Pan-Mass Challenge Founder Billy Starr: “Cycle, Fundraise, Repeat”

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Since organizing the first Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon (PMC) for several dozen friends in 1980, Billy Starr has helped the event flourish and grow to the point where it now raises more money than any athletic fundraiser in the country. The PMC generated $47 million for research and care at Dana-Farber in 2016, and more than 6,000 cyclists will help add to its $547 million cumulative total this year.

As Starr gears up for the 38th annual PMC on Aug. 5-6, the event’s founder and executive director takes a brief timeout to answer some questions.

Sum up the PMC in three words.

Cycle. Fundraise. Repeat.

You started the PMC in memory of your mother, Betty, who died of melanoma at 49. Was she an avid cyclist?

No, but 10 years into the event, I found a black-and-white photo from 1946 of her riding a bike on her honeymoon in Bermuda. We used it on the cover of our 10th anniversary yearbook. That was cool.

Billy, then 20, and his mother Betty at the Denver Zoo.

What do you most often think about when you ride?

I used to try to think of ways to improve road systems for the event — shorter, more direct routes with more pavement and water stops. Now I think about sponsors, safety, communication, how much bikes and clothes and technology have improved, and what a great lifeline this has been on so many levels: physical, social, goal-setting, and philanthropic.

What is the most vivid single memory you have while on a PMC ride?

When we started, we had a lucky spell – nine years without rain. Then in 1989 the rain started at 4 a.m. on Saturday, just before our start. I bundled up, headed to the parking lot in Sturbridge, and all the riders and volunteers were there. That was a major tipping point in the elevation of this event. 

You’ve said you would love to see Joe Biden ride, but how about a celebrity with a Boston connection?

As a sports fan, I have three: Larry Bird, Bobby Orr, and Carl Yastrzemski. I’m not holding out hope for any of them. 

Are you surprised the PMC has become this successful? Can it ever get too big?

There was not any year, including this one, that I doubted we could get bigger. We created something challenging, for a great cause, and it’s developed into this wonderful community. People discover cycling with friends and family, for something more than fun or even your own health can provide a valuable psychic income — and is worth incorporating into your life on an annual basis.

What’s your favorite bike-themed book or movie?

Breaking Away – no contest. It captures what biking is all about.

Your wife, Meredith, has ridden the PMC several times. How about your daughters?

Last year Sophie, our younger daughter, rode from Wellesley to Bourne with her friend Riley – 90 miles at age 15. They are both registered to ride again this year. Hannah, our 19-year-old, has been volunteering for years, moving luggage at the Provincetown Inn, but she tells me, “Dad, you’ll never get me on a bike. I’ll help the cause in other ways.”

Billy, then 6, with his mother Betty at Nantasket Beach in Massachusetts.

What would your mother think of the PMC?

Mom loved helping people – she volunteered with disabled vets – so I think she would be thrilled. My dad, Milton, saw the PMC’s early growth, because for the first 17 years I ran the event out of his house. He was very proud.

Learn more about the Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon (PMC).

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