Every August since 1980, bicyclists have ridden the 190-mile length of Massachusetts to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through the Pan-Mass Challenge. The largest athletic fundraising event in the country, it has raised more than half a billion dollars, and since 2007, every penny raised by riders goes to cancer research and care. Its founder and executive director, Billy Starr, 65, was born and raised in Newton and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver and a master’s degree from Northeastern in 1978. He worked as a newspaper reporter and in public relations and served as the squash coach at Babson College before founding the PMC in response to his mother’s death from cancer. In addition to his position at the PMC, he serves as a consultant for numerous other charity events. He lives in Wellesley with his wife, Meredith, and their two daughters.
Jonathan Soroff: Best thing that’s ever come out of the PMC?
Billy Starr: The money and the relationships. That’s two things, but they’re both amazing.
Celebrity you’d like to see ride? I’d like to see Joe Biden in there next year.
Single favorite moment during the PMC? When it rains. It brings out the best in people.
How is it that every penny raised goes to cancer research? Because I have the entire, year-round operation underwritten, and it’s no small feat. Sponsors, registration fees, merchandising, auxiliary income and $4 million a year of in-kind donations.
Most beautiful place in the world to ride a bike? I can name a lot of beautiful places and I’ve been fortunate enough to ride in some of them, but I’m going to say New England. I’m a homie. I love the White Mountains. I love Acadia National Park. I love Cape Cod. It’s wonderful.
Dream bike? Whatever is next, lightest, fastest and easiest that doesn’t have a motor. I don’t need that yet.
How much have you personally raised through the PMC? I can tell you exactly. I ride every year, because I never ask anything of someone else that I wouldn’t ask of myself, and we have a running tally that’s very easy to look up. Mine is $1,570,289.
Ever run the marathon? No. I always thought I would, but I lost interest. I ran for about 10 years and got up to about 10 or 15 miles, and then I got on a bike and said, “This is way more fun.”
Single most important bike accessory? The frame itself. The very modern, light carbon frames are a game-changer. They’re also very affordable now. As long as I’ve been biking, which is 45 years, the technology has changed dramatically. Aerobically, I’m probably not in as good shape, but the technological advances have allowed me to become a better biker than when I started. You can’t say that about many sports.
What would you tell someone who’s buying their first bike? Invest in a good bike. It’s worth it. If you intend to use it, every turn of the crank, all the components, matter, and you need a bike you can grow into. If you aspire to ride the PMC, and you’re relatively new to biking, by the time you’ve finished the PMC, you’re going to have upped your game considerably, and you don’t want to outgrow that bike because you chose to spend a thousand bucks instead of $2,500.
The PMC seems a bit like a cult. Well, it’s a good cult. We could use more cults like the PMC.
Percentage of repeat riders? Seventy-five percent. Average years of those repeat riders is 7.5. It’s remarkable.
How many marriages would you guess the PMC is responsible for? Dozens. I always wondered why I never presided over a wedding on the ferry home afterward. We’ve had babies conceived, people meet, marriage proposals. There’s a lot of that, maybe because the nature of sleep deprivation lends itself to proposals.
Most scenic stretch on the whole ride? Wellfleet to Provincetown, although I would add that when we start in Sturbridge at 5:30 in the morning, if the weather circumstances are right, so that the fog is low and the sun comes through it, that’s pretty special.
Who has raised the most money for Dana-Farber through the PMC? Josh Bekenstein. He’s now chairman of the Dana-Farber board, a 25-year PMC rider and at least a 15-year member of our advisory board. He typically raises a million a year. He’s in a league of his own.
Thing that first-time PMC riders are most surprised by? By how overwhelming the weekend is, both emotionally and physically. The metaphor of riding a bike—putting energy through a crank and getting something better out of it—is palpable. One of the reasons PMC is so successful is because you can’t replicate it. It’s completely unique, and people see what they can achieve when they work together.
Biggest breakthrough or stride that Dana-Farber has made directly because of the PMC? I think the quality of the care. Across the board, all of us recognize that this is a multi-generational battle, and not only have cancer rates improved, but treatment has improved. Chemo in its nature is sometimes pretty barbaric, and yet Dana-Farber is making progress using it as well as other approaches. Isolating cancer cells, immunotherapy, lessening the impact of the cure on the body. We recognize we’re in this for the long haul. And if cancer is your destiny, I think you certainly recognize that events like the PMC are out there to buttress your getting over the diagnosis.
Are bike shorts sexy? [Laughs.] Absolutely! I spend way too much time in them. They gotta be.
Ever taken a spin class? Yup. I like that it exists, but I personally like being outdoors. But that question gives me the perfect excuse to promote The Resolution. The PMC does a major spin event that people can register for. This is our second year, and it takes place Jan. 27 and 28. You can register
So how do you want to be remembered? I’ve always wanted to live up to my potential. And I still don’t think I have.