PMC bicycle ride for cancer research hits 35 years

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PMC bicycle ride for cancer research hits 35 years
Hundreds of cyclists leave the starting line in Sturbridge, Mass., in the 25th annual Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2004. The Pan-Mass Challenge is a fund-raising bike ride that started in 1980 with 36 cyclists that raised $10,200 for cancer research. The ride has grown into a 4,000-cyclist event expected to raise $17 million for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. (AP Photo/Pan Mass Challenge, John Deputy)
CHELMSFORD, MA - JULY 24: Team Cycle for Colby's Ride will be riding in Colby Schofield's name in the Man-Mass Challenge, having already collected nearly $85,00 for the fight against cancer. The teammates gather: (left to right front row) Patti D'Angelo, Colby Schofield, Tess Pelligrini and Isabella Washkurak; (back row) Maureen Pelligrini, Allison Washkurak, Isabella Hoch, Tom Schofield and Perry Gould, Wednesday, July 24, 2013. (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Cyclists are seen at the start of the 27th annual Pan-Massachusetts Challenge bike-a-thon to raise money for cancer research and treatment, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006, in Sturbridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole)
CHELMSFORD, MA - JULY 24: Tracy Schofield, left, chatted with Pan-Mass Challenge riders Allison Washkurak, middle, and Maureen Pelligrini, Wednesday, July 24, 2013. A group of friends and family members will be riding as Team Cycle for Colby's Ride in honor of Schofield's daughter, Colby, who has hodgkin's lymphoma. (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BUZZARDS BAY - AUGUST 6: From left to right: Lance Armstrong and Senator John Kerry reached Buzzards Bay sometime after 11 a.m. during the first leg of the Pan-Mass Challenge on Saturday, August 6, 2011. (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
DUXBURY - JULY 25: Mike Cesarini with his daughters, Michaella, 10, Bella, 9, and his wife, Maura Cesarini, on Monday, July 25, 2011. Mike Cesarini is riding the Pan-Mass Challenge for his wife who has cancer. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BUZZARDS BAY - AUGUST 6: Cyclist Lance Armstrong, left, autographed a man's shirt after completing the first leg of the Pan-Mass Challenge on Saturday, August 6, 2011. (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
WALPOLE, MA - AUGUST 5: Some of the more than 3,000 cyclists take part in the 21st annual Pan Mass. Challenge to help find a cure for cancer as they cross over the town line from Walpole to Sharon. The cyclists will end their trip today in Bourne. On Aug. 6, 2000, they will begin their trip from Bourne and end the challenge in Provincetown. (Photo by Bill Polo/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
WELLESLEY, MA - AUGUST 4: Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine at the start of the Pan-Mass Challenge at Babson College. He rode to Wrentam to raise money for the Jimmy Fund. (Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - DECEMBER 7: Michael Katin, who finished his second Pan-Mass. Challenge, took a break from a bike ride to watch a check presentation at the Dana-Farber Cancer institute. The 1997 PMC raised $5.5 million for the Jimmy Fund which funds research at Dana-Farber. (Photo by Evan Richman/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
WRENTHAM, MA - AUGUST 5: John Totman of Sherborn plays a horn while riding his recumbent from Wrentham during the 27th annual Pan-Mass Challenge on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006. Forty-three hundred cyclists are riding in the two-day event to Provincetown and hope to raise $24 million for cancer research and treatment. (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Charlie Hamilton, of Bolton, Mass., is seen with his bicycle, Thursday, March 25, 2004, at Fenway Park in Boston. Hamilton plans to bike to every Major League Baseball park in the country in an effort to raise money for the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, a cycling organization that supports cancer research and treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through its Jimmy Fund. (AP Photo/Angela Rowlings)
Cyclists, including Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., right, pause for the national anthem before the 7th annual Pan-Massachusetts Challenge bike-a-thon to raise money for cancer research and treatment, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006, in Sturbridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, center, with cancer survivors and participants, prior to the start of the 24th annual Pan-Massachusetts Challenge in Sturbridge, Mass., Saturday, Aug. 2, 2003. Sen. Kerry joined more then 2,600 riders from Sturbridge on a two-day ride, which raises money for cancer research and treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Cyclists ride during the start the 27th annual Pan-Massachusetts Challenge bike-a-thon to raise money for cancer research and treatment, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006, in Sturbridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole)
WELLESLEY, MA - NOVEMBER 10: At Babson College, Pan-Mass Challenge presents $15 million to Jimmy Fund. PMC is the largest single athletic fundraising event in nation. PMC founder and Exec. Director Billy Starr, right, presenting check to Edward J. Benz, Jr., MD, left, Dana-Farber President. (Photo by George Rizer/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

NEEDHAM, Mass. (AP) - Billy Starr was living at his father's house - sometimes in a tent in the backyard - in need of another adventure after hiking part of the Appalachian Trail, when he decided to ride his bicycle to the very tip of Cape Cod.

A two-sport varsity athlete in college, Starr made the 140-mile trip with a few friends and no real purpose except the journey. He quickly realized the ride would be even more meaningful if he could raise money for cancer research in the memory of his mother, who died of melanoma at the age of 49.

