I’d had a vague notion of the premise behind the Iron Butt Association, a loose organization of people addicted to extremely long-distance motorcycle rides. The basic membership, the absolutely easiest level, requires a documented ride of 1,000 miles (1,600 km) within 24 hours called the SaddleSore 1000. Rides quickly increase in difficulty from there and rise to stratospheric levels such as the 100CC, or riding across the entire width of United States and back in 100 hours or less.
Their premier event — which is happening right now if you are reading this in proximity to when I wrote this — is the Iron Butt Rally. They describe it as the "World’s Toughest Motorcycle Rally – 11 Days 11,000 miles" The rally takes place only once every two years with participants selected by lottery. It’s the Olympics of the extreme distance motorcyclist community. Simply finishing it is considered quite prestigious.
I’m fascinated from a geo-geek perspective because of the map and travel aspects even though I don’t ride a motorcycle, and wouldn’t even attempt to replicate this feat in an automobile. I’ve featured extreme geographic coverage before, for example when a group of people attempted to visit every county in New England in 24 hours or less. However, this time it’s personal because I know someone who is in the .
This was a live screen-grab that I captured this morning as reported by a GPS tracker carried by the rider. I’ve been watching the line grow since it started in Seattle nearly a week ago. I’ve intentionally kept this image at a distance to preserve the rider’s anonymity. One can literally see which hotels he stops at each evening in the live zoomable link and that’s a bit too revealing for purposes of this article. The wide shot hopefully provides an appreciation of the distance that’s been covered by this contestant after six days.
There is also an option to view a map of the current position of the the entire field of riders in real time that doesn’t reveal people by name unless a rider wants to share that information. The geographic spread you see is due to riders pursuing bonus points that I’ll describe below.
Each Iron Butt Rally has a specific theme that isn’t revealed until a packet is distributed to riders the night before they take to the road. Contestants immediately hit the computers to begin plotting their routes and strategies. You’ll want to take a look at a summary. It explains a lot and includes a copy of a feasible basic route. They selected a fairly simple premise for 2011: "To be classified as a finisher of the 2011 Iron Butt Rally, a rider must visit all 48 contiguous states and reach each checkpoint and the finish before the close of the specified time window." The organizers estimate the basic route to be 8,325 miles (13,400 km).
However, that is only the minimum criteria to qualify as a finisher. This accomplishment will not come anywhere close to winning the rally. Various optional side trips have been constructed into the layout to greatly increase distance and time pressures. It’s a typical risk/reward scenario. Huge bonuses can be earned although they increase the probability that checkpoints cannot be attained. Riders who attempt the more difficult options could be dropped from the standings entirely if they fail. Strategies come into play. Be safe and simply earn the prestige of finishing? Aim for easier bonuses and finish in the middle of the pack for additional bragging rights? Go for broke and either win outright or go down fighting?
Some of the bonuses in the 2011 rally include:
- Riding to Alaska. It adds a couple thousand miles and multiple border crossings, yet three riders went for it.
- Four corners of the United States. No, not the four-corner states (although that’s also on the suggested route map), rather four designated corners of the nation: documented stops at Blaine, WA; Madawaska, ME; Key West, FL; and San Ysidro, CA. People who finish the and the four corners will be "Gold Medal Finishers." The total length of their rally will be about 10,500 miles (16,900 km).
- State Capitols. Points vary based on distance from the suggested route. You can see some kinks in the route taken by the rider I’m following, which show some of the capitols he’s captured along the way.
The rider with the most points at the conclusion in Ontario, California wins.
I’ll be watching in fascination for the next week. I love the concept, I love the maps; it’s too bad I’m better qualified to join the Pillow Butt Association.