Doing an Iron Butt Ride Was Utterly Pointless (But I'm Glad I Did)
This past weekend saw me finally tackling the Iron Butt ride I mentioned back in April.
Ostensibly, I took part in the ride to help raise money for the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal, a charity initiative that helps the UK’s military and veteran communities. The Poppy Appeal is a good cause (A special thanks to those of you who donated) and an Iron Butt is something I’d wanted to do for a while, so I jumped at the chance.
Now that I’ve done it, I’m pretty certain I will never do it again. Turns out I don’t actually enjoy riding 1,000 miles in less than 24 hours. It’s not my thing. It’s tedious, exhausting, and runs contrary to many of the things I love about motorcycling.
Of course, I never would have known that unless I’d done it. So, while I’ll readily tell you an Iron Butt is a waste of time, I’ll also tell you that you may need to learn that for yourself.
My ride started at 5 a.m. on the outskirts of the Northern England city of Leeds, at a place called Squires Cafe. I had ridden up from Cardiff the day before, about 250 miles away, and hit surprise heavy rain en route. I’d spent the night running up Holiday Inn’s electricity bill, holding a hair dryer to my clothes, and by the time I had to get geared up and go my stuff had almost but not quite dried out.
It was raining again –– lightly –– when I pulled up to the starting point, my Suzuki V-Strom 1000’s panniers full of spare gloves and extra layers. I was wearing a one-piece rainsuit. My heated grips were on low. To the bike’s rack I had strapped a 5-liter bottle of water.
In the months before this ride I had intended to sit down and read the reams of advice offered by the Iron Butt Association UK, but… ah… I didn’t. The only nugget of wisdom I’d managed to pick up was that I should stay hydrated.
A Royal British Legion volunteer checked me in, wished me well, and I was off. I would not return until almost exactly 21 hours later.
Of those 21 hours, I’d say roughly 20.5 were spent in rain or fog –– usually both. As I approached Manchester, thick fog, illuminated white by my headlight, limited visibility to about 100 feet. I sped onward into the unknown, because “Making Progress.”
Less than 50 miles into the ride, I had already stumbled upon an aspect of the Iron Butt experience that makes me never want to do it again. Throughout the day, “Make Progress” was my mantra. I had to keep going, had to keep pushing forward, because I was against the clock. And that mentality negatively altered my riding style; I took fewer breaks and greater chances.
By the time I was 270 miles into the ride, I had abandoned my usual rules for filtering, aka lane splitting. Normally, I won’t filter above 30 mph, won’t take gaps between two moving semi trucks, won’t ride more than 10 mph faster than surrounding traffic. It’s a prudish technique, perhaps, but I’m relatively confident that if things go wrong under those conditions I’ll survive.
That was all gone as I ripped through Glasgow. Effortlessly, mindlessly, I slithered through the city’s traffic. Tearing through the chaotic wind tunnels between trucks, shooting within inches of cars’ mirrors. It was, as I say, stupid. Looking back, I’m disappointed in myself and embarrassed.
You know those jackass riders whose idiot behavior spoils it for everyone else? That was me. I was that jackass. Somewhere in Glasgow right now there’s a motorcyclist getting all kinds of daggers from the eyes of drivers who think one of us is all of us, and it’s my fault.
North of Glasgow, through Loch Lomond the National Trossachs and northward toward Inverness, the roads turned to two-lane winding routes that would have been fantastic on another day: a day when it wasn’t raining, a day when I didn’t feel pressed for time, a day when the road wasn’t clogged with tourists hauling camper trailers.
Make Progress. Make Progress. Make Progress. My mind was locked into this course of action now. On blind corners I passed four or five cars at a time. I swooped into too-tiny slots to narrowly avoid oncoming traffic, then dove back across the not-always-dotted lines. These actions blur together in my memory now: all one big fluid bad call.
