Apr 8, 2009

2005 Iron Butt Rally

From its inception in the 80’s, the Iron Butt rally has attracted an eclectic but determined subset of touring riders in North America and from around the globe. They are drawn to the challenge of dragging themselves and an overloaded motorcycle around much of the United States and Canada for eleven days fueled by raw grit, greasy fast food, and pay-at-the-pump gas.

But why put oneself though the agony of 11 weary days in the saddle? The real reason seems rooted in the competitive nature of the event. After all, you don’t need to spend US$1550 (the entry fee for the rally), plus travel expenses, to plan and execute an 11 thousand mile ride.

Stumbling on a few articles on the rally in 1997, I immediately got the itch. I bought my ST1100 in 1998 and started doing smaller solo rides such as the Saddlesore 1000, the Iron Butt Association’s “beginner” ride of 1000 miles in 24 hours. I finally rode “the big dance” in 2001, finishing in 32nd place.

The rally has changed little over the years. Initially held annually, it later ran every two years when the number of competitors rose to 100. Current rallies still run about 100 riders, which doesn’t quench the huge pent up demand. Only a small fraction of applicants win the lottery held to pick entrants. I wasn’t picked in 2003, but felt like a million bucks when I received word of my successful entry in 2005.

A million bucks is precisely what I wished for after coming home the rally in September and the bills started coming in. For if the rally has changed little over the years, the motorcycles and equipment certainly have.

In the months leading up the rally, I realized my old monochrome StreetPilot had to go. It was slow, outdated and outclassed by modern units such as the Garmin 276c I bought. With auto routing, large and bright TFT LCD screen, fast scrolling and searching, and handy voice prompting, it had the smarts to guide me anywhere I cared to go.

But add up the cost of the unit, high capacity memory card, detailed maps on DVD, and RAM mount, and just watch a G-note come and go. However, I wouldn’t have placed as highly without it.

After all that, I decided to also use the old GPS during the rally as backup. My old unit displayed a large-scale overview map, which also contained a clock display. In order to keep track of constantly changing time zones, it was permanently set to Mountain Daylight Time, the zone that the starting city of Denver lies within. I wrote down each entry in the bonus sheets with the same zone, and I didn’t want to be late to the finish, either!

Most competitors were also carrying laptop computers, and I was no exception. I used mine for email when a phone line was available, route planning at checkpoints, and for loading new maps, waypoints, and routes into the GPS. Having a larger screen also made doing what-if calculations faster and easier than doing all that right on the GPS screen.
Auxiliary lights are de rigueur and many motorcycles in the 2005 rally had more than one pair. Costs for lighting can quickly add up when you spec out set of HID (high intensity discharge) lights, and then augment the primary headlight with HID auxiliary lights as well.

Here I didn’t go as crazy as some. I used generic plastic-bodied spot beams from UAP/NAPA. The reflectors are large, the key to good light output, and I installed 100W halogen bulbs. Going this route, I saved at least $300 over a pair of PIAAs. Replacing one after a tipover won’t bring tears to my eyes.

My Gerbing heated jacket liner and gloves (think warm) and Aerostich suit (think dry) complete the safety and comfort equation. With Gore-Tex lining, the ‘Stich eliminates the need for a rain suit. Gore-Tex lined boots anchor my personal gear, ensuring dry feet under all conditions.

All this equipment draws plenty of power, and requires lots of room to mount and stow. Serious competitors were riding the newest touring motorcycles with their litre-plus engines and high output alternators. Quite a few made special bike purchases after being drawn for the rally, and many of these started the rally only recently having completed an abbreviated break in.

My high mileage ST1100 was competing in its second ‘Butt, and had over 300,000 kilometers on the clock when I arrived at the starting hotel, the Doubletree Denver, before the August 22nd start.

Of course all these expenses just got me to the starting line. I doubt all this talk of expense will discourage any readers seriously contemplating this rally. I wasn’t.

The rally format changed a little this year. The first checkpoint was right back in the starting city of Denver, followed by one more checkpoint in Maine. In the past there were three checkpoints, each in far-flung corners of the US.

