ALS Blizzard Tour fundraiser takes on new meaning

Justin May posted a message on Facebook recently that he had lost a special friend, but that he was more determined than ever to take part in the 18th annual Black Woods Blizzard Tour ALS snowmobile ride.

Tom Lange
Tom Lange

Justin May posted a message on Facebook recently that he had lost a special friend, but that he was more determined than ever to take part in the 18th annual Black Woods Blizzard Tour ALS snowmobile ride.

"Hopefully he rides with me this year," May wrote.

Nothing will bring back the thousands of lives lost and families devastated by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, the debilitating motor neuron disease that robs people of their ability to walk, speak, swallow and eventually breathe, but the Blizzard Tour attempts to make life easier for those going through it. The tour, which culminates today, is also a time for families to remember, and for riders to share in a common cause.

This year, for the first time, the tour hopes to raise $1 million toward the ALS Association of Minnesota.

"We're going to top a million, yes we are," May said. "We do this to not only allow the patient to have a better life, but to allow the caregiver to have a better life as well."


May has ridden the last two years for "Trainer Tom's Team" in honor of Tom Lange of Hibbing.

Lange is the father of Kate (Lange) Sterns, a Minnesota Duluth graduate assistant volleyball coach and the 2013 NCAA Division II player of the year.

Tom Lange was diagnosed with ALS 18 months ago and passed away Jan. 23. The funeral was Monday.

Lange, 50, was an athletic trainer for more than 20 years. He and Julie, his wife of 27 years, both worked for Essentia Health. Tom was assigned to Hibbing High School and Julie to Hibbing Community College, but they often worked together, helping with every sport offered.

Sterns was asked how many Hibbing athletes her father worked with.

"I wouldn't even know where to start," she said. "The outpouring of support from everyone has been awesome, seeing how many people's lives he touched throughout the years. He was a busy, busy guy who loved athletics and loved his family."

May and the rest of the 225 Blizzard Tour riders left Fortune Bay in Tower on Friday morning and arrived in Two Harbors in the afternoon. They will have an easy ride back to Proctor today, with a dinner celebration tonight at Cirrus Aircraft.

The Minnesota Twins have made the Blizzard Tour one of their own, with former Twins players Kent Hrbek, Tim Laudner and Terry Steinbach, and former manager Ron Gardenhire, taking part. Hrbek and Steinbach lost their fathers to ALS. Hrbek always says the goal is to one day ride in celebration of a cure.


"I feel fantastic," May said Friday in a phone interview from Two Harbors. "It was a great day and the trails were perfect. We do this to take care of the patients, but at the same time, we have a blast."

May first became involved with ALS fundraising about 15 years ago through his former work as a strength and conditioning coach at Minnesota Duluth. UMD is active with the ALS Walleye Tournament each summer.

About eight years ago Dan Hartel asked him to come on board as a volunteer with the Blizzard Tour. If a sled broke down, May helped load it on a trailer.

"There were a lot of broken sleds for some reason that year, so they asked me to ride one back to Duluth," May said. "That was part of my start, but the real start is the people involved with it. We're all one family. I said, 'You know what? I'm not going to volunteer anymore. I'm going to ride and be a part of this.' "

May joked it was better not having Hartel tell him what to do for three days.

"If I'm going to be involved, I want to fundraise, because I want to make money and try to take care of the patients," May said. "And that's where Tom comes in. I had known people who had been affected by ALS, but now, it became personal. Real personal. It really hit home."

May's wife, Christyn, is UMD's assistant volleyball coach, so she works with Tom Lange's daughter on a regular basis.

Each rider is expected to raise at least $2,500 in donations. Justin May has raised a personal-record $6,400 this year. (Go to the Black Woods Blizzard Tour website to donate.)


"Tom's inspiration helped me take it to another level," May said. "I had a lot of added motivation."

Sterns always will remember her dad as shy and reserved on the outside, but incredibly sweet and caring once you got to know him, with an infectious smile.

Sterns said the ALS Association helped her family with support groups. They provided a free backup ventilator for her father in case of emergency.

The Lange family, including Tom, attended the Blizzard Tour dinner celebration last year. This year, Julie, Kate, her husband, Mike, and her younger sister, Emily, will attend.

"It's crazy the connections you make," Sterns said. "I knew very little about ALS before my dad's diagnosis, but since then, everyone I meet knows someone. It's a horrible, horrible disease, obviously, but it's special having something like the Blizzard Tour so close to home.

"It's going to be tough to be there (tonight), but it will also be really cool to be part of that. Last year was sad, but it was also empowering knowing how many people are out there willing to help and trying to find a cure. "

May agreed.

"This is something that brings us all together," he said. "(Tonight) is always an emotional time. It's an extended family. I said this years ago when I first got involved, but I don't think there is anything more rewarding than volunteering and fundraising for a cause, and that belief just gets stronger."

Jon Nowacki is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune
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