VIDEO: Pan-Mass Challenge
There are people who possess a gift they don’t really know they have, until something unexpected happens and their life takes a turn, and then their gift becomes the life itself. For instance, Billy Starr.
In the summer of 1973 he had just graduated from college. He’d grown up in suburban Boston, a boyhood filled with good schools and sports and summers in Maine. Billy Starr was, as he puts it, “footloose, a late bloomer,” with no plans except to backpack around the Himalayas. “I saw the world as an infinite alluring expanse,” he once wrote.
That August he was playing in a tennis tournament, and when he came home his father was crying. “I’d never seen him cry,” Starr says. Billy’s mother, Betty–“she was beautiful,” he says, “she once was a model”–had melanoma. “Life got a lot harder then,” Starr says. “We suffered seeing her dying.” Betty Starr passed away in December 1974. “My father was never himself again,” Starr recalls. “Within three months of my mother’s death, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.”
So this is how life sometimes lines up. Billy’s mother was gone, and his father needed him now. Like George Bailey, Billy Starr wouldn’t take off just yet for distant places. He worked for the family kitchen-supply business, but he had to do something with his restlessness. “I was a pusher, always pushing,” he says. He hiked 400 miles of the Appalachian Trail, starting at Katahdin in Maine. He was with some friends, and they got lost and rain-soaked; some turned back. He remembers how hungry and exhausted he became, but above all he remembers the exhilaration when he came through, when he finished what he said he would do. He pushed more. He’d wake at 4 a.m. to bicycle to Provincetown, 130 miles distant, in time to catch the afternoon ferry back to Boston. “Provincetown was a destination,” he says, “because it was the end of the line.”
The long ride kept calling him back. “I started to think,” he says, “how could I turn my interest in sports, my sweat, into something meaningful? I felt there was something more here.” On an April day in 1980, he was in the Arnold Arboretum watching the sunset. “I had my epiphany,” Starr says: He’d bike alone from Williamstown to Provincetown, point to point the longest way to cross the state, some 300 miles by bike. He thought he could persuade people to donate money toward cancer research for each mile, a way to turn his continued sorrow for his mother into action.
This was long before athletic fundraising became popular. He wasn’t sure how it’d all work, but he “knew this was out there to do, people wanting to give back.” He brought his idea to the Jimmy Fund, and a woman there asked, “What’s really your goal?” Starr said, “To raise money for cancer research.” “You think you can do this better by yourself?” He realized he needed others.
Starr handed out brochures on the Charles River Bikeway, and one September morning he and 35 other riders pushed off from Springfield, Massachusetts. “Although I did everything wrong in the planning,” Starr says, they ended up the next day in Provincetown. “We finished at MacMillan Wharf. The ferry had broken down and we had to take the bus home. But all I heard was ‘We have to do this next year.’ That night I said to my former girlfriend, ‘I think I can make this big.’ ‘That’s nice,’ she said, ‘but grow up.’ That’s when I decided, I’ve got to make this work.”
That year the riders raised $10,200 for the Jimmy Fund at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Starr pushed more. He learned how to do things better. The next year 210 riders signed on, and when the second ride ended, he gave $40,600. The next year he gave $60,000, and the next, $100,000. Starr had found a calling and the improbable idea that this bike ride with the catchy name, Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC), could raise enough money to let doctors or scientists discover something to cure cancer if only they had more time and space to keep looking.
Starr had a lot to learn and he had to do it on the fly. The fourth year, it was 94 degrees and he didn’t have enough water stops. The fifth year, a 24-year-old bicyclist hit a shoulder and was thrown. “We were in the age of innocence,” Starr says. ” There was no helmet rule.” The young man died, and Starr’s volunteer staff was so shaken they all left. “I knew the PMC had to go on,” he says.
His staff worked through the shock and grief and came back. Each year there were more riders, more money for the Jimmy Fund. In 1985, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne opened its dorms to riders, who now had a comfortable landing spot before the final push to Provincetown. A few years later, the rains came for the first time. “I had always wondered what [would] happen if it’s raining at 5 a.m. Will people show up?” Starr says. “It was pouring and yet there was everybody. To walk out into the rain and see all these people … I realized the PMC had taken a huge psychological leap in the minds of participants.”
Starr kept pushing. He tinkered with new routes, creating more ways for people of all abilities to do a ride. “There was a time when the event was eating me up,” he says. He met his wife through the event and listened when she said he had to delegate. He formed a board of directors and hired full-time staff.
He says the years have gone by in a blur, and now here we are, 30 years in. What began with a single $10,200 gift has grown to $239 million. Last year’s ride raised $35 million for cancer research, half of all the money the Jimmy Fund receives in a year. There’s nothing quite like this anywhere in the world. “When they write the history of how cancer was conquered,” notes Dana-Farber president Dr. Edward J. Benz Jr., “the PMC will be in chapter one.”
This year on August 1, some 5,500 riders will start out, each one riding for someone they love, or someone they lost, or someone fighting the disease right now. Hundreds of riders themselves have or have had the disease. “We are not just cancer survivors,” one says. “We are cancer warriors.”
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