When the call
rang into the bluetooth in Paul Pellands helmet, he was in the
middle of the infamous 2003 Iron Butt Rally with some of the best
endurance riders in the world. The rally spans the continental United
States, and challenges the 100 chosen entrants to ride 11,000 miles
in 11 days.
The competition tests a riders capacity to stay in the saddle
hour after hour, fighting severe sleep deprivation, extreme heat and
cold. The Iron Butt Association, aka rally bastards, sadistically
plan a route that takes riders through places like the Mojave Desert
at high noon, and then sends them up a muddy 14,000-foot road to frigid
Pikes Peak in Colorado.
But Pelland was feeling good. For the moment, he was in first place,
and then the call brought even more good news: Hed been awarded
custody of his two young sons. But the legal work on that would take
several more weeks, enabling him to finish out his ride without worry.
But as Pelland continued on the third leg of his rally through Florida,
he noticed a persistent numbness in his hands. The sense of being
one with his bikea mindful bliss that he so cherisheddisintegrated.
Then he came across a downed rider who turned out to be a friend whom
Pelland knew well. But as he looked down at his fallen friends
face, he could not remember the mans name.
In Part I of a two-part interview, Pelland tells ABILITY Magazines
contributing editor Christopher J.B. how an unexpected diagnosis changed
the course of his life.
Christopher JB: Can you talk about the Iron Butt Association?
Pelland: The organization started out small and is getting bigger.
They have an annual conference and do certified rides all across the
world. Its a club that anyone can get into, by documenting whats
called the SaddleSore 1000. Basically you have to document where you
went in a 24-hour period, and you have to have done 1,000 miles or
better. You submit all that information with an entry fee of $25 or
something like that, and they put the information into their computers
and can tell if youre fudging. Actualy there are lots of other
organizations who run these kinds of long-distance rallies as well.
There are probably 50 different rides across the country. Most are
24-hour rallies, benefiting different charities.
If all your information is proven to be correct, youll receive
a certificate and a little license plate bracket that says, Iron
Butt Association: Worlds Toughest Riders. Then youre
a member. And once youre a member, you can enter any of these
other events. Ive done a lot of them; in fact, my first rally
was called the Butt Light.
Pelland: It was a long, seven-day, 7,000-mile rally. And when they
say 7,000 miles, thats just to give somebody an idea of what
the average rider will do. You dont have to do the 7,000. You
might be able to do the rally and end it in 5,000 miles. The winner
might do it in 9,000. Its just to give people an idea that youre
not riding 50 miles a day and having cocktails at night. This is really
different. These are people who push the bike and themselves to the
limits. And its all for a plastic trophy. There are no cash
prizes for any of these events, other than a trophy for some of the
bigger rallies. But thats it. Its a camaraderie of the
top long-distance riders in the world.
JB: According to the Iron Butt website, there are only 53,000 members,
yet only 100 are chosen to compete in the Iron Butt Rally. Why are
so few selected?
Pelland: Its a lot to manage. It takes them two years to actually
plan each one of these rallies because of the logistics: If you have
100 riders doing 10,000 or 11,000 miles, thats a million miles
of riding and a lot of things can happen. Most of these bikes will
need tires at least once. Some people start the rally, and then drive
by their home, stop for a rest and never finish because they cant
get out of bed. People rarely ride together or even see each other
except at the mandatory checkpoints.
JB: Do you ever partner up or do you prefer to go it alone?
Pelland: Its really hard to ride with somebody else because
youre trying to make the best use of time; maybe your bike needs
gas at 300 miles and theirs can go to 350. If they have to stop every
time to accommodate you, theyve stopped 50 miles sooner than
they needed to, cutting their chances of covering a greater distance
and getting, maybe, one more bonus that day than you. Theres
nothing worse than being late. And youre always late on a rally.
You have to stop if somebody else needs toothpaste or something. I
cant do it. The people that do it, all credit to them, but it
is difficult to ride with another person.
JB: The goal is to stay in the saddle as long as you can, while managing
your sleep, diet and navigation strategy better than anybody else
manages theirs. Thats how you win, isnt it?
Pelland: Right. Theres no way that anybody could ride at warp
speed for days on end. Its impossible. First of all, your bikes
fuel mileage is going to drop by almost 50 percent, and the alertness
that you need riding at a high speed wears you out so much quicker.
Its just impossible. You know, if the rally was an hour or four
hours long, maybe somebody could ride at top speed, but its
just impossible to do that for long periods of time.
The other thing that these rallies do is make sure people ride safely.
