Saddle Sore

June 24, 2012

As more and more of my friends have gotten into motorcycling, several of them have expressed an interest in completing a Saddle Sore 1000, which is riding 1000 documented miles or more with a 24 hour time period. While this is far short of impossible, it is very physically and mentally grueling and, if enough things go not quite as planned, can be stressful. I haven’t completed a documented Saddle Sore in over 10 years, and I have a new Harley I wanted to try it on, so I scheduled a group event for the Summer Solstice weekend in 2012.

In the end, only three of us were able to attempt the ride, as scheduling conflicts waxed, and interest in the ride waned. We set an early start time – 6:30am at the BP station in Mason, Michigan.

The temperatures were in the 50’s when we started, so I was utterly Bundled Up in my Michelin Man gear, looking very Sta-Puft, indeed. I was extremely grateful for the full windshield on my Harley Super Glide Custom; I’ve never had a bike with this much windshield before, and was loving it. While I do still get some helmet vibration in my Shoei RF-1100 at freeway speeds, I was far less buffeted than I would have been on the Bandit. The one thorn in my side on this trip was the backpack I had to carry. While Jim graciously let me take up nearly all of his left saddlebag with my stuff, there was still about 10 pounds of water and other items in the backpack, and boy howdy did it ever wear on my shoulders for the duration of the trip.

I had a lot of trepidation about whether my back would hold up to this trip. Prior to installing the Sundowner solo saddle, each time I’d ridden the Harley (dubbed “Dahlia,”) the next morning I woke up with moderate to severe back strain in my lower back, sometimes to the point of not being able to move much at all. This trip would truly be a test as to how compatible this machine and I are. I was already in love with her – would this make or break our relationship?

As with many of these rides, it started out a bit late and a bit bumpy. It turns out there are two BP stations in Mason, and I had forgotten the second one, which was the most logical choice. Jim had arrived at the other and waited before seeking me out at The Wrong BP, only a couple of miles down the road. Together, we went back to The Logical BP, where Severin had arrived and was waiting.

Jim and I gassed up, which set our start/hard finish time at 6:42am. Severin was having some mirror troubles Jim tried to correct, but the thing was just buggered for this trip. Alas, poor Severin, who had nothing but a fine view of his right saddlebag in the mirror. At about 6:50, we were finally on the road with Jim taking the lead with his cruise-controlled Kawasaki touring rig. Severin had only gotten about 5 hours of sleep the night before, so we kept him sandwiched in the middle (his favorite spot, naturally,) to make sure he’d be ok and didn’t have to think much.

Jim is a great ride leader – he takes the group into consideration when making lane changes or when pulling out from a stop, he points out road hazards as he sees them, and exercises judicious throttle control on the freeway. He’s fun to follow, though we had agreed to take turns leading, since it can be mentally tasking to continually check up on everyone and think for the group. Personally, I make a pretty awful ride leader, and prefer to follow. I really enjoyed being able to watch both of them as we progressed.

Our first leg took us south on 127 to Jackson, where we hopped onto 94 west and headed for Michigan’s west coast. The miles peeled off easily, and before we knew it we were at our first gas stop in Coloma. Our first stop was pretty efficient, apart from having to locate and then obtain the key for the restroom. It had warmed up pretty well, and we were all feeling good. The sun was shining, and it was a gorgeous day.

The documentation rules for Iron Butt Association rides are rather strict, so people have a harder time faking rides. One of the requirements is to get a computer-generated, date-and-time-stamped receipt for each gas stop which also has the location on it, and then make a note of the bike’s odometer at the gas stops. Being out of practice, I had forgotten to check whether our first receipt actually had the location, date and time on it, but I did remember to get the receipt and write my odometer reading on it. Fortunately, we got lucky, and all of the required information was present.

We turned onto US-31 going North and began our Lake Michigan leg. Sadly, the lake is never visible from 31 until one hits Traverse City, but it’s a pretty efficient way to get north and enjoy some pretty scenery along the way. We had a minor detour where 196 and 31 parted company, but nothing that ate too much time. US-31 does pass through some cities and towns, and there are a few stop lights, but our pace was excellent. To complete a Saddle Sore 1000 within the 24 hour time period, one needs to have an average speed of 41.7mph. This includes stops for food, gas, bathroom breaks, everything, so time management is crucial.

