2013 Iron Butt Rally: Leg 1 Pittsburgh to Pittsburgh

It’s a fine thing to ride a motorcycle. I used to think being a motorcycle journalist would be the most kick ass job in the world. Then I tried being one for about long enough to nearly starve. I couldn’t make a lot of money at turning my hobby into a job, but here in the next few days I’m going to give you for free what was a lot of effort, money, time, and emotional energy over a long period of time. The bike I rode in the Iron Butt Rally of 2013 is the same bike that I’ve ridden to work almost every day this year. The various accessories and additions had to be done in such a way as to not detract from the capabilities of the motorcycle.

Let me say that another way.

I designed my Iron Butt Rally experience around a central concept. I would be able to get on my motorcycle with a new set of tires and ride the Iron But Rally at any time I had the finances or time to expend. I could after putting new tires on the bike and giving it an oil change go ride another Iron Butt Rally right this second. Though it might be a good idea to wash my clothes first. In the lead up to the rally one of the veterans criticized me for posting on the Internet instead of resting and getting my head right. I wouldn’t say my head is right in most peoples opinions ever, but he didn’t understand. I was ready. I’d been ready. I’m always ready to go for a long ride. I’m so ready I maintain two rally ready motorcycles at all times.

The constraints are always money and time. The Iron Butt Rally is a eleven days, eleven thousand miles, and eleven thousand dollars. Actually I spent a little bit more than that in getting ready for sure.

I’ve written a bit about routing and I have a pretty strong routing process. For each leg I set out to route three options. The routes would be a finisher route, a competitive route, and a winning route. The finishers route might be more about some fun locations, but it would prioritize staying in a hotel each night and getting more than enough rest.  The routes of this “finishing” category picked bonuses and roads that enhanced my chances of maintaining a high average of miles per hour over the road. I also specifically decreased the number of bonuses so stopped time was minimized.

When the rally bonus locations were handed out I took the information and coded it into 8 buckets. Each bucket was the number of bonus points equally distributed. This isn’t the best method as there are literally a dozen mathematical techniques to weight the bonus points. However, for me this works to give a visual depiction of where the bonus points are located and what the value of those bonus points reflect. Though what follows is a depiction of that score and location visualization you shouldn’t just use it on faith. There are issues with this strategy.


The bonus locations are highly skewed by the high value of Key West Florida. In the following table the ranges equally distributed have two empty bins and two bins with exactly 1 entry each. That is not good when trying to evaluate a route. Each of the empty bins suggests a highly skewed distribution of bonus points.


If we remove the skew of the large Key West Florida entry the overall distribution of points and their relative weights is much easier to see. Immediately we can see the Detroit, Michigan in general and Canada dominate the likely route choices we would want to consider. The circle up through the Mackinaw Bridge with high bonus points or out towards North Eastern Canada have a strong weight towards them.


The distribution showing in the following table still has some low numerical values mapped with one bin having zero bonus locations but the set of bonus locations is highly skewed. There are a lot of low point bonuses and very few high point bonuses. At this point we can start considering a route. On the morning of the Iron Butt Rally I had this analysis done in about ten minutes. It takes much longer to write it than to do it. The tools used are Microsofts Map Point program and Microsoft Excel. Two products any rider should be able to afford.

L1DistributionAdjusted Adjusted

I started out with considering a competitive route that had me reaching all of the daylight bonuses or time sensitive bonuses using an average speed over the ground. My route is not the winning route. It is the route that I think I could accommodate with my skills and capacity to get the job done safely and sanely.  I create a route sheet from the mapping program Basecamp by Garmin and then adjust that in the trips tool so that I can add in time for stops and bonus points. In this example I even add the relative places and times that I want to stop for a rest bonus or rest period. I can then have target times automagically generated for arriving at bonus locations. I can also add to the memo field the restrictions or special instructions for a bonus.

My route had me circling out and chasing quite a few bonuses around the great lakes. The time sensitive bonuses like the Henry Ford Museum made for interesting choices. One bonus point required a ferry trip. If I was a big dawg I’d go for that bonus in a heart beat for enough points. I’m not a big dawg so I would route around it. I look at a list of 30 or more bonuses and think that each bonus point I skip is likely a position or two lost in the greater scheme of competition. I’m not really planning on winning I’m just planning on finishing.


The route sheet is much longer when you start looking at the number of locations that need to be visited. Each added bonus is also a chance to leave points on the scoring table. I fretted over each bonus picture and at this stage of planning I am thinking about the number of photographs that would be required for a high point bonus. If there were issues at the Henry Ford Museum a strategically sound ride might turn out to be a nightmare. With 25 photographs of vintage vehicles required, an extremely large location, and the heat of the start of the rally in play the chances to DERP the entire bonus was extensive.


