Long Haul Paul: Riding a Million Miles for the Cure
Words by Paul Pelland | Photos by Matt Kiedaisch
As I slid down a lonely Arkansas highway just as the sun’s warmth was cresting the horizon, I couldn’t help but think this may not have been one of my better ideas. If I managed to live through the next few seconds, not only would the entire world know I was an idiot, I would have one hell of a long walk home.
I slid on my chest in slow motion, my motorcycle just a few feet ahead of me shedding pounds by the foot, marring the pavement while creating a fantastic light show. Bright, colorful sparks, the likes of which no Japanese bike could ever create.
The bike was veering toward the right shoulder like an obedient pigeon, and I dragged my right boot like a rudder to follow it to its familiar home, the breakdown lane.
Every believing biker knows tractor-trailers would never be allowed to drive past the pearly gates, so inhaling the mingled stench of burnt asbestos-flavored dust and decade-old recycled tread was a welcome relief I savored as if it were a fresh-baked blueberry pie. The 18-wheeler was the only other vehicle on the highway, and the out-of-tune screeching of brittle rubber composed the string section that accompanied the light show.
The year was 2001, and although I had yet to show any of the progressive disabling symptoms of having multiple sclerosis, I was riding a motorcycle that most certainly did.
It wasn’t the first time I shouted, “You Commie bastard!” But this time it was forceful enough to fog my face shield. I realized for the first time in almost two years of planning that my attempt to ride a Russian Ural in the Iron Butt Rally was insane, absurd and appeared to be grinding itself to an embarrassing finale. As the Earth beneath me stopped rotating, the sparks fizzled out, and the music died.
The show was over. Nothing to see here. My attempt at finishing the World’s Toughest Motorcycle Competition was ending in the gutter. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Within hours of the starting pistol, I had experienced a seized motor and the joy of a 150-mile tow in the wrong direction. A stranger with matching DNA transplanted his personal bike’s engine into my frame to help get me back on the road. Not bothering to do a proper test run on the older engine, I rode all night with a rough running motor and electrical issues, including no taillights. After a half hour’s rest in a dingy truck stop, I wasted four hours just trying to start the bike, alternating kicking and swearing with resting and praying before it haphazardly coughed to life. And now, a series of dips in the road caused the front end of my overloaded combative camel to oscillate into a crunchy wobble that intensified into a tank slapper and spit me off.
“If life were easy, everyone would get one.”
Although the asphalt-polished motor, now spewing oil from a ripped-open valve cover, had been salvaged from the good Samaritan, I had started the event on a very special, completely redesigned Ural Solo. It was one of only two specimens in the country and the very first 750cc model registered in the United States. It had electric start and electronic ignition. I was a sponsored rider – albeit reluctantly, as my request for support was originally responded to by the head of Ural America with, “We’re sorry, Paul, but no one in our office thinks our bike could actually finish the Iron Butt Rally.”
I’m not sure why I didn’t see that as a red flag.
It was my first time riding in the World’s Toughest Motorcycle Competition, and I was able to secure a coveted entry spot only after offering to do so on quite possibly the world’s most unreliable motorcycle. At the time my offer was accepted, I did not own a Ural motorcycle and, in fact, I had never even seen one in person!
The Iron Butt Rally is a scavenger hunt on steroids. It runs for eleven days, and the average rider will log over 11,000 miles criss-crossing the country in search of obscure roadside attractions for bonus points. It is not a race, and winning is never about speed. It is about proper planning, routing, fuel management, and proper receipt and recordkeeping, as well as constantly being able to adjust the plan on the fly. It’s about sleep management, and proper diet. It is a thinking game, with unforeseen choices, challenges and obstacles. Most riders choose the latest high-tech touring bikes and outfit them with all the latest gadgets and electronic goodies to prepare for such a grueling test of man and machine.
Exactly 100 of us left the starting line with hopes and dreams – a few to win the event, some to place in the top ten, and the rest just hoping to make it to the finish. The grueling event runs every other year and draws hardcore long-distance riders from all over the world. More humans have travelled in space than have finished an Iron Butt Rally.
