If you need it short & sweet, skip down to the Epilogue, below. But don’t miss the photos & videos in the sidebar!
I began the year experiencing some cardiac symptoms that caused me to defer registering and also back off my training, so my cycling didn’t get off the ground until June.
I was looking forward to summer’s major events to test my health and fitness, but June wound up being a complete washout. I skipped the Escape to the Lake MS ride because I didn’t feel up to a long two-day event; a bad weather report put me off riding my first Sunday in June; the Tour of Mercer County organizers cancelled their century route; and I learned that August’s Mon Valley Century was cancelled, as well. I’d really rather forget June entirely.
All those missed events not only were discouraging, but it prohibited me from testing my fitness. As spring turned to summer, I still had no way to know whether my cardiac issues would allow me to complete a two-day, 300-kilometer ride, so I continued to hold off from registering for the PMC.
To further blunt my enthusiasm, the design of this year’s PMC riders’ jersey was decidedly bland.
I kept dragging my feet until the end of June, when I finally signed up to ride, just one day before PMC registration closed. It would be the 43rd Pan-Mass Challenge ride, my 17th PMC, and my third in a row riding “remotely” at home in Western Pennsylvania.
As for how it went, you’ll have to read on!
I’d like to quickly share a couple noteworthy items before talking about my training and the lead-up to the event.
The first is a warning: One of my New Years resolutions was going 100% metric, so you’re going to have to bear with units in kilometers and Celsius. The metric system has been the United States’ official preferred system of measurements for 46 years, after all.
As has become standard, my winter training was done on my indoor trainer using Zwift, including the weekly Pan-Mass Challenge group rides run by Jarrett Collins. Back in November, Jarrett had been able to get Zwift to finally authorize our very own in-game PMC jersey that our avatars could proudly sport. The red design is reminiscent of the tee shirts that were made for the very first PMC ride back in 1980.
On January 20th, Jarrett was promoted from Chief Operating Officer to President of the Pan-Mass Challenge, as announced here. It’s great to see the PMC planning for the future, and exciting for me to have a personal connection to the organization’s President from our years of riding together on Zwift. And it was flattering when just ten days later Jarrett wrote, “It’s not a weekly PMC ride without you, O!”
Another heartening bit of news was a progress report and renewal of President Biden’s 2016 Cancer Moonshot, which provided an inspiring pull quote for my PMC fundraising: “Over the first 20 years of this century, the age-adjusted death rate from cancer has fallen by about 25 percent.” That’s coincidentally the same time frame as my involvement with the PMC.
In terms of training, things finally started looking up in July. On the 10th I participated in my first major organized ride in ten months: the Akron Bike Club’s Absolutely Beautiful Country ride (ride report here). And my second event took place just one week before the PMC: the PMTCC 3-State Century (ride report here). Those both went well, so I knew I was physically ready for my PMC, at least. Well, except for a blister on my foot caused by rain and grit toward the end of the latter ride.
I also had a plan… or thought I did. The Western PA Bike Club had scheduled their Rough Diamond Century for August 6. That was the same day as the PMC’s Day 1 ride, so it seemed like a great way for me to log 170 KM and kick off my own PMC Weekend…
Until two weeks before the ride, when they decided to move their event two weeks later! It was yet another frustration on the road to my Pan-Mass Challenge. I tentatively decided to ride the Rough Diamond route alone, even though it was an unfamiliar route through unknown country for me. Happily, a couple of my cycling friends offered to accompany me.
However, as PMC Weekend approached, Pittsburgh was stuck in a lasting pattern of showers and heavy afternoon thunderstorms. With reports of localized flash flooding – and the Rough Diamond including sections of rough trails next to the Kiski River – I decided to pull the plug on that route at the last minute. With an unsettled forecast, I’d have to make up my weekend plan as I went, so I also declined my buddies’ offers of company, as well. But I still planned to mimic the traditional PMC route… somehow.
Friday morning I sent my usual pre-ride update to the people who had sponsored me, and then studiously monitored the weather forecast, which was still shifting by the hour. It seemed that Sunday – at least Sunday morning – would have the least chance of precipitation. But Saturday looked like a washout.
I knew that if I rode in the rain on Saturday, I’d have to find time to wash and lube the bike that evening, so that I could get up and ride again on Sunday. But if I rode indoors on my trainer on Saturday, the bike wouldn’t need to be cleaned that night. So it looked like it would be best if I avoided the rain by riding indoors on Saturday, and hopefully catch a break in the weather and ride outdoors on Sunday.
But I didn’t really want to do the PMC’s Day 1 century indoors. However, if I swapped them around and rode PMC Day 2’s shorter distance indoors on Saturday, then I could start my indoor ride later in the morning, which would also mean less noise to disturb our downstairs neighbors. Plus I could enjoy the full Day 1 century outdoors on Sunday.
