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The bank holiday weekend at the end of May in 2008 saw the first running of the Brit Butt Rally, organised by Iron Butt UK, the UK arm of the Iron Butt Association. I had first seen this event advertised around October the previous year and emailed the organisers, but entry forms were not yet available. I had not done any long distance rides before, but had done quite a few National and Welsh rallies over the years, and travelled long distances touring across Europe and when working as a despatch rider in the mid 80s. I promptly forgot all about the event until some time in February when I emailed the organisers again, to find I had been given a place and it had been advertised on their website, but I had not seen it so had lost my place. Luckily someone else must have pulled out because I soon after received another email telling me I had a place after all!
In March there was a meeting for the event at a hotel near Stafford which was a great opportunity to meet some of my fellow participants and gain some insights into what we had signed up for, with advice from some of the few people in the UK who have completed the Iron Butt Rally in America (11 days, 11,000 miles!). In comparison our event, 36 hours with a minimum of 1110 miles and an undisclosed number of points, seemed small beer – however, talking to others it was clearly more than any of us had done before. I was obviously excited getting there because I had left the lights on on my car and had to get Dave Badcock to give me a jump start. I drove home thinking this did not seem like a good omen! I had already started my preparation by undertaking one thousand mile ride in February and continued over the next two months with another SS1000 and took part in the Welsh Rally at the beginning of May. In the weeks leading up to the rally date I prepared my bike, a 2001 BMW R1150GS, as best I could to make it as comfortable and reliable as possible, while reading everything I could about long distance riding.
The event was starting and finishing at a hotel a few miles from the one we had met at in March. I arrived in sunshine around lunchtime and sat in the garden of the pub next door chatting to a few others who had arrived early. Around 3 o’clock we could book into the hotel and then came back down to go through technical inspection and wander round looking at everyone else’s bikes. Technical inspection included getting your odometer checked – this involved zeroing your trip meter and then riding 10 miles south and then back again along the A34 before getting the distance checked by the inspection team. There were about a dozen speed cameras on the route, and at least one participant gained a speeding ticket!
Over the next few hours we were all processed by the rally team, signed forms and met together for final details. The first three numbers for the rally had been given to three guys who had taken part in the Iron Butt Rally – they were obviously the ones to watch! I was number 25. At 9pm we were given the bonus books, containing our rally towels and the bonus book with details of the 60 bonuses we could visit to gain points during the rally. Each page had a different bonus on it, giving a description of its location, a Google map, and detailing how many points it was worth. Some had extra details – some had to be photographed in daylight only, and others could only be accessed between certain hours, depending on whether they were open or on tidal access. We then repaired to our rooms with nine hours until the start at 6am.
I started by spreading a road map of the UK out on the floor and putting a sticker on the map to show the location of each bonus point – I used three different colours to show low, medium and high value bonuses, and coded them if they had any restrictions to them. After plotting all the bonuses onto a paper map it seemed to be clear that the best way of stringing together a series of high scoring bonuses was to go to Skye then across to John O Groats via Ullapool and Scourie. This route naturally added Spean Bridge, Eilean Donan and Clootie Well. I also wanted to visit Lindisfarne and Scarborough as they were high bonuses. Because of the time restrictions for Lindisfarne, which can only be accessed at low tide, and the fact that Eilean Donan and Scourie were day bonuses only the route was going to be clockwise. I reckoned quite a few riders would be going for these high bonuses so reckoned the way to get ahead would be to add as many other bonuses as I could. I then plotted all the bonuses I was possibly able to get to, about 37 of them, into Microsoft Autoroute and used this to calculate the time and distance between the controls on my likely route. I went through quite a few combinations before ending up with a route I was happy with. I then transferred the Autoroute file into GPSU and then saved this as a Mapsource file and transferred it to my Garmin 2610. I also wrote the control numbers, codes, and description of location and bonus requirement onto some sheets which would fit into the top of my tank bag so I could see them at a glance.
I initially planned to start off by going to Sandbach then Jodrell Bank before heading up the M6 to add Forton, Morecambe, Bentpath then going around Scotland, adding St Andrews and then heading back to the finish via Humber Bridge. I think this came to just over 40000 points and about 1600 miles, which I had previously calculated was possible in the time. In planning I did not really think about where to stop for the rest bonus which had to be taken for 3 hours between 10pm and 5am, but did go onto the internet to download a POI on petrol stations in Northern Scotland I had seen on the Round Britain Rally website. The fact that this was the first running of the Brit Butt Rally meant there were a lot of unknowns, especially when it came to planning. No-one knew what a likely winning score would be, nor how strong the competition was. Before the event my intention was to ensure a finish, with hopefully a result in the top ten. The bar was set at 25000 points and after working through the planning I reckoned a score of around 40000 points was possible. I finished planning around 1 am and got a few hours fitful sleep.
By 5.30am we were all in the car park, sorting out final details nervously and trying to find out from each other where we were going – as if could make any difference by then! We were started at minute intervals and I started about tenth. I had already passed a couple of other participants by the time I got to Junction 14 a few miles from the start. As soon as got on the motorway I changed my plan because I got on the M6 and stayed on it, missing out Sandbach and Jodrell Bank – partly because I wanted to get some distance under my wheels and partly because I thought a lot of people would be starting with those and I wanted to put some distance between myself and anyone else so I was not distracted and could get settled into my own ride.