At this particular moment, the finish line might just as well have been on mars.
Getting up and dusting myself off, I conceded that my ride, my adventure, my attempt at finishing the Iron Butt Rally was indeed over. With the exception of cigarettes and chronic masturbation, I’ve never been successful at quitting anything. Although I was the butt of every other rider’s joke and even scorned for taking away a coveted spot a real rider could have occupied, I was seriously trying to put forth an honorable effort. I was the only one on the planet who thought I had a shot at finishing, not to mention even making the first checkpoint. Creating a contingency plan was like accepting failure was a possibile outcome, so I had none. I scanned the terrain for a remote area where one could drag a motorcycle, scrape off its serial numbers and leave it to die.
As I checked myself over for missing limbs, I could have sworn on a Bible it had been a week since I left the starting line. The face of my watch joined in the global mockery, as I shook it violently in disbelief. Are you f-ing kidding me?
Just 24 hours had passed since the eleven-day rally had begun.
My esophagus hardened as I swallowed a burlap sackful of cinder blocks. My heart was racing; I felt a wave of anger penetrate every muscle from my ankles up. For my own protection, I don’t carry a pistol. I did, however, have my Russian persuasion instrument in hand and was about to hammer intercontinental bodily harm when I saw the flashing blue lights of the Arkansas State Police.
The trooper looked at me leaning over my borrowed motorcycle steaming in a pool of oil and asked me what had happened. He listened patiently to my story. Without even asking for identification or papers, he offered a simple suggestion.
“Why don’t you see if you can fix it, and continue your ride to California.”
The idea that the heap of mangled metal was rideable never crossed my mind, and certainly the thought of being able to stay in the rally would not have occurred to me on my own. I was doubtful, time was running out, reality was settling in and fear was growing. Fear of what an additional ten more days struggling aboard this antiquated piece of recycled tank turret might do to my body, my mind and my soul. I agreed to give it a try.
My uniformed enabler stayed with me while I picked up the pieces of my motorcycle, duct-taped the windshield and JB Welded the side of the motor. I straightened the handlebars as best I could, and eventually tried to kickstart the bike. It started. I was worried that all the oil had escaped from the hole in the motor and asked the officer if he could radio a tow truck to bring me some oil. I clearly explained I didn’t care what it might cost.
He took a few moments, but when he returned from his patrol car, I inquired about the oil. He shook his head. “The service station wanted too much money.” I started to argue, but he quickly added, “Oh, don’t worry, I called my wife at home, she’s going to the store right now to get two quarts of 20-50 weight oil and will meet us up here on the highway.”
I love a man in uniform.
Just two hours after the crash and an all-but-certain DNF, the Angels of Arkansas had me moving down the road, back in the rally, heading to the West Coast with renewed hope and determination to prove everybody wrong. My progression and digression was relayed to the event organizers a couple of times a day or every breakdown, whichever occurred first. Only after the rally did I understand how my brutally painful experiences were sucking up a multiplying audience, anxiously waiting for my next train wreck. I was the funny pages of the Iron Butt press and the headlines of day two’s official rally report read, “Team Lazarus rides again.”
The unwilling Ural and I continued to wrestle over the next 24 hours with a second tow off the freeway in California, a stripped rocker arm shaft, a charging system failure, intermittent electrical shorts and loose wires. We were sucker-punching each other, bloody and fighting like brothers, when we limped into the Washington checkpoint. All harsh words were quickly forgiven, as Ural America was meeting me and would be repairing the damaged bike. The only other 750cc motor in the country, the one used for EPA testing, became the third engine bolted into my bike.
It was day seven, and only the checkpoint in Maine stood between me and the Alabama finish line. With a fresh motor, steering head bearings (which apparently had fallen out, causing my crash) and other repairs completed, I felt I was in great shape and wanted to attempt a few of the bigger bonuses, particularly the ones in Alaska.
Both my Russian pit crew and the rally staff strongly urged me to head directly to Maine. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. I was informed more people were interested in reading about my misadventures on the Ural than the riders who were actually winning the rally.
“You have to finish, Paul, because some of us are secretly betting you just might.”