Finally I had my plan!
With that settled, I went and fetched my usual pre-ride meal from the Thai & Noodle Outlet… in an afternoon thunderstorm, of course. Then I sat down and tuned in to the PMC’s always-inspiring Friday night Opening Ceremonies webcast.
Of course, it was full of interesting informational tidbits. The Pan-Mass Challenge is the #1 cycling charity event in country; in fact, it raises more money than the next nine events combined! They finally stated outright that it’s the most successful single athletic fundraiser in the world. This year 6,400 riders came from 43 states and eight countries, including 950 “Living Proof” riders and volunteers who have received treatment for cancer. And I was joined by 500 other remote “Reimagined” riders (the PMC’s term for registrants not participating in the IRL ride).
Apropos to the mission of supporting cancer research, the PMC receives donations from over 350,000 people, makes up 55% of the Jimmy Fund’s income, and is the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s single largest source of funds, enabling them to run over 1,100 clinical trials, which is the best treatment option for about 1 in 5 cancer patients.
On the eve of the ride, my mood was mixed. My fundraising stood at $3,442, beyond my $2,000 fundraising minimum as a “Reimagined” rider, but not quite what I’d hoped to achieve. And it’s lonely doing the event remotely and feeling disconnected from the PMC family. The ominous weather and the route changes left me feeling frustrated. Still, I was motivated by the Opening Ceremonies, and the mission of eradicating cancer remains.
And more exciting than any of that, doing a shorter indoor route meant that I didn’t have to set an alarm to get up at godawful-early in the morning!
I got up at 8am feeling sluggish and weak, but felt better after an english muffin and OJ. The weather was hot (starting at 21° C) and oppressively humid (93%), with a 60% chance of thunderstorms. At 8:30 there was the first of several absolute downpours, justifying my decision to ride indoors.
Meanwhile, PMC riders in Massachusetts were treated to one of the hottest rides in PMC history. I checked in on my old friend Maria, who was doing her very first Pan-Mass Challenge, and her tracker said she was already beyond her first water stop. Checking in on her progress as she pedaled across Massachusetts was one of the ways I would distract myself throughout my own sweaty indoor ride.
I finally kitted up and climbed onto the trainer at 10am, planning on riding 5½ laps of Zwift’s France route called “Roule Ma Poule”, which means “Let’s Roll, Chicks!” It’s the counterclockwise version of a route called “Casse Pattes” that the weekly PMC Zwift ride used to take clockwise. I chose the reverse direction because it closely mimics the distance and amount of climbing in the traditional PMC route, and has a longer, shallower main climb than the steeper clockwise direction. There isn’t a lot more to say about the 23 KM course than that; just a lot of French-looking countryside and towns, including Mont Saint-Michel.
Despite cooling fans in the window and on the floor, sweat was pouring from my arms and head within minutes in the hot and humid air. After two hours I had covered 50 of my planned 130 KM and stopped for a brief rest, food, and to refill my water bottle.
75 minutes later, I was experiencing hotfoot and had to switch from my older cycling sandals to a newer pair. At 2pm I was four hours and 105 KM in and took a brief rest and switched from sport drink to cola and finally put on some tunes to motivate me for the final push.
Finally the odometer ticked over 130 KM at 3:10pm, after a little more than five hours of unbelievably sweaty riding (Strava GPS log). It had risen to 27° C with 70% humidity outside, but was considerably worse in our exercise room! I slapped on a wet cooling tech towel and did all my usual post-ride tasks before jumping in a refreshingly cold shower.
One of those tasks was checking Twitter and seeing that Maria completed her first ever 100-mile bike ride, and Day 1 of her first PMC. A self-described non-athlete and casual bike rider, she showed amazing persistence. I was impressed and tremendously proud of her.
I devoted most of my afternoon and evening to trying to replenish my body with copious amounts of protein, carbs, and especially salt and fluids: Thai fried rice, ice cream, roasted corn snacks, sour cream & onion potato chips, sports drink, chocolate milk, fruit juice, cider, cola…
Finally, with hopes of getting up and hitting the road early to beat any diurnal showers and thunderstorms, I turned out the light at 10pm…
But had a terrible night. I was kept up most of the night by heavy rain showers, a barfing cat, a restless partner, muscle aches, and an overactive mind.
Unable to sleep, I climbed out of bed at 4:30am and downed a Pop Tart and some OJ while waiting for the sun to rise. Despite rain overnight, the radar was mostly free of showers, so I optimistically applied some sunblock. It was 22° with 94% humidity, so still oppressively hot and sweaty. A 15% chance of thunderstorms would rise to 30% by 2pm.
