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.”
There are now eight routes, with different mileages, starting points, and endings. The longest ride starts at Sturbridge on Saturday and ends 190 miles later on Sunday morning in Provincetown, the riders sweeping past the dunes in a sea of color, their jerseys and helmets flashing by in the morning light and into the town, as the crowd cheers as if they’ve done something heroic. “You pedal for 200 miles for that last 50 yards,” Starr says.
What they’ve done is to keep pushing one pedal down, pulling the other pedal up, going from water stop to water stop, not questioning whether it matters, because they know it does. Because this is what is possible: to fight back. “The weekend builds hope, and hope is very powerful,” says one rider, whose team includes his wife, who has survived two bouts of cancer and one bone marrow transplant. They know why they do this year after year: because this is one ride we all are on.
Dates for the 30th annual Pan-Mass Challenge are August 1-2, 2009. pmc.org
VIDEO: Pan-Mass Challenge