When the call rang into the bluetooth in Paul Pelland’s 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 rider’s 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 Pike’s 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: He’d 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 bike—a mindful bliss that he so cherished—disintegrated. 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 friend’s face, he could not remember the man’s name.
In Part I of a two-part interview, Pelland tells ABILITY Magazine’s 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. It’s a club that anyone can get into, by documenting what’s 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 you’re 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, you’ll receive a certificate and a little license plate bracket that says, “Iron Butt Association: World’s Toughest Riders.” Then you’re a member. And once you’re a member, you can enter any of these other events. I’ve 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, that’s just to give somebody an idea of what the average rider will do. You don’t 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. It’s just to give people an idea that you’re 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 it’s 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 that’s it. It’s 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: It’s 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, that’s 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 can’t 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: It’s really hard to ride with somebody else because you’re 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, they’ve 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. There’s nothing worse than being late. And you’re always late on a rally. You have to stop if somebody else needs toothpaste or something. I can’t 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. That’s how you win, isn’t it?
Pelland: Right. There’s no way that anybody could ride at warp speed for days on end. It’s impossible. First of all, your bike’s 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. It’s just impossible. You know, if the rally was an hour or four hours long, maybe somebody could ride at top speed, but it’s just impossible to do that for long periods of time.
The other thing that these rallies do is make sure people ride safely. They’re usually mandatory sleep bonuses, which means you basically have to document that you’ve 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 didn’t move. They usually make those bonuses either mandatory, or so high in points that if you don’t get them, you won’t 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 you’d 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 there’s 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 there’s 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 picture’s 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 photographs—and your rally book, and they’ll go through it and score you at the table. A lot of people either forget to put their flag in the picture, don’t put down the date, include the wrong sign. And that’s 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 doesn’t have the same danger quotient.
Pelland: There 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 it’s time to pull over and take a break.
JB: So let’s go back to that summer of 2003, when you’re in the middle of an Iron Butt Rally and you received news that, after a bitter divorce and years of a child custody battle, you’ve 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 couldn’t 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 don’t remember a lot of that day. I showed up in Florida. I don’t 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: There’s 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 didn’t 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, “Don’t 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, ‘Don’t even come. Do not come. You go right to bed.’ So I did, and I don’t remember when I ventured out, but I was then told that I was in the lead.
I don’t remember much of that day. I had shared a room at the hotel with a fellow rider from New Hampshire, because that’s what you do: You split a room with somebody else, since you’re 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t 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 sucker’s bonus, but it was the only thing I could do. I literally could not figure out where to go.
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 straight.
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 wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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 family’s 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 couldn’t remember his name. I’m looking at him and he’s looking up at me. I think he had a split lip, but other than that, his face was crystal clear, and he said, “Paul, it’s me!” And I’m looking, and I had to actually walk away, because I was embarrassed, and I didn’t 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, that’s Bob.” So I turned back to the scene and I said, “His name’s 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 you had.
Pelland: It was good. I was pleased. But again, my hands had no strength at all. It was months after the rally and I couldn’t 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 don’t go to the doctor until something’s bloody or has fallen off.
JB: That’s 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, Alzheimer’s or something, because I couldn’t remember people. I’d see somebody in the morning at my shop and somebody would come in in the afternoon and I wouldn’t recognize that they were the person that was there in the morning.
JB: So it was more than just forgetting names, you were forgetting faces too.
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 I’d call to order a pizza, and they’d say, “OK, what’s your phone number and address?” And I could not recall my own phone number. I had it written down in my pocket, and it’s a phone number I’d 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 I’d write my address I’d second-guess it … It’s the short-term memory stuff.
I used to travel around the country, I’ve 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 I’m on my way to work, but it looks like a place I’ve never been before, and I see it every day. It’s a scary thing…..
Articles in the Joe Mantegna Issue; Senator Harkin — US Budget Must Reflect Our Values; Ashley Fiolek — A Concussion Tests Her Ability; Humor — All in the Family; Web Widget — Accessibility Works; Chinese Art — Raw Beauty of the Innocents; Geri’s — Survivor Guide; Golf Pro — One Arm, Limitless Possibilities; Road Trip — MS Changes a Biker’s Course; Charlie Kimball — Racing Against Diabetes; Joe Mantegna — When Life Flips the Script; Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson — Crusader For Autism; DRLC — Beware Genetic Discrimination; Betsy Valnes — Connect the Dots in Disability Circles; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; CRPD — Information and Communication Technologies; Events and Conferences…