Ride With Larry

This is the name of a video (available on Amazon prime videos) about Larry Smith, who is bravely fighting Parkinson’s disease. Despite the fact that he now has difficulty walking due to dyskinesia (uncontrollable motions, one of the effects of his condition), he still rides a recumbent trike. The longest ride he normally does is around 40 miles (64 km). But he decided to raise awareness for his condition by participating in a 270 mile multi-day ride across his state of South Dakota, averaging over 54 miles a day.

I was drawn to this film for two reasons. We all know about Parkinson’s because of Michael J Fox’s brave fight, but it also struck a hero of my youth, Davis Phinney. He was the first American to win a stage at the Tour de France (he won two), racing with the legendary Seven Eleven team. Back in the early 80s when I lived in Boulder he raced in the Coors Classic. His nickname was “cash register Phinney” because he would make the “ka-ching” gesture when he’d win sprints or primes (intermediate sprints) at races. I got to see that gesture multiple times at exciting races. He got Parkinson’s after he retired from racing, as described in his moving book The Happiness of Pursuit: A Father’s Courage, a Son’s Love and Life’s Steepest Climb. The son in the title is Davis’s son Taylor who is also a bike racer, specializing in the pursuit on the track and time trials on the road.

The second reason was that it is set in South Dakota. I’ve never been there, something I need to remedy, because I’ve heard from friends how nice the people are. This was confirmed in the book written by a young British woman, Anna McDuff: 50 Shades Of The Usa: One Woman’s 11,000 Mile Cycling Adventure Through Every State Of America. The welcome she received in a few parts of the country made me wince, but for the most part it was very nice. South Dakota was definitely the latter. A local family may well have saved her life by taking her in during a blizzard, then had her staying with them for several days till it was safe to leave, treating her like family the whole time. As she moved on through the state the next few days she was continuously treated with kindness by their extended family or friends that has been told to be on the lookout for her.

The movie confirmed how nice South Dakotans are, judging by Larry’s friends, neighbors, coworkers, and those who participate in the ride. One of his neighbors in Vermillion, SD: “We love Larry for who he is”. His career as a police officer for 26 years in Connecticut (rising to the rank of captain) was cut short when he had to take disability retirement when the Parkinson’s progressed too far. He and his wife moved to South Dakota where Larry has a second career as a baker. What began as a hobby selling loaves of bread to neighbors from the back of a car, has grown into Mister Smith’s Bakery Cafe, one of the most popular bakeries in the Midwest. Scenes were shown of him pedaling his Cattrike recumbent trike to work, then baking his bread, not letting his symptoms stop him.

From his wonderful wife and caregiver, Betty: “It can be hard to wake up and be hopeful. Because we’re not going to have a cure this year. And we may not next year. And we may not have one in time for Larry. But Larry wakes up every morning and says ‘what can I do today that will be joyful?’”. And “he’s had a lot of falls. He could avoid falls by being in a wheelchair, but this is a better life.”

Larry gave his reasons for wanting to do the ride: “Your mind is the prison, not your body. I want to do one big thing before it is too late, the ride across South Dakota. I want to show people you don’t give up because you have Parkinson’s, you keep on living as long as you can”.

During scenes of Larry riding, you can tell that his legs have trouble tracking in a circle, it’s hard to avoid knocking his knees together, especially when first starting out. But it improves dramatically as the ride progresses. Doctors from the Cleveland clinic talk about this during the film, and through MRIs they show that exercise stimulates the same areas of brain as Parkinson’s  medications and improve the symptoms.

During the ride Larry visits Parkinson’s patients along the way to encourage them and let them try out his trike. It’s heartwarming to see their reactions, many had not been able to do anything athletic in a long time.

The prognosis for Parkinson’s can be that you can’t work after 5 years, and are in a wheelchair by 10. Larry is still working and riding a trike 18 years later.

I am moved and humbled when I see people like Larry not giving in.

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