Members of the Bandanna WAMS walking team aren't hard to spot in a crowd: they wear tie-dyed bandannas, to complement their walking sneakers and shorts.
"If you’re trying to find us, just listen," said Ginger Higgins, the team’s founder. "We’re loud."
On Friday, Sept. 30, Bandanna WAMS and several hundred others began walking 50 miles, from Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in Fair Lakes to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., as part of the MS Challenge Walk. The walk, sponsored by the National Capital Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, convened for its third year to raise money for MS research.
"Just how many of you are doing this just to avoid the Beltway?" WTOP radio host Bob Madigan joked with the crowd during the opening ceremony.
The walk takes three days, with participants covering 20 miles Friday and Saturday and 10 miles Sunday. It would most likely be faster to drive, but according to walker Lisa Samuels, it wouldn't be as good of a time.
"Everybody has fun. You talk to whoever you're walking next to at that point," said Samuels, who lives in Tysons Corner and volunteers with the society. "Everyone is so open and so sharing with their stories and the reasons why they're there."
Samuels walks for her aunt, she said, who was diagnosed with MS five years ago.
"There's not much I can do for her personally, so this is something I can do for her cause," she said. Her father and aunt will participate in the race by cheering walkers from a motorcycle on the sidelines, said Samuels.
Nearly everyone at the walk either has MS or knows someone afflicted by it, said Jeanne Angulo, president of the D.C. MS Society chapter.
"What's important is not only the money, but the bonding that occurs with the people who have MS," said Angulo. "After 50 miles, you're pretty close."
Higgins agreed. She said that everyone walks for different personal reasons, but the overall goal, funding MS research, is the same.
Higgins, who has MS, has participated in the MS Challenge Walk for the last three years. According to Higgins, the WAMS in "Bandanna WAMS" stands for "Walkers Against Multiple Sclerosis," and the bandannas serve as a symbol of the bond between walkers and volunteers.
"We keep a bunch of extra bandannas to give to people who inspire us, or have some kind of emotional bond with us," said Higgins.
THE SIZE of the walking crowd is just large enough to meet different people, and just small enough so that friendships last from year to year, Higgins said. During her first walk, she walked alone, said Higgins, where she met Deb Sweigard from Maryland. They kept in touch until the next year, when they formed their own walking team. Sweigard was a Bandanna WAMS team member this year as well, said Higgins.
"As a team, we have a lot better support of each other," said Higgins. "It's an opportunity to have team gear, and raises the enthusiasm level."
Higgins said she is "infamous" for going up to walkers and asking them why or for whom they are walking.
"It's not like you have a big MS across your forehead, but you do connect," said Higgins. "That's part of what the walk is about when you're actually on it. Very few people go just because they want exercise."
As for Higgins, she walks to prove that MS does not limit what she does with her life.
"It became something I had to do, to prove that the disease doesn’t get me down," said Higgins. "How could I not, if all these people who don’t have MS are doing it too?"
Bandanna WAMS member Marie Meadows, also of Burke, works with Higgins at Northrop-Grumman in Falls Church. She became involved in the walk for fitness reasons, she said, and for her uncle Joe, who has a progressive form of MS and has no use of his right arm or leg. During the race, Meadows wore a tag around her neck with a photo of her uncle on it.
"Anytime my feet hurt or I get tired, I told him, I'd look at his picture and say, 'Damn you, Uncle Joe!'" said Meadows. "He said, 'Oh, good. I thought you were going to get sentimental on me.'"
The MS Society is still counting proceeds from the event, said Kate Severson of the National Capital Chapter, but at last count the tally reached $54,000.
"Everything went wonderfully," said Severson. "We had wonderful weather, which is always a bonus, and people just really seemed to enjoy themselves. It was such a committed group."