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Minnesota bicycle tour kicks off in Bemidji

Lori Paris, president of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, takes a spin Sunday on a bike set up so the person pedaling it powers the blender, which was used to make fruit smoothies as part of the festivities in Bemidji leading up to Monday's start of the MS TRAM, a 250-mile bike ride across Minnesota which helps raise funds to fight multiple sclerosis. Photo by Noemi Aylesworth | Special to the Pioneer1 / 2
More than 1,000 cyclists were signed up for the start of this year's MS TRAM, which Bemidji hosted for the first time. A number of cyclists also camped overnight Sunday on the Lake Bemidji waterfront. Photo by Lori Paris | Special to the Pioneer2 / 2

BEMIDJI - A black flag, adorned with a skull and crossbones, stood out among the hundreds of cyclists gathering Sunday at Bemidji's waterfront.

It is a trademark for the "Pirates in Tight Pants," a group of riders that affectionately named itself for reasons unknown to even themselves.

While more than 1,000 riders arrived in Bemidji for the start of the five-day Bike MS TRAM (Multiple Sclerosis's The Ride Across Minnesota), Pam Emison is one of about three dozen riders who suffers from the disease.

This year marked the first time Bemidji hosted the MS TRAM. Most cyclists ride for MS, raising money through their efforts.

Emison rides for MS while dealing with the painful effects of the disease.

"It's very emotional" to be around so many people making a large contribution to fight MS, said Emison, stopping to catch her voice. "Kind of overwhelming."

Her husband, Tom, is quick to give her a long comforting hug before finishing her thought. "Because of all the money raised and all of the good will surrounding us here," Tom Emison said.

He serves on the board of the MS Society and the couple has ridden every MS TRAM ride in Minnesota this year.

Furthermore, he said that the Pirates in Tight Pants have raised about $12,000 thus far through pledges and paid the $300 entry fee that riders must pay.

The couple is taking all of it in turn.

Tom Emison is quick to answer a question posed to his wife about the symptoms of MS and how it presents itself.

"Well, the first symptom is finding an extremely attractive husband," he said, sharing a smile with his wife. "And modest, too."

After the jovial exchange, he meanders off as Pam Emison goes into details.

"It first presented itself immediately after the birth of my first daughter," she said. "I was numb from the waist down."

She thought the symptoms were merely side effects from giving birth. After a month or so, Pam Emison went to a specialist to find out what was wrong. The doctor found lesions in her brain that were indicative of MS.

"But that wasn't enough to convince me. You know, I was stubborn," she said. "So I went and got a spinal tap too. Those results confirmed that it was MS."

Emison said she was diagnosed about 20 years ago with a type of MS is known as relapse/remitting multiple sclerosis, for which she takes a shot every day to help prevent against relapses. Unfortunately, she still has relapsed nearly a dozen times.

"When I relapse, I have difficulty walking along with speech slurring and uncontrollable muscle spasms," Emison said quietly. "My daughter lives with me and is very afraid. She never wants to leave my side."

She met her husband after the diagnosis.

"He loved me in light of my disease," Emison said with an emotional edge to her voice. "I'm unbelievably lucky to have someone like him in my life."

When Tom Emison rejoins his wife at the event, he offered his thoughts.

"The traditional image of somebody with MS is someone in a wheelchair who has succumbed to the disease and is waiting to die," he said, adding one of the couple's friends died last year of MS.

"What you don't expect is an extremely fit person who bikes, swims, runs marathons, and constantly works out, and works at, a gym," Tom Emison said. "The way she carries herself with such great optimism and pride is inspirational."

As a demonstration of their affection for her, the Pirates in Tight Pants team plans to finish the ride Friday in Alexandria by allowing her to cross the finish line first.

"There's never a dry eye," Tom Emison said.