Bike ride for cancer research hits 35 years
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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