My plan was to ride around Pittsburgh, then up the Allegheny River before turning inland, climbing through Western Pennsylvania woods and farmland to the town of Butler, then returning on roughly parallel roads back to the river, through the city, and home. If all went well, I’d wind up completing 170 KM: the same distance as the traditional PMC’s Day 1 route.
If you’d like more insight into the geographic place-names and the course I followed, consult my GPS track log.
I rolled out at 6am, just as the sky started to lighten. I crossed the Monongahela River on a very quiet Homestead Grays Bridge, then picked up the Great Allegheny Passage bike path toward downtown. After repeated days of thunderstorms, the path was of course flooded at “Eagle Lake”, where I paused to record a quick morning video update.
Back across the Mon on the Hot Metal Bridge and into downtown, capturing a quick panoramic shot at the Point, where the Mon and the Allegheny meet to form the Ohio River. I turned up the Allegheny through the Strip, crossed the 62th Street Bridge into Sharpsburg, and headed up high-speed and trafficky Freeport Road.
I’d covered 44 KM in two hours — and the worst 12 KM of Freeport Road — when I reached the Sheetz convenience store in Cheswick: my first planned stop. I refilled my bottle with ice and sports drink, but completely forgot about the donut I’d planned to take on board! I was already a quarter of the way through my ride, and felt pretty good, considering the 130 KM I’d done the day before. Although I hadn’t been rained on, the roads were alternately wet and dry, and I was very glad to have attached a clip-on fender to keep the spray off my backside; my legs were already coated with road grime, tho.
After a few more klicks on Freeport Road, my route turned inland on Days Run and started climbing, including the steep slope up Sun Mine Road to aply-named Mountain Top Campground, followed by 25 KM of unyielding rolling hills all the way through Saxonburg and on toward Butler. In Saxonburg I had to make an unplanned 15-minute rest stop due to abdominal cramps, but eventually soldiered on.
I arrived in Butler at 10:15, fifteen minutes before the Dairy Queen opened, so I continued on to the local Sheetz, where I got ice, sport drink, and the big chocolate donut I’d missed out on earlier. At 87 KM, I was exactly halfway, but I felt a little trepidation because the heat and hills had begun to sap my strength and speed, so I wound up resting for a solid half hour. The day was still warming up (25°), and the cloud cover had only parted for a few seconds to reveal my shadow keeping pace with me.
The parallel route returning from Butler back to Freeport Road and the Allegheny River provided alternating glimpses of sun and wet roads that had just been rained on. At Saxon Country Market I crossed paths with a group of about eight other riders, but we left in opposite directions. However, we met up again 4 KM later and shared the road on Saxonburg Blvd, again at the turn in Culmerville, at a brief rest stop in Rural Ridge, and climbing the final ridge before the descent down to Harmar and the Allegheny River. They provided a helpful mental distraction for me.
I was less than 2 KM shy of my planned final rest stop when the threat of rain finally materialized. In the last five minutes it took to reach Sheetz, I got pretty soaked, but the shower passed just as quickly, leaving only puddles and wet roads and 27° temps. I’d pulled in at 12:42pm with 128 KM done, three-quarters of my planned ride.
As often happens toward the end of rides, I got tired of sport drink and switched over to cola, and noshed half a small bag of chips. As I had expected, I didn’t have the legs to undertake the optional bonus climbs of Guys Run and Old Mill, but that was why I’d banked those extra flat kilometers on the bike path to begin the day.
The final segment was basically retracing my earlier outbound route in reverse, beginning with a wet 12 KM back down Freeport Road to the 62th Street Bridge. I paused underneath the bridge for a couple minutes while another brief shower renewed the wetness on the roads.
I still needed 30 KM to reach my goal, but going back around the city would provide that. So I crossed the Allegheny a final time, rode back down to the Point for a second panorama, up the bike path on the southern bank of the Monongahela, and the intimately familiar and tiresome 100-meter final climb up Panther Hollow and Overlook Drive.
A few sunbeams welcomed me back home at 3:30pm after a 9½-hour ride that covered 171 KM with 1,660 meters of climbing (Strava GPS log). I had completed my fourth (imperial) century of the year – tying last year’s total – and my 105th lifetime ride of 100+ miles.
As expected after a long, wet ride, everything was filthy, and much of the following 48 hours was devoted to taking a long shower, running all the cycling kit I’d worn through the laundry, and a thorough bike cleaning and lube.
While I’d been riding outside, I hadn’t been able to follow my friend Maria’s progress on the second day of her first PMC ride, but I was delighted to learn that she’d carried on and successfully completed the 192-mile traditional route from Sturbridge to Provincetown. I was deeply proud of her accomplishment, and felt real joy at experiencing her ride through the comments and photos she shared on her Twitter account. And I should add that she was also able to raise more money than I did! Well done!
