It's quite possible that Dr. Rex Dietz has been participating in the local Bike MS Ride longer than anyone else.
He did the fundraising ride back in 1994, the year it began. And he's never missed one since.
The event is held by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Greater Northwest Chapter, on Aug. 27 and 28. The two-day bike ride, which starts in Billings and goes to Red Lodge and back, is one of three rides taking place in three states, according to information from the National MS Society.
Dietz started riding every year as a nod to his older brother, Drew, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his late 20s.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system that interrupts the flow of information between the brain and the body. It is unpredictable and often stops people from moving normally. According to the National MS Society, someone is diagnosed the the disease every hour in the United States. Symptoms range from tingling and numbness to blindness and paralysis.
The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person can't be predicted. Most MS patients are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with more than twice as many women as men affected. More than 400,000 people in the United States, and 2.5 million worldwide live with MS.
"I remember it was before 1986, because I was still in medical school," said Dietz. He noted that the diagnosis of MS may be shifting slightly, from teenagers to young adults. "It's not just a disease of young people. I think now a significant percentage of folks are diagnosed later, although the disease was possibly there for years."
Dietz watched his brother deteriorate from complications of MS for years. Drew was an electrical engineer who lived in Philadelphia, and the disease eventually forced him into retirement about 15 years ago.
"I noticed a gradual progression from one visit to the next," he said. "About 10 years ago he tried to commit suicide. His marriage kind of fell apart after that, and they had three teenage kids."
Dietz said MS eventually took Drew's visual accuity, which basically ended his favorite pasttimes of reading and computers. He lost weight and was bedridden for a decade. For the past five years, he was in a nursing home.
Two years ago, Drew ended up in an intensive care unit for two weeks, and decided he wanted no more medical intervention.
"We just decided, let's just have this big party," said Dietz. "And he ate cake and ice cream and all these things they said he shouldn't have ... and you know what? After that, he did great."
Drew's condition eventually took a turn for the worse, and he passed away on June 21. So for Dietz, this year's trek may be especially poignant.
For the past several years, Dietz's wife, Stacy, has joined him on the Bike MS Ride. The pair, in fact, hit the road on a tandem bike.
Dietz said there's typically two to four tandems in the event each year.
"It's a small minority," he said. "But riding a tandem bike compared to a regular bike is really like the difference between driving an RV and a car."
He said it all comes down to wider turns and different weight distributions.
Dietz is a partner at Eastern Radiological Associates that owns the Yellowstone Vein Center. He is team captain of the team of about 30 riders sponsored by the Yellowstone Vein Center each year.
"This isn't a race, so we don't compete," he explained. "But we make up special jerseys each year and people -- friends of friends -- just keep joining the team."
Not only does the team keep growing, but participant numbers in the entire ride are increasing as well. Last summer, 258 people rode the more than 50-mile route from Billings to Red Lodge and back again. More than $150,000 was raised. This weekend, the MS Society is expecting between 250 and 300 riders, and hopes to raise $200,000. The goal of the Greater Northwest Chapter is to bring in more than $2 million to support programs and services for MS patients and their caregivers throughout Alaska, Montana and 23 counties in Washington.
As a veteran of the Bike MS Ride, Dietz has been exposed to all sorts of weather on the rides -- everything from snow to high winds to smoke from wildfires.
But besides doing the journey with his brother in mind, Dietz has also found a great group of people who return year after year to raise money for multiple sclerosis.
"There's always new people, and there's always familiar faces," he said. "It's just a great group of people who get together once a year and have a party. I've made a lot of friends through this."
Dietz is head of the MS Bike Committee and part of the state leadership board through the Greater Northwest Chapter of the National MS Society.