Theyre usually mandatory sleep bonuses, which means you basically
have to document that youve stopped somewhere for four hours
without putting any miles on your bike. That could be having a witness
and having a receipt at a gas station that shows one time and then
getting another receipt at the same gas station four hours later to
prove that you didnt move. They usually make those bonuses either
mandatory, or so high in points that if you dont get them, you
wont be in the top 10.
JB: How do you get bonuses?
Pelland: A lot of them require taking a photograph. When I used to
do the rallies, it was back when you had a Polaroid, so youd
have to take a Polaroid of whatever the item is. The bonus may say,
Go to such-and-such a street, and on the left-hand side of the
street theres a plaque. The plaque lists a person who was in
World War II. Take a picture of the plaque and take a picture of the
year he passed away. So you ride 600 miles to this one bonus
destination, and you take out your flag. Everybody has a rally flag
given to them the day of the rally, and it has a specific picture
on it that no one else has, and then it has your number. So theres
no way to fake the picture. So you put your flag next to the sign
and take the picture. Then you write down in the rally book the time,
the date, the mileage, and the answer to the question. You make sure
your pictures good, and that you can see the item and the flag,
and then that bonus is good, and you head to get your next one.
When you get to the checkpoint, you hand in your digital card I
used to hand in my photographsand your rally book, and theyll
go through it and score you at the table. A lot of people either forget
to put their flag in the picture, dont put down the date, include
the wrong sign. And thats how tons of bonus points get lost
at the table.
JB: Such simple mistakes are probably owing to sleep deprivation
and road fatigue, because the endurance part of this rally sounds
no less challenging than, say, competing in a triathlon, which clearly
doesnt have the same danger quotient.
are all kinds of safety meetings. It is dangerous. Riding a motorcycle
is dangerous, and pushing yourself and the bike to its limits is dangerous.
You need to know your body. You need to know your skills. You need
to know when its time to pull over and take a break.
JB: So lets go back to that summer of 2003, when youre
in the middle of an Iron Butt Rally and you received news that, after
a bitter divorce and years of a child custody battle, youve
finally been awarded custody.
Pelland: The last court hearing was right before I left for the 2003
Iron Butt Rally. It just so happened that we had the court hearing
in June or July, and it always takes them six or eight weeks to come
out with a ruling. So by then, I was in the third leg of the rally
in Baton Rouge, LA, when I received the phone call from my attorney.
I started crying. I couldnt see. I know at that point I definitely
pulled over, and I was just an emotional ball of nerves and everything
started going through my head. OK, now what? I never thought it was
going to happen.
JB: And then, on the heels of that elation, and being in first
place in the rally, something was going wrong with your body. Talk
about your emerging symptoms.
Pelland: I dont remember a lot of that day. I showed up in Florida.
I dont remember the exact checkpoint, but at that point in the
rally, I was actually in first place. I had collected the most bonuses
up to that checkpoint. But when I arrived, I was quite confused. I
had all kinds of cognitive issues as far as remembering the day before.
JB: Theres so much planning and thinking involved with these
rallies, which must have really made it doubly scary for you when
the problems started.
Pelland: I knew I was supposed to get tires there. I didnt remember
if I got my bike to the dealership or not. The organizer and rally
master of the event, Lisa Landry, said, Paul, you look like
crap. You need to go to your room right now. I had a room reserved
at each of the checkpoints. She said, Dont even bother
coming to the riders meeting. The riders meeting
is a mandatory meeting where you get the bonus packets and any information
about the last leg, along with your point standings. All this is given
out at each one of these checkpoints during the 11 days. She said,
Dont even come. Do not come. You go right to bed.
So I did, and I dont remember when I ventured out, but I was
then told that I was in the lead.
I dont remember
much of that day. I had shared a room at the hotel with a fellow rider
from New Hampshire, because thats what you do: You split a room
with somebody else, since youre usually only in there for three
or four hours at most anyway. I had seen him in the room, I remember
that. It was Lake City, FL, I just remembered the checkpoint.
JB: And even after a decent rest, the problem didnt go away.
You still felt as if your brain was being attacked by something.
Pelland: I slept late and left a few hours after everybody else had
gone, because they had all received their bonus packets and had done
their mapping and figured out where they were going for the last leg.