So, I considered two alternatives. One alternative was to run the Great Lakes route backwards of how most people were running it. I’d collect a few other bonuses and drop some others. I would hit the large bonuses on the return trip. As an example I might not run to Mackinaw but collect the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Washington DC Titanic Memorial bonus. The daylight requirements would remain in effect. There would be timing issues doing the trip backwards but going clockwise is not a requirement just a North American habit.

Then there is the route I actually rode. Going to Key West is a sucker bonus. There was no way possible to get the required points for finisher status by going to Key West unless I was very lucky. For sure it was not a competitive route as all the other options I considered had more points than the Key West option on Leg 1. I simply wanted a Key West sticker on my bike. So I rode there. I’m not the competitive gotta get down the road and beat people kind of rider. I just don’t ride that way. I’m more in the way of leave late, come back early, never miss a good time kind of rider. I just like to ride long distances. Since I never had the goal to win the Iron Butt Rally I had a lot of leeway in what routes I might choose. They don’t give a trophy for having fun, but they do award finisher status.

So I got on my motorcycle and started riding a route that was in no way competitive. I knew I was doing that. Some people tried to say there might be a grand strategy behind it, but there really was nothing more than I wanted to go for a ride and the Iron Butt Rally offered an opportunity to do that. I garnered several obvious bonuses on the way south but the route was never going to be competitive and would leave me in the hole for points.


One nice thing was that the list of locations was very short. The chances of leaving points on the table were going to be relatively small. This was a good warm up ride for a first time Iron Butt Rally rider who still didn’t understand all of the specific processes of the rally. The route though requiring much more mileage than a competitive route would actually have many more points to rest within it. The bonus time tax (time at zero MPH for a bonus) was so low that I garnered several hours of extra time I would not have had riding this route.


After gobbling up some of the Pennsylvania Turnpike bonuses as receipt only bonuses I headed for the Incline Railway. Grab a picture on the railway with your bike and flag the bonus said. So, I got a spectator to hold my flag. I like to do that especially when I have significant down time for a bonus. It gets people involved and they have a positive experience.


There were issues though. My first equipment failure was the death of my iPhone 4S. Now a phone dying is bad enough but my iPhone 4S was my second GPS, held my bonus notes, had my route listing, and was my super-slab entertainment device. I watched as it quit charging and then as it died. The connector had failed. Cleaning, moving, attending to it, and cajoling it wouldn’t work. My phone was dead. So, I headed towards DC with no way to communicate for bonuses like call in bonuses, and my iPhone sat there like an expensive glass hockey puck.

Since I used to live in DC I knew where I could likely get in and out of a AT&T store in a few minutes. The waisted hour of time would kill my chance for some bonuses but I would be up and running in short order. I hit the store in Fairfax and walked away with a functional iPhone 5 for a hefty price. I programmed it that night in the hotel. I would have to repogram it a few times to get it right, but I finally got that done. In Washington DC I grabbed the Titanic Memorial.

A nice thing about the memorial is that is right next to where I used to work. There is a kind of symmetry in grabbing a bonus location next to Fort McNair when that job basically said I couldn’t ride motorcycles. A dead phone, a great ride, and a bonus location with some deep seated karma. This is what we call fun. What wasn’t fun was dropping my keys and losing them for a few minutes. A spectator handed them to me as I was walking back to the bike. Since this is the neighborhood an entire special operations team got mugged traveling through I was remarkably apreciative of the kindness. I also was keenly aware that my spare set of keys were sitting on my desk at home.



My schedule had me leaving out of Washington DC after the prime traffic crunch. I entered the Washington metro area against the traffic crush, and left with the tails of it. I hate riding in major metro traffic and look for options to not have that part of a major rally. This again is a non-competitive strategy but very good considering my goals. If you want to win rallies you go to EVERY bonus location. You minimize your stops and delays in route, but if the bonus location is in downtown Manhattan you’re going downtown.

I hit the road and headed south on Interstate 95. This is a route I’ve run many times. Last year I did it in my Jeep traveling to Naples to speak to the National War College Alumni in Naples, Florida. A few times I ran this same route on rides between Florida and Canada. It is a straight unyielding chunk of pavement that is mind numbing as much as long. Grabbing a few hours sleep in North Carolina  found myself the next day almost exactly on schedule in Florida to grab up to relatively near large bonuses.

The first bonus I grabbed I had just visited when I was at the Iron Butt Rally Jacksonville Pizza Party a few months ago. At the Daytona Speedway the area around the statue of Dale Earnhardt has been upgraded and is quite nice. The Speedway has an entire thriving tourist business going on there. It was raining like crazy and there I was as a motorcyclists grabbing pictures with my flag in it. Some of the locals were watching from the awning and looking at me like I am crazy. Crazy is zipping around a circle at 200 miles per hour. Riding in the Iron Butt Rally is just simply fun.


