When Fair Lakes resident Kevin Elwell bicycles, Aug. 2-3, in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC) to raise money for cancer research, it'll be for the fifth time.
"I've gotten smitten by this event — it really gets inside your soul," he said. "I lost my father to a rare form of cancer, multiple myeloma. He was diagnosed and, two weeks later, he was gone."
His father, L.D. Elwell of Springfield, died in 1999, but it wasn't the first time cancer touched his family. In 1996, both his aunt and uncle — his father's sister and her husband — died of the disease. So Kevin decided to do something personally to combat it.
"In 1997, I did the ride for the first time," he said. "I have lofty goals. I want to raise $100,000 for cancer research; so far, I've raised $36,000. My goal is $10,000 for this year."
THE PMC — a 192-mile bike ride across Massachusetts — is in its 25th year. More than 3,000 people participate each year, with proceeds going to the Dana Farber Cancer Research Institute in Boston — specifically, the Jimmy Fund, toward finding a cure for cancer.
Presented by the Boston Red Sox, the PMC is the nation's original fund-raising bike-a-thon, and Elwell, 46, of the Autumn Woods community, says doing the bike ride keeps him focused on doing something for a good cause. It also takes a huge, physical effort.
"That's why they call it a challenge — because you ride 112 miles, the first day," he said. "The second day is 80 miles — about a seven-hour commitment — and when you come home, you're just spent."
The riders start out at 6 a.m. from Sturbridge, Mass., and end up in Bourne, near the southernmost tip of the state. "The next day, you start spinning at 5:30 a.m. and go to Provincetown, at the end of Cape Cod," said Elwell. "Then we take the ferry back to Boston."
A freelance photographer and Web designer, he usually begins training for the ride on Memorial Day, spending all of June and July on his black-and-gray, Cannondale bike. By August, he'll have logged at least 1,000 miles.
"I bike three times a week and save the really long rides for the weekend," said Elwell. "I did 81 miles [recently], from Fairfax, and took the Washington & Old Dominion Trail to [Washington], D.C., picked up the Custis Trail to Key Bridge, took the Crescent Trail to Bethesda and then took the Rock Creek Trail back. I saw three states — it was awesome." It took him from 8:15 a.m. to 2:45 a.m. but, he said, "It was a great ride."
HE SAID THE TOUGHEST part of the PMC is the second day — "when I'm trashed from the first day, get back on the bike and do it again. The second day is a lot of hills and dunes, and that's what kills you."
Elwell rides as part of a 12-member team called the Whistleblowers, and the teamwork comes in handy. "In cycling, you can use drafting techniques — using the wind from the guy in front of you," he explained. "Because he's already broken the wind's resistance, you can save 40 percent of your energy by riding in his draft. You take turns being the guy in front of the pace line."
The best part of the event, he said, is pulling in to the rest stops and seeing all the riders with shirts, placards and mementos telling about the person for whom they're riding. "I ride with a placard on my back saying, 'I ride in honor of my father,'" said Elwell.
He's also moved by the spectators cheering and clapping along the way. Many hold signs saying things such as, "I'm a survivor — thank you" and "Go, PMC riders."
"I get this prayer of thanks from everyone — and that's what gets inside your soul and rattles around," said Elwell. "I do it because I can, and the return I get is nowhere near commensurate with the effort."
And if people donate $100 to the cause, he'll ride in honor of their loved ones, too. "I'll be the vehicle whereby they can honor [someone special to them] that they lost to cancer," he said. "I'll put that person's name and photo on the placard, too."
TAX-DEDUCTIBLE contributions to Elwell's ride may be made at <https://my.pmc.org/personal.asp?UID=KE0006>, or send checks payable to the PMC-Jimmy Fund to Elwell at 4742 Warm Hearth Circle, Fairfax, VA 22033-5076. For more information about the PMC, call 1-800-WE-CYCLE or visit www.pmc.org.
Participating in the fund-raiser really means a lot to him. "It's the only time I've ever felt like a hero," he said. "One day [during a previous PMC], I pulled into a rest stop and saw a little boy with a sign on a stick saying, 'Hi, my name is Jack. I'm 4 because of you.' The Dana Farber Institute had saved his life and cured him."
So for children like Jack, and in memory of his father, Elwell keeps riding. "He was an incredible father — he gave so much of himself to my mom, my two brothers and my sister," said Elwell. "He was a pillar of the community, a success in business and a loving parent. My dad was my hero."