I got my rally book and I looked at it, and I really couldnt
understand it. I couldnt plan the next leg. So I basically did
the simplest thing. I picked the biggest bonus, and just headed toward
it in Key West, FL. It was kind of a suckers bonus, but it was
the only thing I could do. I literally could not figure out where
So I got my bike and there was something wrong with the bike. I knew
I had hit a big pothole in Death Valley a couple of days earlier and
bent the rim, but I had the tires put on, and I stopped at the side
of the highway, which is not really safe. I felt like the tires were
on backwards or something. My hands were vibrating and tingling. It
was hot, and I thought I was rally-fried, which is a fatigue you get
from being in the saddle 20 hours a day for five, six, eight days
I thought my feelings were due to the rally, and to the fact that
I knew it would be my last one, given that I had won custody of my
boys. Besides the fact that competing is dangerous, I wouldnt
have the time or the money to be away from them.. So all these things
combined added to my stress.
I came across a motorcycle accident. The bike was upside-down in the
ditch, and the rider was on the ground. It didnt look fatal,
but part of the rules of the rally are, if you come across an accident,
you have to stop, and if it is a rider from the rally, you have to
stay with them until help comes. You also have to report it to the
rally master to make sure they can get people out there, and make
sure the familys notified. So I stopped, and I looked down at
this rider, and I knew who he was, and [the rescue crew] asked, Do
you know who this is? And I said, Yes, his name is
and I couldnt remember his name. Im looking at him and
hes looking up at me. I think he had a split lip, but other
than that, his face was crystal clear, and he said, Paul, its
me! And Im looking, and I had to actually walk away, because
I was embarrassed, and I didnt know his name. And then I came
back and I remembered that we all have nametags on our chest and I
grabbed it off his jacket.
I then called into headquarters and I said, So-and-so is down,
rider number X. And the person at the other end of the phone
said, Oh, thats Bob. So I turned back to the scene
and I said, His names Bob, and then I remembered
his last name. He was the guy that I had actually shared a hotel room
with the night before. So I left there, and I was just floored that
I was looking straight at this man that I know very well and couldnt
recall his first name. That haunted me the whole rest of the rally.
I got down to Key West and then from there it was up the Blue Ridge
Parkway to Maine. At the next checkpoint, my hands were shaking, numb
and tingly, so much so that I couldnt even sign in my score.
Somebody had to help me with my points. By then, I had dropped quite
a bit in the point standings because I didnt pick a good route.
From that point, I ended up talking to a few riders and picking a
better plan for the next stretch. We headed up to Nova Scotia and
did a bunch of bonuses up there, and then we all took the ferry back
across to the States and continued down I-95. But at one point, I
was riding with a rider, and he had an accident on the highway, and
this time I ended up staying with him. We went to the hospital and
spent a long period of time there, and then I got a cab and we ended
up getting a hotel room. I picked up his bike and brought it back
to the hotel. He had a broken toe. In the morning he was going to
head home, and I convinced him to at least try to finish the rally.
He ended up finishing.
I knew at this point that I wasnt competing to be the top rider.
I just wanted to finish and then go on with what the plans were for
the rest of my life. I was also having trouble concentrating and the
confusion and the problems with my hands. I ended up coming in ninth
place at the finish.
JB: That seems great with all the stops you made and the problems
Pelland: It was good. I was pleased. But again, my hands had no strength
at all. It was months after the rally and I couldnt squeeze
nail clippers. I worked in a trade, with my hands and tools, and it
really bothered me. Like any other guy, you know, you dont go
to the doctor until somethings bloody or has fallen off.
JB: Thats a man thing, for sure.
Pelland: It was two years later when I was diagnosed, but up until
then I had started to really get scared. I thought I maybe had dementia,
Alzheimers or something, because I couldnt remember people.
Id see somebody in the morning at my shop and somebody would
come in in the afternoon and I wouldnt recognize that they were
the person that was there in the morning.
JB: So it was more than just forgetting names, you were forgetting
Pelland: I was forgetting the whole event, that they were there, and
that they had dropped off something to be repaired. And when they
said, Remember I did this? I would fake it, but I really
had no recollection. I had other issues where Id call to order
a pizza, and theyd say, OK, whats your phone number
and address? And I could not recall my own phone number. I had
it written down in my pocket, and its a phone number Id
had for six years. I would order things and fill out the form online
and have it shipped, and it would end up at a house I was at five,
six years ago. And then every time Id write my address Id
Its the short-term memory stuff.
I used to travel around the country, Ive been in all of the
lower 48 states, but if you give me directions that have more than
two lefts and rights, I will not be able to get there. I will get
lost. I write it down. I use a GPS everywhere I go. I use a GPS every
day on my way to work. I can look up in my daily travels and just
look around and not know exactly where I am. I know that Im
on my way to work, but it looks like a place Ive never been
before, and I see it every day. Its a scary thing.....
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