If you need it short & sweet, skip down to the Epilogue, below. But don’t miss the photos & videos in the sidebar!
I rode my last Pan-Mass Challenge charity ride in 2014, retiring from the event concurrently with my move from Boston to Pittsburgh. So the obvious topic to begin with is: why did I sign up as a virtual PMC rider this year?
For fourteen years, riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge was one of the most important parts of my life. The training and fundraising was an annual ritual, and I generated over $111,000 for cancer research, treatment, and prevention at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. After devoting so much of your life to such an important cause, you don’t simply stop caring about it.
And my hundreds of sponsors were an important part of that experience, too. PMC fundraising would give me the excuse and opportunity to reach out and connect with old friends whom I hadn’t contacted since that last PMC ride, five years ago.
Those were my thoughts in May, when I received an email from PMC founder Billy Starr with the subject line: “We Need Your Help - Go Virtual for PMC 2020”. With the Covid-19 pandemic at its height and showing no signs of abating, the PMC ride had been cancelled for the first time in its forty-year history, replaced with something they called “PMC Reimagined". And with many people facing economic hardship from pandemic lockdowns, the PMC’s annual gift — which supports critical research — was at risk of a huge shortfall. In acknowledgement of this, the original 2020 fundraising goal of $65 million was cut by one-third, to $41 million.
Even though my years as a PMC rider were behind me, as a former “Top 10%” fundraiser I knew I could help in this extraordinary situation. And at the same time, I’d benefit from reconnecting with many valued friends. It was — in every sense — the proverbial “win-win situation”.
The PMC has had a virtual rider program for years, enabling people who couldn’t ride — or just couldn’t make the pilgrimage to Massachusetts — to participate. In previous years, I’d never considered fundraising for a ride I couldn’t be present for, but this year is different.
While all this was happening, another unexpected connection with the PMC helped persuade me to ride.
I bought a new indoor trainer and started using the Zwift virtual cycling world in December 2018. It was great over that winter, but it was doubly valuable during the extended months of Covid-19 lockdown, when outdoor riding was discouraged.
Then this spring, Jarrett Collins, the PMC’s Chief Operating Officer, began leading weekly PMC-sponsored group training and publicity rides on Zwift. Being a Zwift veteran, I joined in and enjoyed chatting with other riders I knew and reminiscing about everything PMC. It evoked a sense of nostalgia and helped pull me back into the fold.
I had no problem reaching that fundraising target, and had banked over $2,000 of donations as PMC Weekend approached.
When the real-life Pan-Mass Challenge was cancelled, they rebranded the 2020 event “PMC Reimagined” and asked riders to indulge their creativity in celebrating PMC Weekend in whatever way felt appropriate to them… while adhering to adequate social distancing in light of the pandemic.
For me, there was no question how I would reimagine my ride. In this pandemic year, all my usual cycling events have been cancelled. What I’ve done instead is mimic each of my events virtually, riding the same distance (and simulating the same amount of climbing) as the event, but doing it indoors on Zwift. I wrote a computer program called the Zenturizer to figure out which routes on Zwift most closely match the distance and climbing of any real-world event. So my plan would be to simulate the full, two-day PMC ride on my indoor trainer, on the traditional PMC Weekend: August 1 & 2.
In terms of training, 2020 was completely different. Between the Covid-19 lockdown and avoiding long rides that would require replenishing fluids at convenience stores, I had done 80% less outdoor riding in 2020, with only one ride longer than 40 miles.
But I more than made up for that by riding in Zwift's virtual world on the indoor trainer. With this year’s emphasis on staying home, this spring I had already accrued 3,400 indoor miles and completed eight Zwift rides over 100 miles. So I was well-prepared for my planned 200-mile indoor Pan-Mass Challenge.
Meanwhile, the ride organizers put together an event-filled PMC Weekend plan of their own, which included a special hour-long kickoff ride on Zwift at 8am on Saturday, along with many other video and social networking features.
At a high level, I planned to warm up with Thursday's weekly 25-mile group training ride, followed by watching the usual Friday evening opening ceremonies show. I’d start Saturday with that special 8am PMC Zwift kickoff ride and — when that ended — simply continue on my own to complete Day 1’s 109 miles, then rest for a bit before riding another 9 miles to simulate my usual Saturday evening solo ride to my motel in Sandwich. On Sunday I’d add another 69 Zwift miles to complete my simulated route from Sturbridge to Provincetown.
My PMC Weekend started in an odd way. PMC HQ had asked for a couple dozen volunteers to sign onto a Zoom videoconference on Thursday to help them do a brief test for their planned Saturday night Living Proof toast.