The one moment that stands out came along the shores of Loch Ness. I leapt out from behind a motorhome without looking, right into the path of a BMW 4 Series. I tried to swing back into my lane but by this time had already come astride the motorhome. My pannier bumped against it. The BMW didn’t slow, didn’t swerve –– I’m not sure the driver ever saw me. Somehow I slipped through. I didn’t die.
I made Wick –– roughly the halfway point in the ride –– just before 5 p.m. At a grocery store where we had to check in I snapped one of only two pictures I took that day. Usually, what I love about motorcycling is that it connects me to the world, helps me take more of it in and appreciate it all. Not here. I was a drone, ignoring everything but the space in front of me and the miles I needed to cover.
The other picture I took that day was of my breakfast. By the time I hit Edinburgh, pushing back south toward Leeds, I had gone roughly 13 hours without eating. For a tiny moment I looked up, stepped out of my mental cocoon, and saw the new Queensferry Crossing bridge being built over the Firth of Forth. In the rainy early-dusk light it looked strangely beautiful and special. I felt lucky to be there in that moment. But once it was out of sight I slipped back into my idiot state. Hunger, exhaustion, stress, and mindlessness caused a meltdown.
We use the C word quite regularly here in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and on this day my use of it –– in conjunction with words that start with A, B, D, F, G, H, I, J, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, and W –– was abundantly liberal. When a sudden increase in the rain’s intensity caused cars in front of me to slow I started screaming the C word with such ferocity that my brain locked and I could only spit the first syllable: “Cuh-Cuh-Cuh-Cuh…”
I found food at a 24-hour McDonalds in the middle of nowhere. Another personal rule broken. As I inhaled chicken nuggets and French fries I was overcome by the deep, hollow pointlessness of what I was doing: 1,000 miles alone in a big, dumb, wet circle. Why?
Heavy fog made the night darker. My rainsuit was giving up on me. Two of my four pairs of “waterproof” gloves had quit entirely. As had the pinlock visor in my helmet. Mist collected on the outside of the visor; I kept it open to prevent fog from building up inside. Droplets of water splashed against my face.
The external temperature display on my dash told me it was 10ºC (50ºF). The Suzuki has always been an optimist, so I know it was colder. My heated grips were on high but I couldn’t feel my hands. My teeth clacked from shivering.
The last 200 miles were like the final scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey: a tunnel of colors and my mind coming undone. Orange. Yellow. White. Red. Black. Any light spread out across the fog that surrounded me. Beyond it, darkness. I could not see the road. I was riding by GPS. If the map showed a curve, I leaned into it.
Credit to the Iron Butt Association and the Royal British Legion for their organization in putting together this event. They were the ones who had gone to the trouble to create the GPS file that guided me through the night. And they were the ones waiting for the riders when I arrived back at Squires Cafe.
As I pulled into the parking lot, a woman came running up to me, grabbing my shoulder and looking me in the eyes: “Turn off your engine and set your side stand down. There’s food over there and tea. You can warm up and they’ll take your paperwork. If you want to get out of the rain, you can eat under the awning just over there.”
I looked at her. She repeated her spiel. I blinked. She repeated it again. In my head I thought: “Why does this woman have a Yorkshire accent?”
Squires Cafe is in Yorkshire.
When she repeated her spiel yet again, I thought: “I wonder who she’s talking to.”
I looked behind me. No one there. By now she had recruited a man to push down my side stand and help pull me off my bike.
I recovered enough to thereafter ride 5 miles to my hotel, sleep for 9 hours straight, then ride the 250 miles back home to Cardiff –– stopping five times –– before falling into my bed and sleeping another 9 hours. On a Skype call with RideApart Creative Director Jim Downs the next day he told me I looked and sounded hungover.
Really, probably, I should be dead. I did so many things wrong on this Iron Butt ride. It was an elephantine string of bad decisions. I suppose I’m glad I did it –– I had always wanted to –– but I am nothing short ashamed of how it went. It was a challenge that created a perfect storm of pressure and fatigue, and within that situation I let myself down. I was neither the rider nor person I want to be.
Right now I’m inclined to say my first Iron Butt ride was also my last.