A separate but related event this summer is a touring rally/scavenger hunt I put together for our little group, The Vogon Fleet. We rode past so many target locations, but couldn’t stop to get them. Neither could we just linger and enjoy the scenery, alas. The IBA is all about The Miles and Getting Them. Sit there, twist that, gas up, repeat.

In no time at all, we were in Ludington for our second gas stop. Our maximum range was about 140 miles on the freeway, limited by the smallest tank in the group. After this stop, we didn’t get near our max range most of the time, our stops rather dictated by how uncomfortable any given member of the group was.

At this point, I gave Jim a break from leading the group. He was starting to experience some significant pain in his tailbone, and had been leading us for about 4 hours. I took point, and immediately, like RIGHT NOW, lead us in the wrong direction. US-31 goes from a freeway to a surface street in Ludington, and I was trying to get us back on the freeway. Derp! Just a moment later, though, I realized the trouble and flipped us around.

I have a terrible time maintaining a consistent speed, and my Harley has no cruise control or throttle lock (yet.) When my little monkey brain gets distracted by something, I slow down. When I get impatient, I subconsciously go faster. Too, there are just certain speeds which the bike seems to enjoy, and settles into them gradually over time, whether faster or slower than my desire. On a two-lane road, such as US-31, this isn’t as big a deal as on the freeway.

We got stuck behind a gigantic motor home briefly as we started North again, but soon left him in the dust and carried on. Traffic was moving briskly, and we made great time to the Traverse City area. As we were coming into town, we rode right past the park where my family owns a campsite – I didn’t realize it until we were right on top of it. I haven’t seen that place in probably 15 years, so it was neat to be right there.

As we headed into Traverse City Itself, and down to the bay front, things became more congested. It was Saturday on a beautiful summer day, so there were naturally a LOT of people all around the bay. It took us a fair amount of time to travel through, and we gassed up shortly thereafter in Acme. I was able to shed my thermal, and even ditched my jeans, riding in just the LDComfort shorts under my First Gear Kilimanjaro pants. Note to me: Wear light, non-jean-type pants under the FGK stuff, ok? You know this, ya nublet. Bare skin against the knee armor is sticky and mildly unpleasant. I suppose I just needed that reminder. Still, I was far more comfortable without the extra bulk of my jeans, Cuddle Duds top, and FGK jacket thermal liner. Ahh.

At this point, we’d been on the road about 8 hours. I was feeling really fresh, and was enjoying not blasting this out entirely on the freeway. It was great to be able to go without earplugs on the two-lane roads without insane wind noise making me crazy and increasing my existing tinnitus. Jim, sadly, was not doing well – mentally, he was frosty and awesome, but his stock saddle was murdering his tailbone. Pain radiated across his face when he got off the bike to stretch. He’s a tall drink of water, that one, and his knees were none too happy, either. He had been popping Advil and ibuprofen to try and counter the pain, but I think at this point, it was a losing battle. His attitude was still great, though, and we sallied forth to make our way through Charlevoix to M119.

Charlevoix on a sunny, summer, Saturday afternoon is NOT a fun place to try and get through efficiently. The roads aren’t wide enough, the traffic lights are badly-timed, and people don’t necessarily try to cooperate with each other. It took us probably 20 minutes to get through town very, very slowly, which was frustrating. It didn’t matter what lane I chose – it was always The Wrong One. Le sigh.

Once we were through, we could enjoy the views of Lake Michigan and the pretty countryside. There is an unholy amount of Big Money in that area, and it shows in their gorgeous infrastructure, country clubs, riding stables, and so forth. There is an RV Motor Coach Resort nearby that’s far nicer than any hotel I’ve ever stayed in.