So Thursday at noon I jumped on the call. My new PMC COO friend Jarrett played the part of toastmaker, and he gave me a shout-out for having a glass (of water) handy to simulate participating in the toast. Glad to do my part!
Then around 5:30pm I climbed onto my trainer, fired up Zwift, and lined up for my weekend warm-up: the eighth weekly PMC training ride. The public event had attracted about a hundred riders, and more than a dozen regular PMC riders.
With PMC Weekend upon us, there was a lot of friendly, excited chatter on our Discord audio channel. Some people had already done whatever they had envisioned for their own “PMC Reimagined” rides, and others like me were soft-pedaling in anticipation of big upcoming weekend rides. It was awesome feeling that familiar sense of PMC camaraderie and building suspense.
That afternoon, a warm front had passed through Pittsburgh, and the humidity rose from a pleasant 60% to a sticky 85%, making for a steamy evening ride. As usual, we rode for an hour, nearly completing two laps of Zwift’s “Sand & Sequoias” route. As we finished, I commented about my own weekend plan: “25 miles down, 187 to go!”
After the ride, I performed a final re-calibration of my trainer, then fired off the obligatory social media post letting everyone know that my 15th PMC Weekend was officially under way!
As usual, Friday was a day of pre-ride logistics. But instead of meeting up with my support person, transporting everything to Sturbridge, and checking into the event, Friday 2020 featured a grocery run, setting up my “pain cave”, and napping to catch up on sleep.
Another noteworthy difference was sharing a post from the popular ZwiftInsider site that highlighted the PMC’s one-hour Zwift kickoff ride Saturday morning as one of Zwift’s weekend events not to miss. That was an unexpected surprise bit of publicity.
I learned that the number of people who sponsor PMC riders each year is now up to 350,000. The PMC continues to be the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s largest contributor, comprising 57% of the Jimmy Fund’s annual revenue. And this year the PMC’s 41-year total fundraising surpassed a staggering three-quarters of a billion dollars.
And I learned that a Dana-Farber physician/scientist and PMC rider won the Nobel Prize in Medicine last year for groundbreaking research into how both normal and cancer cells utilize oxygen.
And just like that, a good night’s sleep was all that remained before the start of my virtual PMC ride. One of the best benefits of doing the PMC virtually? Setting your alarm for 6am Saturday morning instead of 3:50am!
Munching on a blueberry bagel and orange juice, my morning began with the PMC’s 7am “Virtual Start” program. While riders weren’t setting out from Sturbridge en masse, this was the next best thing: a long montage of 600 rider selfies in the 2020 PMC cycling jerseys they’d received the previous week. Eventually my photo appeared, taken from the Grandview overlook, on a bluff 500 feet above downtown Pittsburgh, with the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers in the background.
At 7:30, I fired up Zwift and was the third rider to appear the virtual starting pen for the upcoming hour-long PMC kickoff ride, earning a welcome from COO Jarrett and taking a screen shot of our avatars in front of the PMC event signage. I displayed the PMC video feed on a second computer, and was amused when they played an old inspirational video that included a shot of me during my 2014 ride.
More PMC riders and other Zwifters arrived, and at 8:05am about 165 of us rolled out for the official PMC “At-Home Virtual Ride”, led out by myself, Jarrett, US National Cyclocross Champion and PMC rider Tim Johnson, US Olympic Cycling Team member Emma White, and dignitary riders from Dana-Farber. The event was broadcast on the PMC website, and in the recorded video you can see my grey-haired, man-bunned avatar lined up in a black jersey in the starting pen and rolling out just ahead of the group.
While most people were only there for the 55-minute event, this was the beginning of a 110-mile ride for me, so I tried to take it easy, working with other riders in small groups. At 7:24 in the video (or 2:25 on the ride clock) you can see Emma whiz past a pack of five riders that includes me, which was the last time my avatar would be in the camera’s view. Despite that, the flattish route and so many riders to draft somehow boosted me to an unexpected 20 mph average speed.
Along the way, a handful of regular PMC group ride members kept up a lively chat on Discord, especially Doug Cornelius from Team Kinetic Karma plus Steven Branfman and John Sava from Team Kermit. I tried to listen to both the PMC Discord channel and the commentary on the PMC video broadcast of the ride, but quickly committed to my friends on Discord. I’d eventually listen to a replay of the broadcast later in the day.
