A Walk in the Woods Leads to Nation’s Most Successful Bike-a-Thon

Pan-Mass Challenge to Celebrate 35thAnnual Ride

BOSTON – Surprisingly, it was a cold, wet, and often lonely walk in the woods that inspired the philosophy behind the nation’s original fundraising bike-a-thon for charity, the Pan-Mass Challenge.

“To reap the rewards, you have to do the work.” In its Zen-like simplicity, this is what PMC Founder and Executive Director Billy Starr took home from a 400-mile hike through the northern and most challenging part of the Appalachian Trail. This knowledge, learned more than 35 years ago, has not only shaped his life but has enabled him to run what is today the single most successful athletic fundraising event in the nation.

Under Starr’s direction, the PMC has grown considerably and consistently from its modest beginnings into an event that draws more than 5,500 cyclists from 38 states and five countries. Today, the Pan-Mass Challenge raises more money than any other athletic fundraising event in the country. The PMC generates more than half of the Jimmy Fund's annual revenue and it is Dana-Farber’s largest single contributor. This year, cyclists will ride with the goal of raising $40 million, bringing the PMC’s 35-year Jimmy Fund contribution to $454 million.

The now nationally recognized PMC is a tribute to Starr’s unending desire to achieve, make a difference, and raise money for cancer research. It is also a model for all athletic fundraising events. The PMC sets the pace for a now $2 billion athletic fundraising event industry.

The Walk before the Ride

Physical adventures had always been second nature to Starr, an avid outdoorsman who honed his skills while attending college in Colorado. From rock climbing, to biking, to backpacking, Starr’s education was equally physical and academic; he graduated from college with a thirst for physical challenges and the expectation of backpacking around the world.

And then his mother, Betty Starr, just 49, died from melanoma.

It was soon after that a 25-year-old Starr set out with three friends to hike the Appalachian Trail. Since Starr was the instigator, he did all of the planning, organizing the group’s gear, food and setting the travel pace. He set up supply mailings to the appropriate post offices. He carried the heaviest load, both emotionally and physically. And when nature pelted the young men with freezing rain for the first eight straight days of their trek, it was Starr who encouraged the group to keep going and to keep focused on the challenge. Two of Starr’s three hiking mates diverted from the trail seeking respite from the elements in quick journeys home; they returned to find Starr on the Trail as committed as he was the day they left Katahdin, and as pure in his theory and methods. 

From this experience, Starr says he understood that those who put in the mental energy, not just the physical energy, follow their goals from theory to mission accomplished. From that point forward, Starr knew he could accomplish anything to which he committed his mind AND body.

The PMC is Founded

In 1977, Starr initiated a new annual routine. He would wakeup at 4 a.m. and hop on his bike, focused on making it to Provincetown with enough time to catch the 3:30 p.m. ferry back to Boston. The grueling 140-mile ride, accomplished with amazing speed, was something he did for fun.

Then, in 1980, Starr led dozens of friends who together had formed a loftier goal than just achieving speed or testing their endurance. This time they made a weekend out of it and set a goal of raising money to combat cancer, a disease that had claimed Starr’s mother, his uncle, a cousin and the lives of so many others.

When the cyclists gathered in Springfield, Massachusetts on that Saturday morning, Starr’s mind was focused solely on finishing with the group still intact. But by Sunday afternoon, Starr had found his calling and the PMC was born.         

The group of 36 rode 220 miles, raised $10,200, and donated it to the Jimmy Fund, which supports cancer research and care at Boston’s world-renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. It was then that Starr committed himself to organizing the PMC each year and told Dana-Farber officials to expect annual checks that would increase in value.

The PMC Philosophy

While there are today many athletic fundraising events, the PMC is undoubtedly the most successful in terms of the money raised and the percentage of funds it contributes directly to charity. One hundred percent of all funds raised by PMC riders go directly to the Jimmy Fund. The PMC is among the leanest of fundraising organizations in the nation.

Starr’s commitment to running the efficient non-profit is a testament to his savvy business skills, his organizational fortitude, and that enduring lesson he learned while on that cold, wet walk in the woods. “The success of this event is due to the fact that all PMC riders are encouraged - actually, required – to take their fundraising commitment as seriously as their physical commitment to ride the event,” Starr says.

This summer, each of the cyclists will commit to raising between $500 and $4,300 for the privilege of being a member of the PMC team. Yet, ninety percent of all PMCers exceed the minimum fundraising contribution and one-third raise more than twice the required sum.

In the same vein, Starr organizes and relies upon thousands of volunteers to orchestrate the three-day event. From mapping the route, to constructing water and food stops, to ensuring medical attention and safety for thousands, more than 3,300 PMC volunteers commit their time, resources, and energy to the event without financial compensation. The team effort that makes the PMC the success it is today is a product of Starr’s philosophy that those who commit themselves in full are those who achieve results.

In 1993, Starr and the PMC were awarded the Jimmy Fund’s highest honor, the Thomas A. and Jean R. Yawkey Memorial Award for outstanding service. In 1997, the pedestrian bridge connecting Dana-Farber’s Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Research Laboratories to its DanaBuilding was dedicated as the “Pan-MassachusettsChallengeBridge to Progress” in honor of the event’s contribution to cancer research. A graduate of the University of Denver, in 1978, Starr earned a masters degree in education from NortheasternUniversity. In 1998, he received an honorary degree from BabsonCollege and in November 2004, Dana-Farber gave Starr the Sidney Farber Medical Research Award for the exceptional contribution he has made to reduce the burden of cancer on society. In 2006, the national Lung Cancer Alliance presented Starr and the PMC with a lifetime achievement award. “The PMC has made what we do at Dana-Farber possible,” said Dana-Farber President Edward J. Benz, Jr., M.D. “When they write the history of how cancer was conquered, the PMC will be in chapter one.”

The Pan-Mass Challenge

The PMC is a pioneer in the athletic fundraising event industry and today raises more money for charity than any other in the country. On August 2 and 3, 2014, more than 5,500 cyclists will travel one of 13 routes, logging between 25 and 190 miles over one or two days, through 46 Massachusetts cities and towns. For more information about the PMC, call 800-WE-CYCLE or visit www.pmc.org.

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Media Contact: Jackie Herskovitz, jackie@pmc.org, 617-269-7171