SALEM – The Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon has raised $767 million and counting for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in its more than four decades.
The ride involves more than 6,000 riders, supported by thousands of volunteers, pedaling along various routes from 25 to 211 miles during the first weekend of August. It’s goal this year is to raise $52 million for the Jimmy Fund. The ride accounts for 64 percent of the Jimmy Fund’s revenue.
Due to the pandemic, last year’s ride went virtual, with riders planning their own routes while fundraising with pledges for their “reimagined” rides. This year, the ride is coming back together with 16 planned routes and starts and finishes across Massachusetts, plus the inclusion of the “reimagined” ride, where participants can ride wherever, whenever, and however far they choose.
Its founder and executive director, Billy Starr, said the PMC has come to embody the spirit of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
“It certainly has more resonance 40 years in than it did two years in,” said Starr, a Newton native. “Originally, it was like ‘repair my own soul’ or offer an avenue for others who were
feeling like I did about loss from cancer, about being frustrated and not being a doctor; How do you join this battle, and do something meaningful?”
Starr said back in 1980, it was a personal journey with some friends as a way to deal with the grief of losing his mother, uncle, and cousin from cancer when he was in his mid 20s.
Starr’s mother, Betty Starr, died in June of 1974 at age 49 from melanoma, and he started the ride six years later. “The PMC was the positive result of what came out of a very difficult time in my own life,” Starr said.
At first, it wasn’t envisioned as a community ride. Starr recalls walking into the Jimmy Fund office and telling an official he wanted to ride across Massachusetts to raise money to fight cancer.
“When I told her what I was going to do, she said, ‘What’s your goal?’ And I said, ‘My goal is to raise money,’ and she responded quickly: ‘So, do you think you are better off doing that by yourself?’ And I go, she’s absolutely right … It’s nice to purge my pain, but if I really care about raising money, I have to get others to join me.”
That’s when Starr realized he needed to become more of an event coordinator than an endurance athlete.
Some early morning rides with friends to Provincetown from his father’s house in Newton in the 1970s helped him form the idea of today’s PMC ride.
The first Pan-Mass Challenge involved a ride from Springfield to Provincetown with 36 friends and no support vans, no rest stops, no bike mechanics, and no stopover. It raised $10,200. Today, the ride’s mass participation is what makes it so special, Starr said, especially for cancer survivors.
“It allows people to know they are not in this alone. That’s a very powerful thing,” Starr said.
Starr has deep ties to the North Shore, including to many riders who are part of its Jewish community. Starr’s childhood friend and original PMC rider, Barry Kraft, lives in Swampscott.
Starr also befriended a group called the North Shore Cyclopaths that was recruited to ride in the PMC in 1984 by a rider named Brenda White, said Sheldon Brown, 88, of Marblehead, one of the founders of the Cyclopaths and a retired North Shore Community College professor.
“No question about it, it does represent tikkun olam, trying to help others, for sure,” Brown said of the PMC, which he rode for 29 years starting in 1985.
Another Cyclopath who became a mentor to Starr was the late Sam Zoll, the former Salem mayor and chief justice of the Massachusetts District Court, who died from gallbladder cancer in 2011.
Starr also befriended Cyclopath Bill Cantor of Swampscott, who would go on to become the oldest rider in the PMC. Cantor rode 30 Pan-Mass Challenges from age 60 to 90, the last one a year before his death in 2014, according to the fundraising page of Donna Cohen of Swampscott. Another friend and mentor was cyclist and attorney Avram Hammer of Marblehead, who rode the PMC with his wife, Laurie. Av Hammer died from lymphoma in 2016.
Starr said he is “culturally proud to be Jewish.” He had a bar mitzvah, though it wasn’t a traditional ceremony because he had quit Hebrew school.
“My joke was I got bar mitzvahed at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning and my uncle overslept and I got no presents,” he laughed.
Some riders with a Jewish identity talked about why they ride.
“I didn’t want this to happen to anyone else,” said Donna Cohen of Swampscott, who will take part in her 30th PMC next week.
She got involved after a good friend from high school’s husband died from leukemia at age 36. He was a father of two young children. She continues to ride for those who have died from cancer or who continue to fight it.
“I think we all had time during quarantine to reflect on priorities,” Cohen said of what the PMC means to her. “The simple act of gathering with friends and family is something most people longed for.”
Newton native Barry Lipsett of Falmouth has been riding the PMC for about 15 years.
“It’s amazing the connections people make, too,” he said.
Lipsett lost his sister, Sue de Vries of Swampscott, and his mother, Eleanore Lipsett of Chestnut Hill, to cancer. His aunt, who is in her early 70s, is now battling the disease.
Sue, a mother of three who became involved with counseling and wellness for those with cancer, died of breast cancer at age 44 in April 2006. She had ridden in the PMC and was a member of the Cyclopaths.
After Sue died, Barry and his other sister, Julie, started to ride in the PMC. Julie’s husband, Stephen Feinberg, and Sue’s daughter, Kendall, have also pedaled in the event. Barry Lipsett plans to do a reimagined ride around the North Shore with friends during PMC weekend.
After his sister died, Lipsett started riding in the PMC, and he recalls leaving from the start in Wellesley and having a chance meeting with Sam Zoll, the Salem judge and Cyclopath.
Not having ridden with the Cyclopaths, Lipsett spotted a picture of his sister on Zoll’s helmet as the Cyclopaths rode in her memory in 2006. On the second day of the PMC, Lipsett recalled climbing a steep hill on his way to Provincetown, and toward the top, he saw a big picture of Sue someone had posted there.
“It was like I saw an image, it was like from the sky,” Lipsett said. He said he never found out who posted the picture there.
Turns out, it was put there by Donna Cohen of the Cyclopaths, who had ridden 87 miles on the first day that year, even though she had come down with bronchial pneumonia. “I truly believe Sue was the wind beneath my wings,” she said of how she toughed out the ride. She then went to the Cape on the second day to cheer on the other riders like Lipsett.
“So, Sue, she’s been with us, and so we are always thinking of Sue, and certainly during the PMC,” Lipsett said.
This year’s ride is Aug. 7-8. For information, visit pmc.org.