. Augustine, Fla., on March 17 and completed it on Sept. 22 in San Diego. The trip required 40 days of riding time, averaging 72 miles a day, spread across five trips.
As he prepared for the trip, Long said he begin to think about how it could give him even more opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives.
“I realized that I would probably meet a lot of people on this trip and that it would be an opportunity not only to raise money for MS but to also pray with people,” he said.
On the first day of the trip in March 2012, Long said he saddled up on the bike beside Inman and told him his plan.
“I told him that I had prayed that God would put people in our path during the trip and that we could make a difference in their lives and that we needed to offer to pray with the people we came across on the ride,” he said. “We made that same prayer every morning of the trip, and it was amazing how God answered it.”
From waitresses who sat down at their tables to hold their hands and pray with them to young mothers who had run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, Long said he and Inman were humbled at the experiences God provided them on the trip.
“And it wasn’t just about us trying to make a difference in people’s lives by praying with them or praying for them, we also met people who made a big impact on our lives, too,” Long said.
One encounter that still gives Long goose-bumps happened in west Texas at a rundown 1950s-style motel in an area where visitors were probably very rare, he said.
“It was 102 degrees one day, and we stopped in this tiny place called Sanderson, Texas, at this old motel. A man came out of the office and gave us three cold Coca-Colas. He let us use the bathroom and when we went to leave, I tried to give him $20, but he wouldn’t take it and said to me, ‘I have no needs.’ His name was Danny and he was from India, running this little motel where no one was staying, and he says to me that he has no needs. I told him to take the money and give it to someone with needs, and he accepted and said he would do that. So we thanked him for his generosity, said a prayer for him and went on our way,” he said.
The cross-country trip included a lot of back-tracking, Long said, so the next day, he and Inman rode back toward Sanderson. They stopped at a convenience store to get cold drinks, and when Long went to pay for his purchases with his credit card, the cashier’s machine wouldn’t read the card. The cashier told Long he’d have to pay with cash.
“But I didn’t have any cash on me because we were on the bikes, and as I’m explaining this to the cashier, a hand reaches around me holding a $20 bill, and when I turn around, it’s Danny from the motel offering to pay for my drinks. It gave me cold chills because I knew it couldn’t be a coincidence. I knew it was part of God’s plan,” he said.
Long said the trip was filled with moments like the one at the Texas gas station, and those moments inspired him to finish the bike ride.
“Pedaling became a reason to meet people and provided the opportunity to make a difference in their lives and the opportunity to be open to how they could make a difference in my life through these interactions that may have seemed random but that I believe were not random at all,” he said. “I started the bike ride thinking it would be a spiritual challenge, but it ended up being a spiritual blessing.”
As he tackled the steep hills, long days and extreme temperatures of the cross-country bike ride, Long said he also realized that what most people consider a challenge is nothing compared to the challenges those with MS face every day.
“The ride helped me realize the difference between a choice and a challenge. I had a choice to do the bike ride. There are so many people who would love to be able to ride a bike or to be able to walk, but they can’t because of MS. We need to ride for them. We need to walk for them. We need to give them a choice,” he said.
For more information on the MS Walk in Homewood on April 13 and Bike MS events, call 800-FIGHTMS.