For many riders, racking up miles on a motorcycle is not just a right, but a freakin’ responsibility. But did you ever notice most people don’t do this with cars? We rarely brag about having 150,000 miles on a car. If you do, you’re typically seen as some kind of cheap bastard or maybe just a “topper” who has to be sure there’s at least one thing you can lay claim to in a conversation others can’t.
Paul Pelland racks up the miles because he’s on a timeline. He has MS, a disease that affects the nervous system and could eventually keep him off a bike for good. While he started long distance endurance riding before he was diagnosed, the disease is like a 7th gear where 6th ends. It’s put the desire to rack up the miles into hyper overdrive, and he won’t stop until his muscles are fooled into doing something they normally wouldn’t, and he can’t throw a leg over a saddle without causing serious mayhem to himself and possibly others.
Some people might stay at home under similar conditions; crawl onto a wheelchair and let time pass. Paul isn’t some people. A motorcycle is his primary means of transportation, and he’s intent on racking up one million miles before he can’t rack up a single mile more.
But it wasn’t the MS that got him into his own version of white line fever. It was something more personal.
“It was a bad marriage and a nasty ten-year custody battle for my two boys. I was around 30 at the time, and it was enough to drive you to drink…or to ride long distance. I chose the latter.”
Getting out on long rides helped ease the pain and frustration. Then Paul discovered the Iron Butt, and riding long distance took on an entirely new meaning.
For the unfamiliar, you basically ride 1000 miles in 24 hours. You prove it by way of dated photos and gas receipts sent to and formally recognized by the Iron Butt Association. Anyone who does so can lay legitimate claim to have ridden an Iron Butt. Then there’s the Iron Butt Rally, a masochistic event that basically involves riding a designated cross-country route about 20 hours a day for two weeks.
“I really wanted to participate in the Rally. But they only let 100 into the event, and it’s only held every two years. So, I wrote the head of it, and said, ‘look, I’m going to ride a Ural in one of the world’s toughest events. It’s a piece of shit bike, but I’ll make it work.’”
Paul made a convincing argument and the Rally organizers let him in. He tried to get Ural USA to give him a bike, but they turned him down. So, Paul bought one…and it broke down before he even got to the Rally start. This was in 2001 when the Ural’s had a far worse reputation than they do now.
After that bike broke down, Ural relented and gave Paul a new one – the first Ural 750. But there were problems with that, too.
“I didn’t get it until about a month before the rally, so I didn’t have a lot of time to really break it in. Six hundred miles into the first day of the Rally and I blew up the motor. I found a Ural dealer and he replaced the engine. I broke down multiple times after that, but 11 days later I made all the check points and crossed the finish line about 8500 miles after the start. Two years later, I ran it with a better bike and finished 9th.”
At this point, Paul had yet to experience any signs of MS, but that would change when in a subsequent event he started feeling the symptoms that are a constant in his life today.
“I was in the top 3 in another rally. I was pushing really hard and I wasn’t getting any sleep. At one of the checkpoints, I couldn’t remember where I was or where I parked the bike. I couldn’t hold a pen. My right arm was numb from my elbow down. But I finished and somewhere in the middle of the rally, my lawyer called to tell me I’d finally gotten full custody of my kids. I was ecstatic.”
Eighteen months later, Paul was diagnosed with MS.
“Before that, I had a lot of burning in my hands. Sometimes I’d get lost on my way to work. The last straw was when my fiancé (Elin) and I were at a Staples. I saw this woman I knew and I forgot Elin's name when I went to introduce her. This was just after I got custody of my kids. I felt really horrible and stupid and knew I needed to find out what was going on.”
When doctors confirmed Paul had MS in 2005, he basically stopped long distance riding to concentrate on his kids, Elin (now his wife), and his business. But the need to ride and ride far came back in an unusual way.
“I got in a fight with one of my sons who was a teenager at the time, and told Elin I was going for a pizza. But I ended up riding down to Daytona Bike Week and back. I just had to ride out the frustration.”
By the way, Paul lives in New Hampshire.
Within a couple of months after that long-distance pizza run, Paul realized the restorative power of long distance riding, and he decided to start documenting his goal of reaching a million miles for MS. It’s become a sort of lynchpin to help raise awareness for the disease. But he admits doing so hasn’t been easy on Elin.
“It took her awhile to come around to this. She’s watching my SPOT tracker, knowing I’m alone, not at home, not doing the chores. I’m off riding my motorcycle, drinking beers, and shooting the shit with other riders. I do some pretty hard core riding, so it’s not something she could do with me. I spent 180 nights away last year. It’s hard, but she knows this is my passion.”
Paul points out that most people he meets think that MS means a life in a wheelchair. Obviously, that’s not the case with Paul, and the disease can affect each person differently. But once you hear him describe how MS ‘works’, you get some sense of just how challenging a bike ride can be for him and how even daily chores can become difficult for anyone with the disease.
“It chews away at the insulation of the nerves. Sometimes that will heal itself, but when it does it can create a lump like a really bad solder joint. What happens is that you may have so many of these bad joints that when you get over heated, the wires get crossed or don’t work. So, when I get overheated, I may start dragging a leg, slurring my speech, or I get confused and can’t make decisions. I need to recognize these when they happen. For example, I can come to a stop sign and I think I know what I’m supposed to do with my bike, but I forget. If I can just concentrate on what to do on the bike, I’m okay.”
Paul admits that heat and stress can exacerbate his symptoms, so he tries hard to avoid both.
Since deciding to pursue the million-mile mark, Paul’s achieved a couple of firsts. Some of them with a humorous bent. Like his Saddle Sore 1000 record – 99 different used bikes and Paul rode each one on the same 10-mile route. Most people only use one bike on a singular 1000 mile route.
Then there’s the 2000 miles he rode in 28 hours by riding east to west through four time zones as the clocks were turned back from Daylight Savings Time.
Over 30 bikes have felt Paul’s weight in his lifetime, although he admits to becoming a rider rather late in life. Long before MS became a constant, he decided to stick with cars for awhile because he said he knew if he rode the way he drove, he’d be dead.
He’s since backed off the throttle some and has managed to put over 168,000 miles on a 2013 Yamaha Super Tenere. Those are miles without a wash or a major service. He’s put 72,000 on another. Combined that’s almost a quarter of the way toward his million-mile goal.
Public speaking at MS events, pharmaceutical conventions, and bike rallies is how Paul now spends his time. The miles are a means to get there and an end unto themselves.
“I don’t typically introduce myself as ‘Hi I’m Paul, I have MS.’ I don’t think of what I have as a disability. When I’m traveling, I’m on a mission. I truly believe that what I’m doing is important. I’m doing it for a reason.”
Paul uses analogies from his past riding experience to help inspire people with MS to not let the real or imagined obstacles in one’s life keep them from living. Like that piece of shit Ural that kept breaking down, but still managed to get him across the finish line.
Ultimately, the message Paul wants people to get from his experience is pretty simple and pertinent to anyone facing any obstacle.
“Find something you’re passionate about and make it more important than the disease.”
And, we might add, take a good long ride once in a while to ease the frustration.