"I wanted to suffer and do a good deed. There wasn't a business plan. It was just something I had a need to do," Starr said as he prepared to make the trip again. "I was living at home, trying to figure out my life. I was coming from the '60s and '70s. You know: 'My Generation.'

"You just had to have my kind of personality, that you had think that riding 220 miles was fun. I was that guy, and I am that kind of guy. I love to get into trouble and figure it out. Although now I'm older and can't afford to get into trouble as much anymore."

The ride that Starr began as a lark in 1977 has grown into the Pan-Mass Challenge, a two-day gathering of more than 5,000 riders and another 3,000 volunteers with a total haul that makes it the biggest single-event charity fundraiser in the country. PMC riders are expected to raise $40 million this year, bringing the total contributions to the Jimmy Fund at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute over the past 35 years to more than $450 million.

"It takes a ton of money to move the needle," said Starr, whose event delivers more than half of the Jimmy Fund's annual revenue and is Dana-Farber's single largest source of unrestricted funding. "When you invest in an institution and the cure rates keep going up ... you want it to be 100 percent but, at the same time, that's huge.

"I wanted to just push the needle. And having lost just three family relatives in a very short period, I was impacted," said Starr, who also lost an uncle and a cousin to cancer. "I wanted a better world."

In a brightly painted but otherwise spartan office in a suburban industrial park, Starr took time out from preparing for this weekend's Pan-Mass Challenge to discuss the event and its growth. Outside his door, a staff of eight full-timers and a handful of part-timers prepared for Friday's start, which this year consists of 12 different routes along 360 miles of road through 46 Massachusetts towns.

Having conceived of the PMC at a time when athletic charity events were rare, Starr has helped make it a model for the $2.5 billion "a-thon" charity fundraising industry.

"This whole 'sweat equity' thing - so those of us who were never going to be doctors could find a useful role - it's pretty obvious now," he said. "You can bike, walk, run for every good cause under the sun. But nobody's raised the money the PMC has."

David Hessekiel, who as founder of the Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum studies how nonprofits can raise more money, said the Pan-Mass Challenge was innovative for its time and still the premiere event of its kind.

"It raises, as an individual event, more than anybody else, and also it serves as inspiration to other events around the country," Hessekiel said. "They were not the first people in the country to do peer-to-peer fundraising; hunger walks and a number of other events existed. But they were definitely pioneers, and especially in terms of the audacity of his goals of what they thought they could achieve."

Now 63, Starr had no notion of creating a major event when he took off for the Cape in 1977, or even three years later when he decided to turn it into a fundraiser. He met with officials from Dana-Farber, one of the nation's premier cancer research and treatment centers, who convinced him that he could raise more money with a bigger group.

In 1980, three dozen riders left Springfield for Providence in the first Pan-Mass Challenge.

They raised $10,200.

"Everybody got lost, we ran out of food and the ferry broke down," Starr said. "We're driving back home, now on buses, and all these people are talking about 'Next year. Next year. Next year. And, you know: Why?

"And what I was able to get from this was: This meant something. It meant something in the molecular structure of who we were. We were expanding our identity as citizens, as athletes. We certainly weren't philanthropists."

Starr immediately began trying to make the event bigger and better. More than 200 riders signed up the next year, raising more than $40,000; they broke $1 million in 1989, $10 million in 2000 and $30 million in 2007. The minimum fundraising commitment to participate this year is $5,000 for those on the longest route, but Starr expects that the average rider will raise around $7,000.

And, for the eighth consecutive year, 100 percent of the money raised through donations will go to cancer research, with entry fees and sponsorships covering the overhead.

"The Pan-Mass Challenge money comes to the institute to be used where the need is greatest. It has been the money where we have used to be able to recruit an extraordinary collection of talent," said Dr. Ed Benz, the Dana-Farber president. "And the work they are doing is making an enormous difference."

Benz said that some of the more promising advances in cancer treatment have come from doctors whose research was funded by the PMC. As Dana-Farber has grown - tripling in size since 2000 - so has the contribution from the PMC.

And just as families of cancer victims gravitate toward the PMC, so do Dana-Farber employees - including doctors, pharmacy staff, security guards. (Benz rode in the event in 2006 but crashed and hasn't been able to participate since.)

"It gives us - and this is a little bit corny - a sense of what our duty is," he said. "It gives us a sense of why were there, and what our obligation is to deliver on the promise of cancer science. The spiritual aspect of the Pan-Mass Challenge is every bit as important as the financial aspect."

Starr acknowledged that the event has lost the intimacy of the early days, but as the group got bigger so did the sense of community. All of the work involved has become part of the message to the riders: You are part of something big.

"It's palpable to everybody. It's not lost on any of these people, all the organization around the event, that together we're turning the crank of progress," he said.

"You don't ride down Cape Cod - with 12 routes, 360 miles of infrastructure, 46 towns - without tremendous coordination. That's not lost on anybody. Luggage, safety, travel - we're going right down Cape Cod in prime-time. We have made you, the amateur bike rider, a real star. And you say thank you by raising extraordinary money. It just works."

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