A few years back my family and I did a space odyssey trip. We went to all of the different locations in Florida that had space shuttles or rockets. The trip included a trip past Disney World for my kids, but they couldn’t care less about talking Mice. They wanted to see rockets. I grabbed the Astronaut Hall of Fame bonus an a picture of the Space Shuttle. It was still raining when I hit this bonus, but the neat thing was we’d missed this location on our family jaunt around Florida. A new location to add to our family trips that we take. After snagging the bonus the idea was to hit the road. Here I am in central Florida and my next stop is Key West.


To put the trip from central Florida to Key West in Context many families when doing this trip would cut it up into two days. For my purposes though the timing was perfect. I would grab my rest bonus, get 8 hours of good rest, and then be at the Conch Tour Train Depot exactly when they opened to grab a picture of the train. This is the kind of on time scheduling even my doctor could do. There was a small issue. The train wasn’t running. The first run (starts at a different location) had been empty so they weren’t expecting an arrival until around 10:10 in the morning. The young lady running the stand (in the photography below) said even that train might be zeroed out and not run. So I called Lisa Landry to ask. They called and found out that a train was going to be arriving. They had moved one from behind the depot up next to the depot. A few seconds with flag placed and I was on my way with a good bonus photograph.


I had a good time talking and chatting with the people at the Conch Tour Train Depot, but I was on a mission. I hit the store and grabbed a KW sticker for Key West. When Bob Higdon was panning my strategic mistake as a routing master he didn’t understand motivation and ability to execute sometimes have unexpected results for others. I don’t want to pan Mr. Higdon as he didn’t know my goals or route reasoning. I wanted to be a finisher and hitting the scoring table at 91st place removed a lot of angst for the rest of the rally. Best of all I got my sticker.


Heading north the folly on points was pretty obvious. There was nothing to collect. I had left a few hours extra and kept a route in my GPS clicking away that pointed towards the Henry Ford Museum. Those points get me well on my way to finisher status. The two times that were critical were the time the museum closed and the time the checkpoint closed. If either time as estimated time arrival went past the mark then I was doomed. To be more exact the route requirement was from current location to Henry Ford Museum and back to Cranberry Township and Marriott for Checkpoint 2. As I traveled north each gas stop increased the likelihood of being time barred. A little bit of traffic and suddenly what was possible became improbable. I watched as my scheduled arrival time crept into what would be a penalty zone. And, then finally I cancelled the route and headed directly to the Marriott.

All was not lost. This was still phenomenal country to be riding through. I had so many great views and wonderful roads as I headed north. There was heavy rain along the route and that is one of the things that slowed me more than I was expecting. In the mountains I got into some rain that literally slowed me to a crawl. When it quit raining the view became majestic. Pictures simply do not give the view the deserved impact.


I did grab one more bonus with the extra time I got from not going to the Henry Ford Museum. I headed up to see the challenged but likely first commercial oil well in North America. The gift store staff saw me pull in and another rider pointed me to the marker. They waived the fee for entrance and were so darn nice that I was amazed. Having not been on a route that anybody in their right mind would consider I was not seeing a lot of Iron Butt Rally entrants. I grabbed my photograph and looked around knowing I had plenty of time to get back to the check point. For some riders the rallies become stressful but I was totally chilled.


I followed Ken Meese out of the bonus location. This great rally rider was always nice to me though I doubt he could pick me out of a line up of one. I grabbed one photograph that in more ways than one gives a good idea what it is like to chase one of the big dawgs in rallying. The rally principle is a solitary effort of rider and cognition executed over a long period of time. This is not a team sport though some people ride as teams. This is man and his own brain for long periods of time in an envelope of the environment constrained by will and determination.


I finished leg one nearly in last place. I like to ride hard and I did a lot of miles for so few points. As an example Derek Dickson who won the leg garnered 5.5 points per mile. I came in with points around 3.51 points per mile.  Points per mile though don’t win rallies or lose them. Craig Brooks in tenth place at the end of leg one had 6.7 points per mile. In other words I could have ridden nearly 500 miles less and placed in the top ten with a really efficient route. Considering he was riding a bike a lot like mine it is the rider not the bike. I own my route, I own the way I did it. I had fun. Since I was the one footing the bill and working towards a specific goal I’m ok with it. My second option for being more competitive would have only put me in the mid 40s for placement with around 15975 points.With a lot if’s on execution. What’s the difference between a mid pack finish and an end of pack finish at the beginning of a rally?


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