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December 21, 2005
A walk in the woods leads to nation's most successful bike-a-thon

PMC Founder Billy Starr sets pace for thousands

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-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC).

"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 years ago, has not only shaped his life but enabled him to run what is today the single most successful athletic fundraising event in the nation.

Physical adventures had always been second nature to Starr, an avid outdoorsman who honed his skills while attending college in the Colorado Rockies. 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 infamous Appalachian Trail. Since Starr was the instigator, he ended up doing all the work: He planned the group's gear, food, and 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 no matter what, 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 wake up 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.

But 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 now claimed Starr's mother, his uncle, a cousin and the lives of so many others.

When the cyclists gathered in Springfield, Mass. 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 Pan-Massachusetts Challenge 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.

He wasn't kidding. Under Starr's direction, the PMC has grown considerably and consistently from its modest beginnings into an event that draws nearly 4,000 cyclists, who hail from 30 states and six countries. Now in its 27th year, the PMC expects to raise $24 million from the efforts put forth by PMC cyclists on Aug. 5 and 6, 2006. To date, the PMC has raised more than $145 million that has been used to improve the lives of those suffering with cancer. It is the largest single contributor to the Jimmy Fund, bringing in more than 46 percent of its annual revenue.

The now nationally recognized PMC is a tribute to Starr's unending desire to achieve, make a difference, and raise money for cancer research.

The PMC Philosophy

While there are today many athletic fundraising events, the PMC is arguably the most successful in terms of the money raised and the percentage of funds it contributes directly to charity. In 2005, 99 percent of all funds raised by PMC riders went directly to the Jimmy Fund. Only one cent of each dollar raised through riders' sweat and determination was used for administrative and organizational expenses. The PMC is considered the leanest fundraising operation in the nation today.

Starr's commitment to running the efficient non-profit is 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 4,000 cyclists will commit to raising thousands of dollars for the privilege of being a member of the PMC team. The majority of PMC participants, however, exceed the minimum contribution and raise more than twice the amount required.

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 medial attention and safety for thousands, 2,222 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 new Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Research Laboratories to its Dana Building was dedicated in honor of the event's contribution to the advancement of cancer research as the "Pan-Massachusetts Challenge Bridge to Progress." A graduate of the University of Denver, Starr earned a masters degree in education from Northeastern University in 1978. In 1998, he received an honorary degree from Babson College 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. "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-Massachusetts Challenge

The PMC, presented by the Boston Red Sox and, is the nation's first fundraising bike-a-thon and today raises more money than any other athletic fundraising event in the country. On Aug. 5 and 6, 2006, 4,000 cyclists will travel eight different routes, logging between 70 and 192 miles over one or two days, through 46 scenic Massachusetts towns. Their goal is to raise $24 million. The PMC is sponsored by New England Cable News and MFS Investment Management. For more information about the PMC, call 800-WE-CYCLE or visit