New Rider to Iron Butt Record-Holder in Three Years Flat

What did you do in your third year of riding motorcycles? Maybe that was when you stepped up to a bigger bike, or decided you were ready for that weeklong trip. Kate Johnston marked her third year on two wheels by riding coast to coast. And back. And it’s not the two coasts you think.

In July, Johnston became the first woman ever to complete one of the Iron Butt Association’s toughest North American rides, the Ultimate Coast to Coast to Coast Insanity, which requires the rider to go from Key West, Florida, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and back to Key West, all within 30 days.

That’s right. A little more than three years after she took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse and bought a Honda Rebel 250 beginner bike, Johnston, of Riegelsville, Pennsylvania, threw a leg over her 2013 BMW F 700 GS and didn’t get off until she put her name in the Iron Butt record books.

Johnston encountered rain for three of the four days she was on the Dalton Highway.
Johnston encountered rain for three of the four days she was on the Dalton Highway.

The numbers alone are impressive: rode 10,767 miles in 24 days for the CCC Insanity ride; saw rain approximately 20 of those 24 days; rode a total of 13,560 miles from home to home; felt temperatures ranging from 101 degrees in Tennessee to 40 degrees and snowing on the Dalton Highway, heading north to Deadhorse; used three sets of tires; and crashed one time, on a notorious section of the Dalton, but with no serious repercussions.

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Just to add another twist to Johnston’s story, she is also diabetic. Not that her health issues slow her down, obviously, but it did mean she had to carry medical supplies, monitor her blood sugar levels and predict when she needed to adjust her insulin dosage due to the exertion of the long ride.

Of the many beautiful sights she saw, Johnston says this view of Destruction Bay in Canada on a perfect summer afternoon was the one that most stuck in her memory.
Of the many beautiful sights she saw, Johnston says this view of Destruction Bay in Canada on a perfect summer afternoon was the one that most stuck in her memory.

So what motivates a woman to go from rank newbie to Iron Butt record-setter in a little more than three years?

“When you really love something, you go into it no holds barred,” said Johnston, explaining her outlook. She did her first Iron Butt ride two years ago, and that only heightened her interest.

After an early scare, Johnston began eating bananas daily (banana chips in Alaska) to keep her potassium levels steady. So Mills arranged to have a man in a banana suit meet her at the finish line in Key West.
After an early scare, Johnston began eating bananas daily (banana chips in Alaska) to keep her potassium levels steady. So Mills arranged to have a man in a banana suit meet her at the finish line in Key West.

“You read and see all these people going on grand adventures,” Johnston explained. “I wanted to go on a great adventure, and this is kind of the ultimate adventure. It just happened that I was the first woman to do that, but that was like a little cherry on the cake.”

The IBA has already certified Johnston’s ride. In 2012, the entire Boge family—Michael, Anavel and their 7-year-old daughter, Laura—completed the CCC trip in a sidecar rig. That’s impressive enough. But Johnston, at age 35, is the first woman to do the CCC as a rider, not a passenger. Johnston rode most of her epic ride alone, and she was fine with that.

“I think everyone should take a trip by themselves at some point,” she said. “You get to know yourself when all the things that revolve around us in life disappear.”

For the final leg north on the Dalton Highway, however, she had company. Anthony Mills introduced Johnston to motorcycles when she began riding as a passenger with him, before quickly deciding to move to the front seat. Mills flew to Alaska and rented a motorcycle so she wouldn’t ride the Dalton alone.

The rain, grime and calcium chloride of the Dalton Highway chewed up her BMW’s chain in short order, forcing her to get an unscheduled replacement.
The rain, grime and calcium chloride of the Dalton Highway chewed up her BMW’s chain in short order, forcing her to get an unscheduled replacement.

They encountered rain three of their four days on the Dalton, with visibility sometimes measured in feet. They crossed Atigun Pass, the highest point on the Dalton, without knowing it, because fog obscured the roadside sign. The rain, dirt and calcium chloride used to treat the unpaved sections chewed up her chain, forcing her to seek a replacement.

This is what a BMW F 700 GS looks like after a rainy day on the Dalton Highway.
This is what a BMW F 700 GS looks like after a rainy day on the Dalton Highway.

But it was their first day on the Dalton when Johnston had her most bizarre incident of the trip. She was riding ahead of Mills when she saw a wolf by the side of the road, watching her. She expected to see it run off as she approached.

“As I’m getting closer, it runs at me,” Johnston recalled. “I’m like, ‘Holy crap!’ The wolf charged me! I was not expecting that.”

Aside from the chewed-up chain, one crash, tire replacement, and a 4 x 10-foot sheet of plastic that flew out of a truck and almost wrapped her up in the middle of Atlanta traffic, the journey was trouble-free. Johnston says she will remember the peacefulness of the hours of riding in solitude and the glorious beauty of Canada.

“I’ve never seen purple mountains before,” she said. “You read about that, but I’d never seen it before. They really are purple.”

Having gone from zero to the record books in three years, it will be interesting to see where Kate Johnston goes next.

(This article Quick Study was published in the February 2015 issue of Rider magazine.)

