Inspirational challenge: profile of two local athletes who overcome MS on a daily basis

March is Disability Awareness Month and Chicago Athlete Magazine is so proud to introduce you to two local athletes who make it happen every day.

Endurance athletes are known for their ability to get through painful and difficult situations with determination and courage. For a well-rested and healthy athlete, daily training and racing can still be strenuous. For those battling multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that causes communication problems between the brain and body, this grind presents new challenges. Two Chicago-area athletes, Charles Donahue, 37, of Lake in the Hills and Evan Daebel, 31, of Algonquin, are meeting those challenges with an inspirational challenge.

As Charles begins his story, the extent to which MS has influenced his life is immediately apparent. This is not an indication that multiple sclerosis has taken over his life, but rather a testament to how Charles mastered the science of multiple sclerosis and used that expertise to move beyond diagnosis and be the best version of himself.

Charles begins with a high-level description of the disease, explaining how the immune system attacks the myelin, or protective sheath, that covers nerve fibers. Areas where the myelin is attacked, called lesions, are detectable by MRI and are most often found in the brain or spine. Symptoms can vary from person to person and include vision problems, pain, fatigue, and impaired coordination. Despite being diagnosed 15 years ago and having detected more than 100 lesions since then, Charles still runs 80km a week, averaging about an hour a day.

“I have other friends who were diagnosed around the same time as me and who are bedridden, in wheelchairs or sneaking around,” he explains, raising his hands in a gesture of mime to demonstrate. He considers the role exercise played in his battle, citing a recent study looking at “exercise-induced increase in blood-based brain-derived neurotropic factor” in people with MS. Simply put, his commitment to exercise is what keeps him running daily.

“Nevertheless,” he continues cautiously, “any attack could be the one to stop it all.”

Evan, an accomplished Ironman triathlete, snowboarder and rock climber was diagnosed a year ago and brought a different familiarity with MS to his diagnosis.

“I grew up with my dad who had MS and saw his disease progress over the years. I was 10-11 years old giving him his injections, but it wasn’t something we really talked about in family. I just watched him break down.

Evan’s symptoms began with numbness in his right hand. The loss of dexterity sometimes makes it difficult to write, and her hand often goes numb while swimming. Treatment began with physical therapy, which helped, but an MRI confirmed MS fears as a lesion was found in his spine along with his right shoulder.

He sank into depression after the diagnosis, calling the first six months horrific. He remembers a time when he was snowboarding soon after, looking up at the mountain and wondering if this would be the last time he would go down fresh powder on his board.

Rather than turn around and accept the limitations, Evan set his sights on a bigger goal – Ironman Wisconsin. Already an Ironman finisher and multiple 70.3 race grinder, Evan knew the training demands ahead of him and dived in.

It wasn’t always easy, even by Ironman standards. Along with numbness and tingling in certain areas of his body, Evan also describes moments of relentless fatigue and sheer exhaustion. As he describes it, there were times when he could barely lift his arms while swimming and he had to force himself to keep moving.

Yet in one year, there were only three practice sessions that he missed completely due to an MS flare-up. Evan remembers a specific bike workout when fatigue was at its peak. Determined not to skip it, he took it one step at a time – putting on his bike clothes, getting the bike ready for the trip, and pulling out of the driveway.

“I just spun easily around the neighborhood until all of a sudden my body woke up. I literally could barely walk for about 12 hours and then felt like I could hold 250 watts forever. It showed me that if I can just show up and move on, it will go away.

And he showed up – with one more hurdle on race day. After an emotionally and physically exhausting year of preparing for Ironman, he threw his back on race week. He spent the day and night before in excruciating pain, unable to stand up straight and accepting that he might miss this race. He even called his friends and family to let them know he wouldn’t be competing.

Still, as the rest of the competition settled in to bed, Evan remained up. He stretched and moved around his hotel room, trying to regain his mobility. As his back slackened, he prepared his nutrition just in case there was a shot to compete, and when his alarm clock finally went off at 4 a.m., he was able to stand quite straight – painfully – but pretty straight.

He thought, “Maybe I can finish the swim.” So he swam, and his back relaxed as he lay in the water. So he thought, “maybe if I can stay on my aerobars on the bike, it will relieve my back and I can finish the ride.” So he did, for 112 miles, and the back stayed loose. A few sore pinches on the infamous Wisconsin hills kept him honest, but he finished the bike in good shape. He then prepared to walk as long as his back would allow. This walk quickly turned into a jog, and he was then able to pick up the pace when he found a friend on the trail.

26.2 miles later, the Wisconsin state capital was in sight. He rounded the corner, entered the finishing chute and let out a massive scream.

It was a cry of victory, but also a cry of relief. Foremost among Evan’s motivations for taking on Ironman after his diagnosis:

“I needed to prove to myself that I wasn’t dying.”

September continued to be a good month for Evan as another MRI revealed that his MS had not progressed since his initial diagnosis.

And earlier this month, on a snowboarding trip with friends, he once again found himself on top of a mountain in Colorado, wondering whether or not this run would be his last. This time his answer was firm. “No it is not.”

Charles and Evan have great individual stories, but together they show how supportive the endurance community can be. Evan found Charles on Strava shortly after his diagnosis, contacted him, and the two quickly became friends.

Charles has dedicated the past 15 years to mastering MS. He’s a subject matter expert on the disease, met his wife through volunteer work with the National MS Society, founded an organization called More Sunshine (a pun on MS initials and studies showing the positive effect of vitamin D on the treatment and prevention of MS), and works as a territory sales manager for a large pharmaceutical company where he specializes in – you guessed it – drugs for the treatment of MS.

As Evan expresses his concerns about MS and his goal of living a healthier, more active life than his father, Charles reminds him that he was diagnosed at a very different time and eloquently compares the treatments of today’s MS to those of thirty years ago.

“Previously, MS was diagnosed and adios,” he explains, before detailing the history of MS treatments, from steroid drugs in the late 1980s to interferon-based drugs that slowed progression until to highly effective modern drugs. With the warning again that MS is a very individual experience, he tells Evan that if he is diligent with his health and takes his prescribed medications, an active, healthy life awaits him.

Charles is equally diligent with his nutrition. While I (sort of) jokingly suggested ordering a large plate of buffalo wings with a big side of blue cheese dressing, he was quick to point out the skewers with rice on the menu, saying: “They should have the right ratio of protein, carbs and fiber.

Fun killer. Make these three kebab plates, please.

Charles and Evan are active on Strava. Please see the links below to follow and support their endurance adventures.

Charles Donahue:

Evan Daebel:

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