It was sound advice. Twelve hours later, my new high-tech, redesigned Russian weapon and I were having words in a pull-off area as I disassembled the left cylinder head for the 56th time in the dirt. I had already lost the luxury of electric start, as it now required removing and banging the pinion gear back into its resting position every time I accidentally used the pretty little button.
Unfortunately, this unplanned rest break was more serious. A poke at the pushrods explained the jingling noises and loss of power. One of the rods spun in an oblong orbit. Bent rod. The cell signal was weak, but the advice from the Russian head mechanic to remove the rod and bang it straight on a rock with a hammer seemed clearly logical. After removing the rod, I discovered the hardened tip had actually snapped off the aluminum shaft. The intake pushrod was broken in two impossible pieces. I quickly called back Ural’s “Golden Hands” Alex on my cellphone. Again, the factory-recommended procedure for my predicament seemed legit. “No problem,” he said, pausing his stout Russian accent,
“Just find metal, make pushrod.”
Knowing the odds of finding a pushrod for the new 750CC Russian motorcycle engine on the side of the road in Wyoming were unfavorable, I gave up looking and knelt beside my enemy praying for vodka rain. I was quite a long way from anywhere. Looking through my 200 pounds of spare parts, tools and prayer beads, I got an idea. I knew duct tape would probably not hold the broken pushrod together, but JB Weld just might. Inhaling the aroma of brilliance as I stirred the two parts of epoxy with a coat hanger, I painstakingly glued together the inner workings of my valve train, crafting my way out of yet another sure-bet DNF.
The pasted-together pushrod lasted 50 miles before the left jug ceased working again. I was limping along at a top speed of 20 miles an hour, this time praying to be hit by a semi. The drone of the one working cylinder began to take on a very curious verse.
“GU-HUM, GU-HUM, GO-HUM, GO-HUM, GO-HOME, GO-HOME, GO-HOME!”
Depression, anger, anxiety, fear, spitefulness, a bit of hunger and a serious rash on my ass created a perfect storm that could have resulted in any number of felonious outcomes. Fortunately, it did not. Instead, this rally, this day, this particular moment in my life helped shaped who I am, and continues to give me strength to believe in myself at the most difficult and trying times. It was one of those moments.
I stood up on my foot pegs, raised my face shield, and screamed louder than humanly possible, “I WILL NOT GIVE UP, AND I WILL NOT GO HOME, YOU COMMIE BASTARD!” With a grease pencil, I scribed I WILL NOT GIVE UP across my windshield and vowed that no matter what, I was going to make it across the finish line of the World’s Toughest Motorcycle Competition. I just needed a new plan.
Limping into Rawlings, Wyoming, I devised a plan that didn’t include giving up. Look where you want to go and lean (as hard as possible at 20 mph) into the turns. I charged up and down the aisles of a True Value hardware store with Black Friday vigor. I purchased a couple of long, hardened drill bits, and with the unauthorized use of a grinder I spotted in the back room, I fabricated two brand new Ural pushrods.
“Find metal, make pushrod”
Who says I never follow the factory maintenance recommendations?
Despite a fistful of additional breakdowns, I made it to Maine on time and eventually across the finish line in Alabama, placing 86th in the incredible Iron Butt Rally. I truly had no idea my finishing such an event on such an unreliable antiquated machine would become such folklore, nor did I realize at the time how valuable the lesson was for me. I now travel the country using the story to explain what it is like to go through life with a chronic disease or disability. It is never the bike or one’s body, but the rider, or inner strength and passion, that will get us through all of life’s potholes. I also use the adventure to inspire people with challenges to never give up and to continue to charge toward their goals, no matter what obstacles get in their way. Disease, illness or challenges in life should never confine or define who we are.
“You don't have to come in first to be a winner.”