I rode into Forton Services near Lancaster at the same time as Mick Ingledew on a big black Harley – I had overtaken him about 20 miles previously and then been wondering for the past ten miles whose headlight I could see tracking me! I quickly took my picture of the 1960s service station tower and headed along the M6 to the next junction and then off towards Morecambe. My next bonus was the statue of the comedian Eric Morecambe on the seafront. I had seen it several years before so knew exactly where it was. I ran from the bike to the statue, took my photograph and ran back to the bike – suddenly I saw a big pool of liquid underneath the bike and panicked as I assumed it was petrol leaking. As I got to the bike I was relieved to find it was orange juice – I had forgotten to close the seal on the drinking tube I had left hanging out of my tank bag!
From Morecambe I headed north into Scotland – I was heading for the Thomas Telford memorial at Bentpath in the Borders. It was not worth a great number of points, but I figured it was worth the time effort in dropping off the main road, and I thought it was the sort of control others might miss out and which might, therefore, make all the difference. I was working on the basis that quite a few people would be doing the same route as I was and getting the same big points bonuses in Scotland, so I had to pick up as many extra ones along the way as I could. As I got into Scotland the temperature fell but I was too focused to stop properly and just threw my heated vest on over my jacket – it seemed to be warm enough. I also nearly lost the front end of the bike outside a farm where they seemed to have thrown a large bucket of whitewash across the road. It took me weeks to get rid of the white paint spattered across the front of the bike!
It gradually warmed up as I got into Scotland and I remember flying along the road going past Loch Lomond, overtaking everything. I stopped briefly at a petrol station just outside Fort William to take off my heated vest, check the bike over and eat a Snickers bar. There was oil leaking from the left hand side of the engine and most of that side of the bike, my boot and trousers below the knee were covered in a thin layer of oil. I couldn’t see anything obviously wrong, so topped it up and gave myself a mental note to check it regularly. It only leaked a little, and I later found out it was the oil pressure sender switch leaking. At the time it was just something else to worry about.
It was nearly 12.45 by now, and I seemed to have come a long way but had only been to three controls in nearly 7 hours, and had not gained a lot of points yet, and I had to check my route and reassure myself I was going alright. I had passed a meeting of about a hundred riders in Fort William itself – they were doing a ride for charity and all had pink vests on. They rode past the petrol station and I then spent the next twenty miles having to overtake them all. As soon as I got past them all I got to the turning for the Isles and pulled into the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge. There were a couple of other participants there already, the first I had seen for many hours. I put my towel down in front of the memorial and it blew away as I took a photograph – the same thing happened again, then a tourist standing there offered to take my photograph holding the towel for which I was grateful. However, when I checked my photographs at the finish his photograph was not there – luckily mine caught one of the towel just before blowing away and it was just enough to get me the points! I had already learned to make sure I protected all the photographs I took – new note to self, check all photographs taken to see what they show!
The road to Skye is one of my favourite roads and I really enjoyed it in the sunshine. I caught up with a guy on a GSXR and we had a good ride for a few miles – I could overtake him going through corners, but he blasted past me on the straights. Eventually the road got very twisty and I managed to get away from him (or he may have pulled over!). Shortly after that something of a reality check – I came round the corner to find the traffic stopped and a group of bikers clustered around a blue Kawasaki lying in pieces on the edge of the road. Nobody seemed badly hurt and there were plenty of people there so I carried on, stopping to tell more of the group waiting at the next junction what had happened.
My next bonus was the much photographed castle at Eilean Donan. I pulled up next to Dave Badcock on his golden Harley Ultra and we took photographs of each other holding our towels in front of the castle. We were both going on to Skye. We did not agree to ride together but I sat behind him for the next few miles, mainly because of the glorious noise coming from the exhausts of his V-twin. We crossed over the Skye Bridge which is a great bridge but always makes me feel slightly disappointed, as I can remember when you had to get a ferry to get on to Skye. More remote, more romantic then, but easier for us now! I stopped for petrol in Broadhead, and luckily checked my petrol receipt – I had been given one for 60 litres of diesel! I caught up with Dave on the road through Skye. There seemed to be lots of riders coming towards us, off the island (I remember most clearly Paddy McCreanor’s bright yellow Honda Goldwing), and I did worry that I was behind time and these riders, as we must be following similar routes.
The main reason for going to Skye was that there were two big point bonuses, within quarter of a mile of each at Uig in the north of the island. We got to the first one, the sign for the Museum of Island Life, and I realised I did not have my rally towel. This seemed to be a complete disaster, as the towel had to appear in every photograph. Dave sympathised (after I had accused him of pinching it at Eilean Donan!) and reminded me of the rules: I could still take compete without a rally towel, but from now on I had to appear myself in every photograph, even if I later found the towel. This was fine now, while I was with someone else but what about when I was on my own? I followed the same tracks back and even stopped at the garage in Broadhead to see if I had left the towel there – I am not sure why since I could not have used it again but I was annoyed to have misplaced it, and that my system of having a place for everything and putting everything back in its place had not worked. I was also worried that I was getting more tired than I realised, to have lost something so important. I never did see it again, so perhaps it blew away somewhere.
Back on the mainland I turned north to follow the road right around the north coast of Scotland and headed towards Ullapool to visit the Museum there – again somewhere I had been before so knew exactly where it was. There was nobody else about but luckily I have long arms and found I could get a decent photograph of myself with the sign behind, by holding the camera at arm’s length.
The day was still sunny and I had no worries about getting a photograph of my next bonus, Scourie Hotel while it was still daylight, a requirement of the rally book. I got to Scourie just before 7.30pm and met four other participants outside the hotel, including the only time I ran into Paul Vanderveen. I assumed we would all be going the same way from Scourie but after setting off I did not see any of them again until the finish.