On the plus side, it was only 69° outside and 81° in my pain cave, which was a big improvement over Thursday night and the rest of July’s record heat. July had counted 17 days with high temps above 90°, with none below 80°: something that has only happened once before. Still, between the humidity, two poorly-aimed fans, and having kept an early-morning incandescent light on, the sweat was just pouring off me.
Similar to Thursday night's group training ride, Saturday’s special kickoff session comprised two laps of Zwift's “Sand & Sequoias” route, half of which is very flat before transitioning to a series of short rolling hills. Completing the hour-long event and 25 miles, everyone else signed off and I paused to take my first rest stop.
Back when I planned my ride, I noticed that the hour-long group ride would end after 24.9 miles: exactly where the first water stop on the traditional PMC route would have been! So I decided to take my own rest stops at the same mile markers as the real-world water stops. So when the group ride finished at the “Whitinsville” stop’s distance, I took a couple minutes to refill my water bottle, re-aim my fans, turn off the overhead light, and then press on.
With 85 solo miles ahead of me, this was where I made my one major course change. If I continued riding “Sand & Sequoias”, I wouldn’t accrue enough climbing to properly simulate the real Day 1 route. So I turned off “Sand & Sequoias” and began 13 laps of the “Watopia Flat” route (which despite the name does indeed have more climbing than “Sand & Sequoias”). That way I’d finish the day with the right amount of both distance (109 miles) and climbing (3,600 feet).
From there on out, it was just a question of pedaling, stopping at the water stops, fueling up, and keeping one eye on the PMC video feed.
I made brief stops at all the official water stop locations, quickly grabbing some fuel: Powerade, cola, brownie bites, roasted corn snacks, strawberries, pineapple, and pickles. The only exception was at the “Dighton” lunch stop, where I took time to make and devour a ham sandwich.
The Lakeville water stop is where riders and teams normally meet up with the Pedal Partners they’re paired up with: children currently in treatment at Dana-Farber. This year, at noontime the PMC ran a compilation video from this year’s Pedal Partners and their teams. Both the videos and the Lakeville meetups are always emotional, giving a very human face to the work our fundraising supports.
Other observations… I was using a new heart rate monitor, which wasn’t working properly and was of no value in monitoring my effort. And my most memorable impression of the ride itself was how much I missed the supporters who line the 192 miles of the PMC route simply to thank us for riding.
Although the ride wasn’t overly strenuous, it continued to be very sweaty, and my feet and backside were glad to step off at Mile 109 when I pretended to roll into the “Mass Maritime Academy finish”. I climbed off at 2:32pm, which makes for a 6:27 ride and a 17 mph average speed. That’s a great time for a century-plus, although a lot of that was attributable to such short rest stops.
There’s always a party atmosphere upon finishing Day 1 at Mass Maritime Academy (MMA), where riders spend the afternoon relaxing, refueling, socializing, and connecting. This year, the PMC presented their “Virtual MMA Experience” at 3pm, which was simply a string of bands performing, which to me is the least important — and least interesting — part of the post-ride celebration. I turned it off and proceeded with more important things: hydrating, ice cream, a shower, posting an end-of-day social media update, and getting my daily meditation session in.
Saturday afternoon typically winds down with a champagne toast and group photo for hundreds of riders who are also cancer patients and survivors. I’ve always missed it, having departed for my hotel by then, but this year I was able to watch the PMC’s Living Proof Survivorship Toast. The ever-increasing number of Living Proof riders shows how many lives our past fundraising has saved, and how many more lives our present fundraising will save in the future.
In previous years as a PMC rider, I had stayed off campus Saturday night. I always enjoyed the quiet, solitary, and refreshing sunset ride across the Bourne Bridge and up the Cape Cod Canal bike path to my overnight accommodations in Sandwich. So to simulate my usual 9-mile solo ride, I put on fresh bike shorts, fired up Zwift, and climbed back onto the bike, riding the short “Volcano Flat” route. My legs felt surprisingly strong, and 30 minutes later I was done and ready to dig into another curry dinner.
The only programming the PMC offered on Sunday was the 9am “Photo Finish”, which sounded promising but consisted of an appeal to “watch us repost some riders’ content on our social media channels”. In comparison to how emotional the usual Sunday finish line is, it was an unsatisfying conclusion. I turned it off and set about preparing — and psyching myself up — for my Day 2 ride.
Despite a somewhat different course profile, the Zenturizer told me that the best route to match the 69-mile Sandwich-to-Provincetown route was… 10 laps of the same damned “Watopia Flat” route I’d done 13 times the previous day! Having had plenty of that, I rode the route in the reverse direction, to provide at least some novelty.