We slipped through the lovely, quaint town of Harbor Springs without any trouble, and got onto M119, the famous Tunnel of Trees scenic drive, which I had very much looked forward to. However, we entered the road immediately behind The Smelliest, Dieselest, Road-Hoggingest Dodge Ram truck carrying a camper bed. Shit. He was puttering along at about 30 miles per hour, and didn’t take any of frequent opportunities to pull over and let the three motorcycles behind him pass. I even made sure he could see me in his mirrors, but no. It was his road, and he was happy to own it.

Now, understand – I am all about leisurely, safe driving along pretty routes. I don’t want to rush anyone. But I am also all about being polite and letting other drivers by if they’re in a bigger hurry than I am. There were plenty of places he could have let us pass. I knew we would have one chance to pass him; M119 takes a 90-degree left turn, which is followed by a very short, 200-ish-yard straight stretch. If there was oncoming traffic there, we were screwed for the whole journey, which we would then spend inhaling his filthy exhaust and silently cursing his rude behavior.

Thankfully, there was no one oncoming, and a quick twist of the throttle left him behind us. We enjoyed the views and the 1.5-lane twisty road for a mile or two before an enormous, oversized motor home came barreling over a blind hill, taking up the entire road, not even trying to stay on his side. Had we been 10 seconds sooner, we might have all been dead right there – perhaps I should be thanking at Dodge driver instead of ruing his existence…

I gave the motor home driver an evil stare which he could not see, and Jim apparently flipped him the bird. I hope it gave him a wake-up call as to sharing the incredibly narrow, full-of-blind-curves-and-hills road with other people.

We continued on our way, Lake Michigan and its various islands directly to our left and down about 200 feet, beautiful, amazing cottages and homes to our right, and occasionally left. We passed through various elbow turns, including the Devil’s Elbow, which offered a nice opportunity to practice some tactical turns. I am in love with this road, and have been since I first drove it late one December. This time, I loved it even more, as it was not covered with a very thick, smooth, sheet of ice.

We passed by the shop where Mike and I had found The Most Amazing chocolate cherry sauce I’ve ever had, and continued toward Cross Village – a nice bonus location for our Nerd Motorcycle Rally event. Ill fortune found us once again, however, as we came up behind 3 motorcyclists, who were also content to apologetically take up The Entire Damn Road at 20mph. We had to follow them for the duration of the ride up M119 – they wouldn’t wave us by, pull over, make any attempt to be cooperative, or even acknowledge our presence.

By the time we got to the tiny hamlet that is Cross Village, we were all pretty pissed off and feeling the pressure of time. 20 miles at 20 miles per hour was not fun to think about in terms of how it related to whether we would finish on time. As we came into the village, I pulled us over in front of the village sign for a photo. We nommed some food, Jim ate more pain pills, and we unwound a little bit. Jim was in extreme pain, and it wasn’t being tamed much by the OTC remedies. My heart went out to him – I’ve had seemingly-unending rides during which I’ve been in abject, nearly unbearable pain, and they are the longest miles ever. Being in pain for awhile can be an almost welcome distraction from the mile-upon-mile days, but only to a very short point – after that, it adds to the physical and mental exhaustion, and saps stamina quickly.

Since we had lost so much time behind asshats, and since we had only gone 80 miles since our last gas stop (which had been over two hours ago,) we bailed on taking the scenic route to Mackinaw City, and instead hopped on the straight road to Levering and grabbed US-31 up to Mack City. We paused there for awhile to take a rally bonus photo of us next to the Mackinaw Bridge. Jim said he was having second thoughts about completing the ride. This was heart-breaking news – he’d come so far (over 450 miles,) and was about 5 hours from home. By the time we could get him to Jackson on the shortest path, he would be only 250 miles (about 4 hours) from completing the whole ride.

Still, the pain was that bad. He made up his mind to scrub the mission and head home. This left Severin and me with a decision to make – let Jim bomb down I-75 toward home alone while we carried out our original plan of hugging the coastline, or escort Jim safely back so he wouldn’t have to do it alone. Doing the whole second half on the freeway would be very tiring, but it wasn’t a difficult decision to make – I hoped maybe having us with him would make the ride suck a little less for Jim, plus, I wanted to make sure he got home safely. We started together, and we should stick together, especially since he was hundreds of miles away from home.