That’s as good a segue as any to my next topic…
I’ll revise this section following the PMC’s annual check presentation ceremony on November 12.
After registering late, I didn’t begin my fundraising until July 6th. However, I’m blessed to have a loyal cadre of returning sponsors, who carried me beyond my $2,000 fundraising minimum in just two weeks.
As is often the case, I came across a number of quotes that capture the PMC’s mission, and the progress we’ve made against cancer in recent years. Here are a couple that jumped out at me:
“Over the first 20 years of this century, the age-adjusted death rate from cancer has fallen by about 25 percent.” -President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot White House press release
“We have a wealth of new information now about the genetic determinants and the pathophysiology of a lot of cancers and genetic diseases that were untreatable before the beginning of this century.” -Kenneth Kaitin, professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and former director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development
“In the last 10 years, nearly one in every four FDA-approved cancer drugs was developed in part with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute community.” -Dana-Farber’s Defy Cancer Campaign case statement
“When the PMC started in 1980, there were fewer than five million cancer survivors in the world. Today, there are more than 17 million, a result of the advancements in treatment and research – many of which were developed at Dana-Farber and are made possible by the tremendous efforts of tens of thousands of everyday people who fundraise in events like the PMC each year.” -Pan-Mass Challenge website.
As mentioned above, I began my PMC Weekend having raised $3,442, and finished it just shy of $4,000. At the October 1 fundraising deadline, I had raised $4,500: just shy of last year’s total of $4,778.
This year, my lifetime PMC fundraising surpassed $120,000 on the way to a final tally of $123,500. That sets me up for my next big milestone if am able to ride again next year, amongst the chaos of an expected cross-country move.
First, a quick summarization for those who skipped ahead…
My 2022 Pan-Mass Challenge began slowly, as cardiac issues and a series of cancelled events made me question my physical ability to ride and discouraged me from registering.
But after signing up one day before registration closed, my confidence was restored after completing 100-mile rides on July 10th and 31th, while my sponsors rapidly ensured that I’d more than meet my fundraising commitment.
Not that my frustrations were over. After I planned to ride the Western PA Bike Club’s “Rough Diamond Century” as my PMC Day 1 ride, the organizers moved the event two weeks later, on short notice. That, combined with a persistent pattern of thunderstorms, threw my ride plans into disarray.
But as a solo, “remote” rider, I had the luxury of participating in whatever manner I wanted. So as PMC Weekend kicked off, I pivoted and chose to stay dry by doing Saturday’s ride indoors on my trainer on Zwift, then take my chances with the weather on an outdoor ride up to Butler and back on Sunday. At the same time, I switched the traditional rides around, doing PMC Day 2’s shorter ride indoors on Saturday, and the longer Day 1 distance outdoors on Sunday.
Saturday’s 130 KM indoor ride was hot, very humid, and sweaty, but I distracted myself by keeping tabs on my old friend Maria, who was riding across a steaming Massachusetts in her very first Pan-Mass Challenge. I finished the ride in about five hours, feeling used up but not destroyed, and spent the rest of the afternoon showering, refueling, hydrating, and resting up for Day 2 (Strava GPS log).
Sunday I was on the road at 6am, riding through Pittsburgh, up the Allegheny River on Freeport Road, turning inland over steep and rolling hills to the town of Butler, and then returning. The roads were alternately dry and wet, but I was only actively rained on for two very brief episodes. The 9-hour, 170 KM ride took a lot out of me, but never felt beyond my ability (Strava GPS log).
While it wasn’t the Pan-Mass Challenge that I’d planned for, it was still a strenuous and memorable weekend of riding.
And, of course, it was an appreciated reward for the time I put into fundraising for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. My fundraising closed at $4,500, which brought my lifetime PMC contribution beyond the $120,000 milestone, finishing at $123,500.
But one of the more touching moments of my ride came afterward, on Tuesday, when I received a personal email from Jarrett Collins – the President of the Pan-Mass Challenge – asking how my “Reimagined” ride had gone.
As a remote rider, doing your own thing, it’s very easy to feel disconnected from the PMC family, who are all off having the time of their lives together. While you’re out ticking off the miles all alone, being remembered and reached out to can mean the world to a lonely rider. It’s one thing to feel like you’re a small part of a big organization doing big things; but it’s another when you are made to feel valued, with a very personal connection that’s appreciated even by the group’s leaders, no matter how many dollars are next to your name in the database.
And perhaps in that way I’m lucky, because I get to experience that connection not just once a year, but every Tuesday night from late autumn to early spring, without even having to leave home. Thinking of it like that, the PMC Zwift rides really are a better “reward” for my fundraising effort than whatever self-directed activity I undertake on PMC Weekend itself.
Thus ends my 17th Pan-Mass Challenge and my third as a remote rider.