One part of the route that’ll be familiar to fellow Zwifters — known as “The Esses” — has always reminded me of the long sequence of short, rolling hills on the section of the PMC ride along the Route 6 Access Road in Sandwich on Day 2.
With no PMC video stream to watch, I put my music collection on shuffle and pedaled. I again timed my resting with the three water stops along the real Sunday route, and continued to fill myself with fluid, fruit, and another ham sandwich.
Having respected Inna and our neighbors’ quiet weekend morning, I set out at a luxuriously late 11:30am, and arrived — 69 miles and 2,170 feet of climbing later — at the “Provincetown” finish at 3:37pm. As I climbed off and trod toward the fridge, I had the same awkward feeling I remembered from the conclusion of my real Pan-Mass Challenge rides: an abrupt melancholy kind of “Well, that’s it then?” feeling. My 2020 virtual PMC was over.
As we’re often reminded, the PMC ride is merely the reward for the tireless fundraising work we do. Riding our bikes is secondary to the goal of funding cancer research, which couldn’t have been more profoundly illustrated this year.
My 2020 fundraising got a late start because I didn’t decide to participate as a virtual rider until June 15th. However, with all fundraising minimums waived, I gave myself a very modest goal of raising $1,000: enough to earn this year’s ride jersey, which took just eight days to achieve.
This year I raised an even $3,000, which is more than I raised in either my first or second years as a rider, and now my lifetime PMC fundraising stands at $114,222! I received donations from 30 people, 9 of whom were first-time sponsors: thank you so much for joining the PMC and Dana-Farber family!
One of those first-time sponsors was someone I didn’t know, but who was a fellow rider who came across my PMC writeups and rider tips and found them so helpful that he made a donation on my behalf!
And then on one of the weekly PMC group rides on Zwift, another woman rider gave me props for my writeups of the bonus “Day 0” century rides that I did the Friday before the Pan-Mass in 2010 and 2014, which she had subsequently completed herself!
It always floors me when people find my writeups useful and memorable enough to mention at some random date far in the future. It’s deeply rewarding when someone finds my thoughts and experience useful, and those were genuine and completely unexpected highlights of my involvement in this year’s ride.
On a less pleasant note, this year my list of people who have sponsored me on every one of my 15 PMC rides was reduced from nine to just two, highlighted by the passing of three dear friends and family members, and another being placed in an assisted living facility. It was a stark reminder of loss and the time that has passed since my first participation as a rank neophyte cyclist back in 2001.
After beginning the year with a goal of raising $65 million for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the PMC scaled their 2020 target down by 37 percent to $41 million due to the challenges of fundraising during the turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ironically, $41 million was the exact amount that the PMC raised back in 2014: the last year I rode.
I’m delighted to share that even with no real-life ride taking place, we still managed to raise $50 million for cancer research, treatment, and prevention, bringing the PMC’s 41-year total fundraising to $767 million.
This year, in addition to all its typical uses, our financial support has enabled Dana-Farber to continue clinical trials when most cancer centers had suspended them; helped DFCI implement new protocols to ensure patient, visitor, and staff safety; and funded their transition to telemedicine while the pandemic continued.
The PMC continues to be Dana-Farber’s single largest contributor, making up 64 percent of the Jimmy Fund’s revenue, and raises more money for charity than any other single athletic fundraising event in the world.
Thank you for making that happen, and for making my PMC rides possible.
So, to briefly summarize… This was not your average Pan-Mass Challenge. In a year when the real-world event was cancelled, I chose to sign up as a virtual rider to help maintain the PMC’s annual gift to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and the fundraising gave me the opportunity to get in touch with a number of old friends I hadn’t heard from since my last PMC ride, five years ago.
In a year when the PMC’s fundraising requirements were waived, I enjoyed a more relaxed than usual fundraising campaign, which was modestly but satisfyingly successful.
My PMC Weekend began with the weekly group training ride organized by the PMC on the Zwift indoor cycling platform, followed by the usual Friday night opening ceremonies show. Then I spent Saturday and Sunday on my indoor trainer, precisely mimicking the distance and climbing involved in the PMC’s regular 192-mile route.
There were differences — some obvious and some surprising — as a first-time virtual rider. Being at home, there was no sense of going on vacation or travel excitement that I used to get when headed to Sturbridge and Cape Cod. On the other hand, it was a huge relief to be free of the immense pressure to somehow make an ambitious fundraising requirement.
But the biggest differences were about connections with other people. While riding alone made the event feel much more personal this time, that came at the loss of the sense of collaboration and camaraderie with thousands of other riders, volunteers, and donors. And I was surprised by how much I missed the army of supporters lining the route, expressing their gratitude for the mission and our contribution to it.