The scavenger hunt nature of the event remained as challenging as ever. A lighthouse and water theme gave rally master Lisa Landry plenty of ammunition with which to challenge us. Or one could say the rope was long enough for each of us to hang ourselves.

As always, there were many more bonuses offered on the menu of choices for each leg than could possibly be visited within the time allowed. The combinations and arrangement of these were designed not be easy to just scoop up in a simple loop. Making it more difficult was the fact that almost all of the bonuses (bonii?) were daylight only where a picture was to be taken with the numbered rally flag in the Polaroid snapshot.

My favourite example of this is the Yellowstone park triplet offered in the first leg. Three big bonuses were clumped together within the park. They sure looked attractive, and Yellowstone was just close enough to get to before nightfall on the first day. The rally started at 9AM and there were precious few big-point bonuses available to riders on day one.

I resisted this enticement. Yes I could have gotten to the park by nightfall, but each was in different sections of this very large and busy park. One traffic tie up would put the whole trio out of reach.

Instead, I bagged a single large bonus in Nebraska (yes there is a lighthouse in Nebraska!) just a few hours into the rally, and spent the rest of the first day riding to put me in the vicinity of a very large bonus in New Mexico the next morning at daybreak.

The gambit worked. I had heard of several riders who got caught in heavy traffic in the park and had to blow off all three bonuses as the sun set while they stewed in their own juices. Sure they could have waited to morning light to take the three required pictures, but they would have just sat all night and then wasted the next day getting to the Pacific coast where all the big points were. Instead, they spent the night riding to the coast to begin their bonus hunt at first light with no bonuses under their belts to show for their efforts.

Very tricky, Lisa, very tricky indeed!

After New Mexico, I battled heat and dehydration though Arizona and southern California just south of Death Valley, snagging a bonus for taking a picture of a sign at the bottom of the world’s tallest flagpole. The base of the pole was over 300 feet below sea level, and stretched up to sea level. San Diego brought welcome cool air and a nice fat bonus that evening, coupled with a beautiful sunset over the water.

I strolled the shops in Coronado near San Diego looking for bottled water and a pair of sunglasses as mine had packed it in during the day’s desert heat, just two days into the rally. That night on the coast in Los Angeles, I took a picture of a sign at the entrance to a gated community, one of the few nighttime bonuses offered. The GPS routed me though the complicated series of freeways like a native.

I continued north up the California coast and into Oregon before turning east and heading back to Denver. A massive jam-up in Portland at afternoon rush hour forced me onto the shoulder for miles. My riding suit, tall whip antenna, and airliner dashboard layout lent an official look and no one bothered me.

Back in Denver I found myself in the top half of the field. I was surprised to learn that some riders went to Key West, Florida and New Brunswick during this three and a half day leg. They were able to snag very large bonuses for their extreme efforts, but were eclipsed by riders who collected the numerous bonuses on the west coast. And those long rides left them over-tired for the remainder of the rally, where they dropped in the standings.

We retired to our rooms that evening with bonus sheets in hand for the Denver to Maine leg. While we could leave at any time, I tried to get some sleep after route planning and loading my GPS with maps from my laptop computer.

At two in the morning, I was still wide awake. I dressed, collected my things, left the room key on the table and walked down to the bike.

Fifteen minutes after leaving the lights of Denver behind, my headlights went out on I70 eastbound. I was in the dark; my aux lights were triggered from the headlight circuit and as a result were also kaput.

Sitting on the shoulder, with nothing but the moon and a flashlight to give me sight, I decided not to go after the fuse. Instead, using CB radio, I contacted the next trucker to drive by, asking for guidance to the next truck stop that my GPS told me was less than 20 miles away. A lit parking lot was definitely a more suitable workspace than the breezy and exposed interstate shoulder.

Later on that day in a choking Kansas heat, I stopped at a highway service center for gas. While points are not given for miles ridden, having a complete fuel log accompanied by detailed fuel receipts are worth quite a few points.