We gassed up and confirmed abandoning the route to see our hurting friend safely back.

It was so odd to see the little town of Mackinaw City so alive and bustling with people. When I spent time there over the winter, most businesses were closed and people were scarce. As we turned South, I bid adieu to the water, and was a bit sad we wouldn’t get to travel through Cheboygan and past Mike’s family’s vacation cottage along US-23 on Lake Huron, but our choice was the more responsible one.

We blasted down I-75 south with me still leading, with my wildly-varying speeds. On the freeway, this is more of a nuisance for those following me, since they can’t set their cruise control. Too, my speedometer reads low, while Severin’s and Jim’s reads high, so I was aiming for a weird goal of 72 as read on mine, which apparently translates to 78 on theirs. I found myself going back and forth between about 69 and 78 indicated, despite looking at it at least once every 30 seconds, which probably drove my two unfortunate ducklings nuts.

We pulled off in Harrison, gassed up, and I asked one of them to take the lead. I’d been on point for about 400 miles and my brain very much wanted to shut off and stop obsessing over how fast or slow I was going. Jim stepped up again, and we all basked in his cruise control from Harrison down to Jackson – aahhhh, delicious regulated speed.

We had at that point been on the road for almost exactly 12 hours straight. Physically, I was doing really well; I was a bit road-weary from being on the freeway, and I was feeling some level of physical tiredness, but I downed a 5-Hour Energy drink, which helped considerably. I was ready to throw the backpack away, but sensibility won that argument. Plus, it was nice being able to hydrate whilst underway via the Camelbak bladder I had in there.

Severin’s eyes were getting somewhat bloodshot, and he was experiencing some pain from his saddle, too. Jim’s outstanding demeanor continued, but he was in agony. We pushed onward, down I-75 to 127 and into Lansing. This stretch is boring, and I’m somewhat tired of it, having driven back and forth upon it several times over the winter. There isn’t much to look at, although the pavement is pretty good, and we made great time. On the way to Lansing, I had been trying to plot where we could go after dropping Jim off to complete our final 250-ish miles. I was drawing a blank – there wasn’t a really good way to do it that didn’t involve circles, repetitive back-and-forth (which is frowned upon by the IBA overlords,) crap pavement, or getting really far away from home.

The sun was still up and I felt good, but I knew once it got dark, my energy levels would probably tank considerably and those last couple of hundred miles would seem eternal. We gassed up in Lansing, I had a Starbuck’s Double Espresso shot, and headed down to Jackson, where we said our goodbyes to Jim. He was SO close to completing the ride – only 250 miles away! – and had considered giving it a shot. However, 4 or 5 more hours in that kind of pain just seemed miserable, and it would have been. He made the right call, and it was a tough one. I have so much respect for how far he came under that much extreme pain while still being totally cool about it. He did offer to throw a tantrum, though, if it would make us feel better. 🙂 I repacked all of my gear into my backpack, but my pants back on, and off we went.

When we pulled onto 94 heading east, the sun was down and we had our last dregs of light. With dusk comes deer, but thankfully there were none to be seen. I had thrown a hasty plan at Severin, who offered to lead – head to Ann Arbor and take  US-23 North. We’d figure it out from there. As we got off 94 into the oddball US-23 interchange as planned, I checked my mirrors to see what was behind me. As I glanced back up again, I saw Sev heading off down the US-23 South entrance ramp, and had to make a very hasty swerve to keep from passing it myself.

There is a thing about US-23 which is true, which I forget. That thing is this: US-23 is always, always under construction. There is no stopping it. It is simply a fact of the road.

A couple of miles south, we hit that construction, and were funneled into a 50-miles-per-hour, single-lane line of traffic. We passed orange and white barrel after orange and white barrel, which were apparently just out for fun, because the smooth, even, fresh asphalt on the other side of them looked complete and totally unobstructed. So it goes.

By the time we reached Carpenter Road in Milan, we’d had enough. We gassed up, ate some snacks, and gulped down another Starbuck’s Double Shot Energy Drink for extra energy. I was a hurting unit at this point, nearly stalling the bike out at the stop sign on the off-ramp. Fine motor control was a foreign concept, and everything seemed vaguely surreal. Severin looked pretty bleary, too, but reported feeling fine. “Let’s head to Flint,” I said; “maybe that’ll give us enough miles.”