Two years later, I found myself in first place in the points pulling into the Lake City Florida checkpoint. It was day four of the 2003 Iron Butt Rally, and I was piloting a dependable BMW R1100RT. I should have felt nothing but victory. Instead, I was scared and confused, was having trouble speaking and my hands were numb, and I couldn’t recall where I had been the day before. The rally staff was a bit alarmed at my condition and ordered me to skip the mandatory rider’s meeting and get some sleep. The next morning didn’t change anything. I was in a fog so deep, I couldn’t locate my motorcycle. I couldn’t write because both hands were still numb, and I had lost all dexterity in my right hand. I was unable to plan a good route for the next leg, so I just took off for a known sucker’s bonus in Key West. It was worth a lot of points, but because of traffic, was hard to make good time. I had no other choice. I hoped time in the saddle would help clear my head.
I’m still waiting.
Despite finishing the rally in the top ten a week later, I retired from competing and withdrew from the long-distance community immediately following the event. I kept telling myself it was the harsh riding and stress of pushing myself that were causing my problems, but eventually I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. My experiences during the 2003 Iron Butt Rally had been my very first major attack. With physical and memory issues that were not going away, I sold my bikes and gave up riding motorcycles altogether. I sold my business, gave up on my hopes and dreams for the future and prepared for the absolute worst.
Multiple sclerosis is a progressive autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the central nervous system. Damage to the coating surrounding the nerves in the brain and spinal cord interfere with the transmission of signals to the rest of the body, causing a wide range of symptoms.
(Imagine if you will, a Cold War-era motorcycle wiring harness made by a 5-year-old child in a sweatshop and then stored for decades in a mesh bag in the Dead Sea expecting to work properly in the frame of a new post-Soviet Union bike while engaged in an endurance competition. I’m truly not bitter.)
Multiple sclerosis targets more women than men, and is usually diagnosed between the ages of twenty and forty. Symptoms, severity and progression will differ for each person. Relapsing forms of the disease are most common where symptoms flare, then subside. Common symptoms can include fatigue, walking difficulties, numbness, spasticity, weakness, vision problems, bladder and bowel problems, pain, cognitive issues, depression and emotional changes. Although we have developed over a dozen disease-modifying medications that can slow the progression, to date we do not know what causes MS, and we do not have a cure.
When passion and purpose collide
Seven years went by, and with medication that is slowing my disease progression, healthy living and a positive attitude, I started to realize I might be one of the lucky ones. My symptoms were manageable and I had learned how to compensate for the cognitive deficits with technology and quick wit. I struggled with finding a way I could help those who were suffering from more severe symptoms and progressing disability from this incurable disease. I heard a doctor tell a group of patients at an educational event that he thought a cure for MS was a million miles away. In my best Jim Carrey imitation, I quipped, “So, what you are saying is, that a cure is possible?”
The idea struck me like a bug splattering my forehead, and five years ago my mission statement and purpose in life became crystal clear:
“I once was told a cure for MS was a million miles away, so I figured I would just go get it and bring it back”
Although I was unable to compete in rallies again because of the cognitive requirements, I realized I could still ride the hell out of a motorcycle and decided to make my diagnosis public by documenting a million-mile journey chasing the cure for multiple sclerosis. Convincing my wonderful wife that quitting my job, buying a motorcycle and some assless chaps and traveling the country sharing my story to people living with MS while drinking beers, shooting the shit and attempting dangerous feats on a motorcycle without any visible source of income was a smart idea, well, that took some time.
By the end of 2013, I was speaking and challenging MS patients across the country to recalculate their own road by continuing to follow their passions and dreams no matter what they may be. I have since delivered over 250 presentations, written for various health and motorsport magazines, have set two world records and raised over $100K for MS research, all while logging 300,000 miles as an advocate across the country.
My first Yamaha Super Tenere was retired with 172,000 miles on the clock and is on display at Barber Motorsports Museum. Last year, I logged 80,000 miles, quickly wearing out bikes, tires, riding gear and accessories at an accelerated pace. Motorcycle seminars, keynote presentations and fundraisers take up the rest of my time; I hold on to the belief that speaking fees will eventually offset my travel expenses. To keep my journey rolling, I am increasing my social media presence on Facebook, YouTube, and my own website. Stories from the road, meet-and-greets and seminars are all posted online. Like, subscribe, follow or get out of my way, because I am on a mission, a million-mile journey, riding every day possible and raising funds, awareness and a bit of hell along the way as I continue chasing the cure.