The receipt the pump spat out did not have the location printed on it. I politely asked the cashier in the store if the cash register receipt had location. I was treated to a rant triggered by the rude treatment of another motorcyclist, who was obviously another Iron Butt competitor. He had berated her for the unfortunate lack of printed location on the store’s receipts.

I eventually left the store with a printout that had all the needed information, and I carried with it a sense of frustration and disappointment with my unknown fellow rider. No amount of apologies (and I gave her quite a few) could repair the damage that one inconsiderate person had done to our sport.

Much rain and fog that night in the mountains of West Virginia only dampened my spirits further. I slowed my pace, but being passed at imprudent speeds by three Aerostich wearing riders on GPS-equipped bikes had me wondering further whether I really belonged in this rally.

Does one have to be rude and unsafe to be competitive?

After the rain, I began debating with myself about how much time I had left on this leg to ride to my planned bonus locations, having already abandoned one. After mentally going back and forth a few times, I did decide to attempt the biggest points along my path. I knew this indecision was fatigue induced and vowed to get more sleep at the Maine checkpoint, where the timing was right to obtain bonus points offered for resting.

I had scheduled a tire and oil change at Reynolds Motorsports, the site of the Maine checkpoint, and showed up there after a very nice sleep in a motel. I handed my bike over to the service department, got my paperwork in order, and went to the scoring desk. Much to my surprise, I had gained a few positions and was now in the top third.

The last bonus listing had bonuses all over Canada and the United States, including several hard to reach ones on the west coast that were worth big points. While planning my route, yet another discovery left me with a feeling of disappointment. Many competitors had teams of helpers planning the route for them while they slept. These pit crews were also loading routes, waypoints, and maps into the GPS of their riders, and arranging service to the bike as well. I had to do all of this myself, taking away from valuable nap time.

I disagreed with this practice, as it detracts from the purity of the one rider versus another nature of the event. It was not forbidden under the rules, but still cheating I thought, and yet another negative strike against for this rally that had been captivating me for eight years.

My decision to ride into Canada on the final leg was made a little easier by the fact that hurricane Katrina was starting to lash the gulf coast near New Orleans. I am from Moncton, New Brunswick, and had spent much time in Prince Edward Island, places I would visit on this leg. I also planned to ride to Campbellton, NB, where my wife Jane grew up.

I smiled when I realized I could snag yet another rest bonus in Moncton on my way by. I parked and slept in my old driveway, and slept very soundly in my family home for five hours, waking only after the extremely rude Screaming Meanie trucker alarm timed itself out.

Off I went to PEI, visiting another lighthouse, and also visiting my grandmother’s gravesite and some long time family friends. Heck, I don’t find myself on the island all that often so I might as well take advantage.

Another rally master trick caught up a fellow rider here on the island. Most of the bonuses required a picture with the rider’s numbered flag visible in the picture in front of the bonus subject. This one also required the rider’s motorcycle in the shot. At the Campbellton stop, rider Duke Dunsford lamented he didn’t read the instructions and as a result had let the 10,000 point bonus slip away as his photo did not include his 250cc Kawasaki Ninja.

Later on in Quebec, I entered into a massive storm system dumping huge amounts of rain. This turned out to be the remnants of hurricane Katrina heading north. It made riding very difficult, with strong winds and hard driving rain. If this is merely a remnant, the storm must have been bad. And of course it was.

I got tired near Montreal and stopped to rest. Not finding overhead shelter, I laid down on a picnic table, with the rain coming down as strong as ever. I tried to lay on my side with my helmet turned down to prevent rain from splashing me in the face. It was only partly effective. I did get some sleep, but it wasn’t enough.

I had hoped to snag a trio of bonuses in Vermont on my way past, but I would get there in the dark and have to wait hours in the rain for the required daylight. I blew them off.

I was on my to Sault, Michigan, but I didn’t leave the rain behind until nearly Sudbury. It was a relief. Despite the waterproof suit, I was still soaked down to my underwear. Due to the heat, I didn’t close my suit completely. I left the front zipper down slightly. Only the occasional drop of water entered, but over the course of 12 hours of this, it was enough to soak me.

