Last year, cancer in all its forms killed more than 500,000 people in America, according to the National Cancer Institute. More than a million people every year face new diagnoses.
For Billy Starr, the founder of the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC), the renowned bike-a-thon that has raised almost $600 million for cancer causes since 1980, cancer has been far more than a terrifying prospect. When he was barely in his 20s, Starr’s mother died from cancer. Then, before he had time to even begin coping with this loss, cancer claimed the lives of both his uncle and cousin.
To process his compounded grief, Starr embarked upon some significant athletic pursuits. Through it all, he conceived the idea for an event that would save countless cancer-stricken lives: the PMC, which last year alone raised $47 million for Dana-Farber Cancer Research Institute in Boston.
“It was around this time that I realized that the bike is a very cool vehicle,” Starr recalled. “Once a year or so, I’d get up at four o’clock in the morning and bike the 120 miles from my home in Newton, Mass., to Provincetown. I had to time it right so I’d be able the ferry home. Every time I did it, I thought, ‘this is cool.’ I’m going to get people to do this with me and raise money for cancer.’”
Starr’s “cool thought” has since exploded into an annual Massachusetts athletic affair. Every first weekend in August, cyclists from all over the world — including residents of Potomac — make their way to Massachusetts, where they collectively pedal more than a million miles to raise money for Dana-Farber’s Jimmy Fund, which offers financial aid to cancer patients around the world.
“After the first event, I knew I was going to commit myself to making it really big,” Starr said. “I had a knack for identifying who had which skill sets so that everyone involved could pull everything off. I knew we weren’t doctors, but I knew how to identify the people we needed. It was a modest fundraiser for a long time, but it was always growing. Now, our goal is close to $50 million.”
He added that 100 percent of every rider-earned dollar goes directly to the Jimmy Fund. Participants fundraise over the course of several months — from the day they register for the PMC, which can be as early as January, up until the following Oct. 1. This means that even though the some of the 2017 PMC-ers have already put away their bikes for the season, donations on their behalf continue to pour in to Starr and his team of PMC organizers.
“We announced a $48 million goal in January, and we are sitting now at about 38 million,” he said. “We believe we will meet or exceed it.”
During the weekend of Saturday, Aug. 5, the 2017 PMC-ers chose one of 13 designated paths across the state of Massachusetts. Some of the rides take cyclists one day to complete, and some are long enough that they last the entire weekend. The signature PMC route, for example, involves a two-day plan that begins in Sturbridge and ends in Provincetown.
PMC participants commit more than time and physical output. There are strictly-enforced minimums for everyone who rides. The steep expectations, however, haven’t turned people away from the PMC. Of the 6,212 people who registered for this year’s event, more than a third of them are PMC veterans of more than 10 years. More than 400 have completed 20 or more consecutive Challenges.
Potomac resident Peter Hancock is one of those regulars who can’t imagine a summer without the PMC. This year, he took on his 17th Challenge.
Hancock, a transplant to Maryland from his native Massachusetts, said he grew up knowing somewhere in the back of his mind that he would one day complete a PMC.
“Growing up in the Boston area, Dana-Farber is ubiquitous.” Hancock said. “I also love to cycle. It’s what I do; it’s my forte. In 2001, I learned that one of my friends, Raf, and his dad, Dan Frankel, did the ride. They got really attached to it. As I started riding with them more, they suggested that I get on board with the PMC. It always had seemed so daunting before — both the mileage and the fundraising requirements. But, something that year made me decide to do it.”
Hancock hasn’t missed a PMC since that 2001 ride. Despite his Maryland address, he’s been giving back significantly to his home state. If he reaches his fundraising goal this year, he will have raised more than $90,000 for Dana-Farber between all of his 17 consecutive PMCs he’s taken on.
“When you understand how much Dana-Farber does for the cancer community, it touches your heart in an everlasting way,” Hancock said. “Then, when you become part of the PMC, you are part of thousands and thousands of people joining forces for something bigger than themselves. It’s hard not to get totally caught up in that. It would be great if one day we don’t need the PMC, but for now we do. And, I’ll continue to fundraise.”
Hancock’s 2017 PMC route took him from Babson to Provincetown, which covers 163 miles. He also tacked on a few extra miles to the beginning of the designated path in order to make the experience even more meaningful.
“They estimated that 2,600 riders departed this year from Babson,” Hancock said. “I chose this departure because my mom lives in Ashland, and, on the Saturday morning that the PMC starts, I ride an extra 16 miles from Ashland to Babson to make the day a full Century ride [100 miles]. Babson is my alma mater, so it’s always nice to return to see the school and additions they make to the campus. I get to pass by my high school and see my friends and family throughout the entire route — all while soaking in the New England culture.”
As PMC riders propel persistently forward along their designated paths, they encounter constant reminders that they are literally saving lives with every inch of Massachusetts ground they cover.
“On the first day of a two-day route, you work really hard to make good time, and you see how your training has paid off,” Hancock said. “The second day, it’s different. It ends up being a recovery ride for many people, and everyone is headed to the same finishing point. For me, and I think for a lot of others, this is when the PMC becomes all about the camaraderie — not only the bonds with your fellow riders, but also with the incredible number of supporters that line the streets to support us. It’s the absolute norm to see people holding up handmade signs with messages like, ‘My son is alive because of what you’re doing for Dana-Farber.’”
To contribute to Peter Hancock’s ongoing fundraising, visit http://profile.pmc.org/ph0045.