Grand Rapids Marathon excursion Man, 89, rides 1,000 miles on motorcycle in a day

By Tom Rademacher

The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) -- This summer, Ward Blanchard rode his motorcycle more than 1,000 miles without sleep, grinding out the distance in less than 24 hours.

Next July, Blanchard turns 90.

Not that you could tell. He's got the facial features of a guy in his 60s. And he could be a hand model for dish detergent.

Not that he's got the time or inclination. He's too busy busting his butt on a three-wheeled cycle known as a Can-Am Roadster, setting records for long-distance motorcycling while some of his cronies are probably having trouble -- let's face it -- gathering up enough steam for a spirited game of cribbage.

"Don't let your age tell you what you can do," says Blanchard, who worked full-time until he was 87, mostly as a factory laborer and window washer. "Just forget about your age and do it."

Blanchard was born "between Arcadia and Bear Lake" in Manistee County. The year was 1922. He and his three older sisters teamed up to tend to a modest family farm while Dad worked in logging camps.

When Blanchard was 7, the family moved north to Benzie County, where his dad was responsible for driving a team of horses for the president of a bank in Frankfort. The family lived three miles outside of town, and Blanchard remembers walking or riding a bicycle to and from school.

After graduating from Frankfort High, Blanchard worked the farm for a year or two, then moved to the Detroit area for his first factory job. It lasted less than two years and, in 1941, he joined the Merchant Marines, traveling the globe to supply troop ships during World War II.

He retired from the service in 1946, married Dorothy, and worked more factory jobs. Cancer took Dorothy in the 1950s.

"She never had the chance to have a good life," Blanchard says.

He remarried, but Lola died of cancer, too, in 2004. Blanchard also has outlived three sisters and a daughter. Only a son survives.

The idea of marrying a third time never appealed to him.

"Too much cancer," he says, shaking his head.

Blanchard lives in a humble mobile home just north of Grand Rapids. He has been there since 1968.

Most days, he drives a truck. But his real joy is that sleek, black Can-Am, which is tricked out to the tune of nearly $30,000. It features everything you need for overnight travel, including plenty of cargo space.

Every one of Blanchard's marathon excursions has been certified by the Iron Butt Association, which is made up of those who complete rides of 1,000 to 11,000 miles.

The most notable way to earn membership in the IBA is by completing a set distance within a set time. In Blanchard's case, he has knocked out a handful of long runs, the most demanding being 1,500 miles in less than 36 hours.

He's not only the oldest member of the IBA, he holds the association's record as the oldest ever to complete the Iron Butt's Saddle Sore 1,000 miles in less than 24 hours. He actually rode 1,008.

Blanchard says he has never felt the need to sleep during one of his 24-hour forays on the road.

As for inclement weather, "I never let a storm bother me," says Blanchard, who keeps a high-tech rain suit at the ready.

"He's a great guy, and everybody just loves him," says fellow IBA member Jim VanDenBerghe, of Newaygo, who's in awe of Blanchard's ability to ride on little rest.

"When we did the Yooper Madness Saddle Sore 1,000 ride in July," says VanDenBerghe, "I told Ward I was planning on stopping in Iron Mountain and take a snooze for an hour."

Another man of 89 might have concurred.

Not Blanchard.

"He looked kind of puzzled," VanDenBerghe recalls, "and asked me, 'Why?'"

Published: Tue, Oct 18, 2011


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