At the same time, some elements of the ride were surprisingly familiar... and not just the physical challenge of riding 192 miles. There was the usual energy leading up to the event, with nearly the same amount of obsessive attention given over to planning, logistics, and the weekend timeline. And afterward too, came that familiar awkward feeling of “Well, that's it then?” at the event’s abrupt end and having to go back to regular life.
Returning to the PMC after five years away reminded me of how much impact the event has, and how much Dana-Farber’s work means to people. That’s manifest in the fact that 350,000 people sponsor PMC riders, generating nearly 60 percent of the Jimmy Fund’s annual revenue.
Whether it’s because of the thousands of enthusiastic supporters lining the ride route; or the growing number of “Living Proof” riders who are cancer survivors; or your individual donors and their stories of how cancer impacted themselves and their families: you can’t possibly participate in this event without being uplifted by the energy, compassion, and hopefulness of the PMC and Dana-Farber community.
If you were to ask me whether being a virtual rider was worthwhile, the following would be my answer... Beyond reconnecting with old friends (both sponsors as well as fellow PMC riders) riding — even riding alone in my spare bedroom — is something I can do to inject compassion into a world that desperately needs it. I’ve seen how many lives cancer impacts, how much progress we’ve made in treating it, and the gratitude of those who have benefited from the research this event make possible. And I can imagine no more fulfilling goal than to able to say that I was part of the generation that eradicated cancer once and for all.
Just as this ride report began with the unavoidable question of why I returned to the PMC this year as a virtual rider, I'll conclude it with an equally obvious topic: will I ride the Pan-Mass Challenge again, either in real life or virtually?
I can’t really answer that with any degree of confidence. For the real-world ride, the constantly increasing fundraising requirement — currently $4,400 — is nearly prohibitive, and that’s on top of my newly-added logistical challenge of getting to Massachusetts and back. So I don’t know… I'd really like to come back for the PMC’s 50th ride, although who knows what the ride will look like in 2029, and whether I’ll still be capable and interested in riding at age 65?
As for riding virtually/remotely… It’s something I would consider. Again, the fundraising requirement would be a big factor in my decision. And to be completely honest, the availability of the official event jersey to virtual riders — which wasn’t the case until this year — would also be a big incentive for me, because I value them so highly as keepsakes and regularly wear them with pride.
And that’s the story of my 15th Pan-Mass Challenge: my first as a virtual rider. It was fulfilling and evoked a lot of nostalgic memories, and I’m very glad I rode, especially this year, when the real-world event was cancelled and the economic situation has negatively impacted all forms of charitable causes.
|date||town||time in||time out||hours||temp||miles||avg||max||notes||audio reports|
|Sat||"Sturbridge"||8:05 am||81||Start with very sweaty 1-hour official PMC group ride|
|Sat||"Whitinsville"||9:19 am||9:23 am||1:14||84||24.9||20.2||Continuing solo on Watopia Flat|
|Sat||"Franklin"||10:20 am||10:25 am||2:15||83||42.3||18.8||Grab a quick bucket of fruit and keep riding|
|Sat||"Dighton"||11:52 am||12:11 Pm||3:47||83||70.2||18.6||Watched group ride replay and downed a ham sandwich|
|Sat||"Lakeville"||12:55 pm||1:00 pm||4:50||84||83.9||17.4||Caught the last half of the Pedal Partners video|
|Sat||"Wareham"||1:58 pm||2:04 pm||5:53||85||101.3||17.2||Last leg, powered by pickles, pineapple, & cola|
|Sat||"Bourne"||2:32 pm||6:34 pm||6:27||86||109.4||17.0||Day 1 finish line, surprisingly fast due to short stops|
|Sat||"Sandwich"||7:04 pm||6:57||82||118.7||17.1||Legs felt good for the evening ride after some rest|
|Sun||"Sandwich"||11:31 am||6:57||81||118.7||17.1||Nice casual morning before continuing setting out|
|Sun||"Barnstable"||12:22 pm||12:24 pm||7:48||82||133.6||17.1||No PMC to watch, so listened in on a Herd ride|
|Sun||"Brewster"||1:20 pm||1:25 pm||8:46||82||149.8||17.1||Just keeping focused and rolling along|
|Sun||"Wellfleet"||2:24 pm||2:29 pm||9:50||83||167.1||17.0||Back to fruit & cola and listening to music|
|Sun||"Provincetown"||3:37 pm||11:03||84||187.0||16.9||Day 2 finish line, one solo reimagined PMC in the books|