Once a year, Falls Church’s Carol Sly puts aside life’s other responsibilities and treks northward as she has since 1985, to participate in the 29th Pan-Massachusetts Challenge.
The Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC), which touts itself as the United States’ “original fundraising bike-a-thon for charity” and was founded by Executive Director Billy Starr in 1980, pulls in some 5,200 participants.
Money raised by the PMC and the individual cyclists, who are responsible for raising between at least $1,000 – 4,200 each, supports the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund. The Jimmy Fund is named after a 12-year-old cancer patient who received donations nationwide when the now Variety Children’s Charity of New England and the Boston Braves baseball team put the boy in the national spotlight in 1948. To date, the PMC has contributed more than $275 million, and looks to raise another $30 million this year.
The bicyclists navigate one of seven routes that snake around the cape, ranging in length from 47 to 190 miles.
Sly will trek down her usual route, the two-day, 190-mile path that winds from Sturbridge, which is roughly in south-central Massachusetts, to Provincetown, on the tip of the cape.
The self-described “pretty serious cyclist” first joined the PMC after leaving her job behind in Portland, Ore., to bike cross-country to Boston.
At the time, Sly said, riders were required to raise at least $500.
“I had two part-time jobs, and I thought, I can’t raise $500,” said Sly. Her persistence, and some persuasion, paid off, however, and Sly was able “to cobble together” $573 to join around 450 riders in the sixth annual race in 1985.
Since then, Sly has missed only three rides over the years, due to two pregnancies and then a knee surgery in 1990. Despite not riding, she was able to contribute during her pregnancies as a volunteer at the lunch stop where cyclists took their midday break.
“The volunteers are incredible. All of the support staff is out there making sandwiches for the first riders who arrive by 9 a.m., and the last ones who come in around 2:30 p.m. When I volunteered, I was more exhausted than when I rode,” Sly said as she described the mammoth effort to coordinate lunch for thousands of bicyclists, one part of a complex operation that includes water stops every 20 miles and port-o-johns along the various routes.
All services are donated, with the lunch supplies coming from food distributor Sysco, and major backing from the Boston Red Sox. Security along the route, which includes around 20 four-lane roads, said Sly, is also provided.
For Sly, the 190-mile journey is scenic, with “tremendous views of sunrises over the Cape Cod canal or Sandwich. It is also poignant, she said. “I get goosebumps as we pass kids who are getting treatment and who came to the waterfront to see their teams on. They are so happy to be there.”
“There is a boy who has been coming to the PMC since he was seven,” Sly recalled. “I think he’s around the 45-mile mark. Every year, he makes a sign saying, ‘Thank you.’ He must be around 14 now, a teenager, and he’s the same age and size as my son. You’re reminded why you’re out there.”
Elsewhere along the route, Sly said a summer school camp of children gather with signs signaling the remaining distance on the route. The approximately 400 children, who originally began the tradition when a camp director rode in the PMC, also perform the wave, popping up from the hedges to pass along the undulating dance.
Another impressive sight, according to Sly, is the sheer number of bicycles. “The bicycles fill a football field, just thousands of them across the length of the field,” she said.
This year, as she has done in the recent past, Sly will be sleeping in a tent over the first night. The dormitories at the Maritime Academy are often “maxed out,” Sly said, with thousands of cyclists crammed into the small rooms filled with bunk beds and mattresses. The lines of thousands of cyclists at the academy and the lunch stop, up the road at a local high school, is “a frame of mind you just have to get used to,” she said.
Sly has raised $3,000 so far this year, and has her sights on raising $13,000 for cancer research overall, with hundreds of letters sent out to new and old donors.
After months of training hundreds of miles on bike, Sly said that she will head to Massachusetts with her family, who drop her off in Sturbridge this Friday, July 31, in time for her early morning start.
“The New England Cable Network is a big underwriter of the PMC these days, and they broadcast the ride live on TV,” she said. “I tell my family to watch, but the kids always say that they’ve seen it all before.”