I had forgotten Flint was only about 50 miles at most from Lansing – my brain was not capable of computing distances or numbers. I just wanted to get this mess over and done with as quickly as possible. It was a stupid Hail Mary, and of course, it didn’t work.

Somehow I ended up back in the lead, and as I got us onto US-23 going North (which is under slightly less construction than the southbound lanes,) I settled immediately behind a red car. I have no idea how fast I was going, because I was trying to get my mental bearings, and was failing miserably. There were so many bright lights all around, and my ridiculously photo-sensitive eyes were having a hard time focusing on things, while my brain just plain couldn’t make sense out of it.

Barely a minute had gone by when Severin blasted by me, taking the lead. I wondered if I was going super-slow, or weaving, or doing something else that caused him concern, but he later reported he just wanted to be helpful. He’s a good guy, that Severin.

The stretch from Milan to Flint is largely a blur, and none of it made any sense whatsoever. Thank goodness Sev was leading, because I surely would’ve lead us straight into a bridge abutment. I was really struggling not so much to stay awake, but to stay aware and make sense of my environment. All basic bike-related functions were automatic, but things like finding the horn or the turn signal were difficult. I was completely convinced someone was going to merge into one of us and run us over, and felt horribly, horribly vulnerable and invisible.

The construction barrels were blazing blindingly by, as were the headlights of the oncoming traffic. There were just Too Many Lights and reflecting objects coming at me too fast, which was overwhelming. For the entire ride to Flint, I had the sense that this is what my mom’s whole life is like, post traumatic brain injury: She is always at least vaguely anxious, everything happens too fast for her to follow, she’s somewhat fearful, but just has to get through it, often with someone guiding the way. She is largely at the mercy of those around her. I felt a great deal of compassion for her then, but surely not enough to heal all the old wounds and issues. It was good insight, though. Sadly, it did nothing to help me cope with everything.

Thankfully, nothing out of the ordinary happened during this stretch, and we arrived safely in Flint. Severin later reported trying to signal me with his hands, but black gloves in the dark do not show up in headlights, and I missed it. He wondered if we should get a receipt here to show our location – and we should have. But we didn’t. I hope this doesn’t cause any issues with our certification.

The entrance ramp to I-69W was suddenly upon me, with its sharp curve. In my mental state, this appeared out of nowhere and shocked me back into my senses somewhat. We were both taken somewhat by surprise with this turn, and neither of much cares for sharp turns in the dark, or riding in the dark in general. Almost immediately, I saw a sign: Lansing 44 Miles.

Shit.

That was going to be at least 100 miles short of what we needed. Shit, Shit, Shit.

Somewhat more alert after the surprise of the sharp curve, I found a position that was a little hunched over my tank. This blasted fresh air right up into my helmet and helped to wake me up and keep me refreshed. The caffeine seemed to kick in here, too, because I was suddenly on my second wind and feeling pretty good once more. I still wanted to be done and go to sleep, but I wasn’t miserable and clinging to the bike for my life anymore.

We stopped in Lansing for gas, and to figure out what to do next. It was just after midnight, and Severin’s birthday had arrived – quite a way to spend it!

We needed almost exactly 100 miles by my odometer, plus a little extra to allow for possible odometer over-reporting. I didn’t want to overlap our previous route, so we opted for going out about 52 miles west down I-96 to the Lowell exit, and then coming on back. That 45 or so minute passed quickly by, thankfully, and we stopped at a gas station/convenience store just off the freeway. Neither of us had used much gas at all, so rather than a gas receipt, we opted for a beverage and receipt.

As I took off my helmet and parked it on my mirror per usual, I didn’t do a very good job and it was suddenly bouncing and tumbling along the pavement a good 15 feet.

Shit.

That’s a new, $500 helmet! Argh! But we couldn’t worry about such trifles then.

I down a delicious, glorious orange juice not even caring if it was an evil “flavor pak”-containing brand (it probably is.) It tasted delicious and was so refreshing.