If it’s a rainy day on the Dalton Highway, and you’re covered in mud and still smiling, you must be an Iron Butt rider.
If it’s a rainy day on the Dalton Highway, and you’re covered in mud and still smiling, you must be an Iron Butt rider.
Johnston carried a RevZilla banner with her and displayed it at the Arctic Circle because, at the time, she was a loyal customer. She has since been hired by the company to join its IT staff.
Johnston carried a RevZilla banner with her and displayed it at the Arctic Circle because, at the time, she was a loyal customer. She has since been hired by the company to join its IT staff.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Congratulations on your Iron Butt ride! What an accomplishment.

    I too am diabetic. I would like to know how you stored your meds to protect them from the heat. Looking for advice so I may pack that way for my long motorcycle trips.

    Thanks!

    • Paul,

      Thank you!. I used a Pelican 1060 with reusable ice packs for the insulin. The test strips, infusion sets and sensors were kept near the Pelican case but in a Dry Pac.

  2. Wow !
    Congrats for your accomplishment , i can understand the difficulties that can occurs during such a trip , i am my self diabetic and a rider for 40 years i know the restriction off the bags capacities and all the stuff you need to carry for sutch a trip witch elevate the level off this challenge
    I’m realy impress

  3. I just don’t get this. I’ve ridden everything she did but certainly not in 24 days. I would commend her more if she took 24 weeks to do it. That way she could really appreciate it. I personally think these Iron Butt things are dangerous and encourage riders to ride when they shouldn’t be. I met an Iron Butt rider while in British Colombia once who was trying to get some ridiculous certificate or something and he told me he was exhausted and almost fell asleep on the bike right before stopping. Guess what……he mounted back up and took off down the road. Told me he needed at least three more hours of seat time before he could stop for an hour or so. For a stinking certificate that no one in their right mind cares about he puts other riders/drivers lives in danger. Oh may, you have a certificate! I’m am impressed!

    • @Park Kitchings
      When it comes to endurance riding lots of folks “don’t get it” and that’s fine.

      I don’t get climbing to the top of Mount Everest! Why would anyone in their right mind endanger their own life as well as those of their guides and others, all the while dealing with below freezing temperatures and treacherous conditions! Just so they can be on some stupid list of people that have completed the same stupid feat? Oh, and don’t forget, if you die on the way, your guides are going to just leave you there. (google: green boots everest) It’s crazy I tell you!

      The point here is that since the beginning of time people have been pushing themselves to the limit by doing things that test human endurance. Just because you met one rider that was either behaving irresponsibly or trying too hard to impress another rider does not mean that all IBA riders are like that. In fact, the IBA goes out of their way to make sure that all of their rides are completed in a responsible manner.

      Here’s the thing – no rider in his right mind is going to keep riding when he’s falling asleep, that’s called suicide. None of us wants to die out there.

      Ever hear the quote “A certain amount of danger is essential to the quality of life”? Yeah, it was from that crazy guy that flew The Spirit of Saint Louis non-stop from NY to Paris (no doubt endangering hundreds, if not thousands, on the ground below him) – Charles Lindbergh

      I congratulate Katie on her successful (and safe) completion of a ride that most people would not have the physical endurance to complete.

      Mike

    • I rode safely and took my time. I did get to see plenty and was not in a rush.

      The ride was as much about mental endurance as it was about physical endurance. I could have done the trip in fewer days but didn’t feel the need to.

      I hadn’t started looking for a job yet and knew i wouldn’t get the opportunity to again for a while, possibly retirement. :). I took the opportunity I had and seized the day.

  4. Congratulations
    If conditions are right, and this is what you want to do, I think it is ok to do so.

    24 hours, 24 days or 24 weeks. It’s about doing what you want.
    Others can do what they want.

    Continue riding as you wish.

  5. Congratulations, young lady! My only constraint when I had to urge to do the Iron Butt was time. Could not get a 20+ days off stretch [consecutively], and over these past years have lost interest in timed distance riding. I much prefer enjoying the ride and scenery to worrying about making my miles for the day to stay within time limitations. I do ride long distance, and ride weather, but take my trips as fast or slow and I choose. Having said that, I do still congratulate you for planning and achieving your goal! Well done!

  6. I commend Kate on her accomplishment – male or female that is exceptional. I’d love to make that ride one day. No, I myself wouldn’t do it as an Iron Butt ride … as a photographer, I want to see and photograph everything along the way, so making a ride like that on the clock has no meaning to me. But that’s a person’s choice.

  7. What an adventure. I did something along those lines in 1972 on a used Triumph. Around this wonderful country, North to South and east of the Mississippi. I spent most of the summer cruising and checking all the things out that I found. It was the adventure of a lifetime. I hope you always have great memories of what you have done.

  8. With that much rain how did your rain gear hold up. Is there a brand/type of rain gear that you have found that you like or would recommend?

  9. Kate ! you are a real inspiration to me ! I have only been riding about 7 years and have never done anything lik your trip !
    I live in Henryville PA in the Poconos and would live to hook up with you for a ride (no come on here , im happilly married but my wife wont get on the bike)
    Please hit me up with a email if interested , if not i get it , but keep on going you are a real 2 wheel hero !

  10. Kate! Way. To. Go. Girl!

    I’m just bouncing around the internet for some other crazies like my mom & dad and I. I loved reading this short bit about your trip and I’m sure there are plenty of other stories! I agree about Destruction Bay too! Did you see any wildlife there? We feel like Kluane Lake brought in the best!

    Keep the rubber side down! Ride on!

    Charlotte

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