I met up with Dean Tanji, Brian Boberick, and Steve Hobart at another lighthouse on the northern shores of Lake Michigan, and we all enjoyed a meal and some camaraderie in nearby Escanaba, Michigan, as we were less than two days from the end of the rally. After a much needed shower and sleep (and another rest bonus), I felt surprisingly good, despite the shock of prices at the pumps. The sun was shining, and I was on target to reach the remaining bonus.

The group of four were all headed to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for the one remaining bonus and we rode together that far, after which Brian and I split off to take a shortcut heading back to the barn. With the end of the stress of the last 11 days in sight, my mood lightened considerably. Something akin to the elation I had felt on my first Iron Butt in 2001 crept in to sweep away the disenchantment I had been feeling. Before long, I had decided that yes, I could one day ride this rally again. Styx said it best: “Too much time on my hands.”

The final run through Nebraska mirrored my initial ride to Denver. It was cold and dark in the high elevations approaching the foothills of the Rockies. My Gerbing heated jacket liner was on a low setting to take the chill off. Whether that was from the temperatures or the excitement of finishing this massive ride I don’t know.

It seemed like an eternity since I had last seen the Doubltree Hotel in Denver. I had been to both coasts, and my old stompin’ grounds of New Brunswick. Pulling in at about 5AM, I was elated to see two friendly faces from home, Marlene and Michael from the Zen Riders club.

Park the bike: check, engine stop: check, sidestand: check. Everything was deliberate and in slow motion like in a dream. I was handed a bottle of water and was the recipient of numerous handshakes and hugs. But there was still business to attend to. Paperwork and photographs for the last leg from Maine (how many days ago was that?) needed to be organized and presented to the scoring table.

Part of being a successful Iron Butt Rally competitor is having the ability to keep one’s mind on the task at hand regardless of distractions and road weariness. However, with the end of the ride came a difficulty in focusing. I tried to concentrate with images of the last eleven days moving in front of my mind’s eye like I was riding a train. I knew if I just got this paperwork out of the way, I could check in to the hotel and enjoy eight hours in a bed.

After being scored, I was encouraged by my results.

Not wishing to bite off more than I could chew, I had not set an overly aggressive ride, but also had not left much slack time in my routes. Once the rally had started and I was on the bike and rolling, I had kept to the program, and didn’t make any mistakes. And the bike didn’t break.

At the banquet that night, I was quite certain I had improved upon my previous 32nd place finish, but wasn’t sure. As the places were called out in descending order, my heart raced as 32nd place was called out, then 30th, and still I had not heard my name. I eventually took my turn in front of the room to accept my plaque as 25th place finisher, with enough points for a gold medal!

The biggest story of the rally was Jim Owen of Pennsylvania. He was so far ahead of everyone else at the checkpoints, it was commonly understood he would win. It was a foregone conclusion. Then on the second last day of the rally, his BMW broke down and he went from front-runner to DNF. Nevertheless, he received a standing ovation at the finisher’s banquet from the hundreds in attendance.

Putting in a strong ride on his Honda ST1300 was Shane Smith of Mississippi. Despite his house being almost completely washed away by Katrina, his family urged him to continue. He became the winner after Jim dropped out, ending BMW’s stranglehold on the top spot.

Overshadowing the winner’s circle was the specter of what might have been had one Don Arthur competed. Vice-admiral Arthur, Surgeon General of the United States Navy, had spent the last year scooping up top finishes in numerous rallies and was widely expected to finish at or near the top of the Iron Butt Rally. On his way to Denver, an oblivious driver turned left right directly into his path. He t-boned the car, ending up seriously hurt and back at the Navy hospital in Bethesda, Maryland he commanded.

It is said that postpartum, a woman’s body forgets the pain of birth. I had this bouncing baby finisher’s plaque, and what remained was positive memories of faces, places, long roads, fog-shrouded lighthouses, the flash of a Polaroid camera, and the desire to ride the Iron Butt again.

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