This was it – we were in the home stretch now! All we had to do was get to the Cedar Street exit to drop Severin off and get his final receipt, and then I had to get myself safely home for my own receipt. The trip back to Lansing was easy mode and went by with a quickness – thank goodness. We pulled into the Speedway right off the freeway just moments after the bar next door had closed. The station was full of drunk, loud, belligerent, flirty, mating-call-making, posturing kids in their twenties generally making scenes. Fortunately, no one drove into us or backed over us as they were jockeying their cars around inexplicably, and most had left by the time we were done.

We did some self-congratulating, but I really wanted to get home so we said our goodbyes and parted ways. Home was about 20 miles away for me, and I saw a lot of deer along the way, their green or yellow eyes glowing at me from the fields and margin areas. In my hometown, I grabbed my final gas receipt, noted my final odometer reading, and happily turned for home. There were so many deer out, I went 35 the whole way, playing out various unhappy scenarios in my head:

“She had just completed over 1,000 miles that day, only to be killed less than 3 miles from home when she hit a deer.”

I consciously drilled myself on what I would do if a deer appeared HERE, or THERE, or if THIS happened. There is a theory in the motorcycling community which friends of mine have put into practice: If a deer jumps in front of you and you can’t avoid it, DO NOT BRAKE – Hit the throttle! The idea being you’ll have more momentum and will have a better chance of remaining upright after the collision than if the bike was in a downward trajectory due to hard braking. A friend of mine literally split a deer in two using this method, and remained upright. Another hit an elk, riding two-up, and stayed up after the glancing blow. I visualize this happening – see deer, hit throttle; see deer, hit throttle. It goes counter to instinct. I hope I never have to find out whether I’ve successfully trained myself for this occasion.

Finally, there was our driveway, there was our house. Aahhh.

I opened our garage to find my eleven little chickens perched up and sleeping, some on top of the upright freezer, well out of their allowed zone. I was too tired to care. I took a photo of the bike’s trip and regular odometer, so happy to be home. I could hear my dogs exuberantly barking and howling inside. I stumbled into the house, where I was greeted by two excited dogs and a relieved husband. I took off all the Space Cop/Michelin Man/Sta-Puft Marshmallow gear, including the odious back pack. Ahhhhhhh!

We were done – it was over. Mission accomplished!

I was sad for our friend Jim, who had to call it quits so close to the end – but I’m pretty certain he’ll give it another go, once he has his saddle situation all sorted out. He’s got a good idea of what it takes now, and I have no doubt he can do it – I hope I can go with him when he does.

So, why exactly did we do this? I’ve never been entirely sure why I’ve done them in the past, but this time, I had clear reasons: I wanted to show my friends the crazy but satisfying world of endurance motorcycling, to open that door. Severin had a light bulb turn on when I said, “if we had ridden in a straight line, we’d be in Texas right now.” It gives us a whole new perspective on the distances that we can travel on the bike, and in what sort of time period.

Too, I wanted a good shakedown ride on the new bike. This was the most comfortable endurance ride I’ve never had, bar none. The Sundowner saddle was almost perfect, as was the bike. My hands and wrists didn’t want to wither and die as they do on sport or sport-touring bikes, and while the backpack affected my shoulders, that was unrelated to the bike itself.

I was fairly sure I’d wake up this morning and be totally locked up, back muscles in spasm, every movement causing shooting pains throughout my whole body. Thankfully, that didn’t happen My forearms are sore, my legs are a little sore, and my shoulders are quite sore. But I don’t feel as if I’ve been hit by a truck like I have previously. Yay.

Mostly, though, I did this ride to see if I still could – a personal challenge. It went better than I could have hoped, and I think having so many hours of daylight was a big part of it. Those miles after dark are much, much harder for me. Plus, the company was terrific, the roads up until we had to bomb south were really nice, and the bike was so very comfortable. I wish we could have completed our intended route, but getting Jim home was more important. We can do it again some other time, and I bet sticking to the two-lane roads will help keep me more focused and prevent a lot of the road-buzzy feelings I get from extended freeway rides.

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