A Decade of Riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge. A Lifetime of Lessons Learned.

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A week ago I rode My Cancer Fighting Bike, in my 10th consecutive Pan-Massachusetts Challenge. Ten years. In a row. I am proud of that. Very proud.

Not proud that I have ridden thousands of miles.

Not proud of the training endured each and every year.

Not proud of hooking up My Bike to the trainer and spinning in the living room because it was too dark to get a decent ride in after a long day at work.

It’s not about the athletic achievement. Strange, but true.

The PMC is not about Me.
And that’s the beauty of it.

In the 10 years I have ridden, I have learned more about the human spirit than I ever thought possible. I have learned that people are at their very best when they’re doing something selfless.

And that is beautiful.

I have learned how riding in the PMC means more to the 100s upon 100s of people lining the streets along the route, than it ever will to me. And that’s saying a lot. Strangers. Clapping and cheering. And thanking me. Thanking ME. Over and over. In the pouring rain. In the extreme heat. Over and over. Thank you. Every year for 10 years. Some of the faces are the same. Some are new. All are grateful.

I am here, because of you.

To hear that. To see the look on their face, as they tell you that. Thanking you. With their whole heart. Sincere. Genuine. Pure. It means everything. Everything all at once. And it continues to overwhelm me. Year after year.

Here’s the thing: I believe them. We are making a difference. A real, life-saving, cancer fighting difference. They are living proof.

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I have learned that the most generous of people are the ones you barely know. But who know you. And believe in what you are doing. They move me to the core.

I have learned that people who volunteer their time at the PMC have a tougher job than any cyclist riding. They are kind, patient individuals who smile with their heart. Angels. All of them.

I have learned that the smallest of gestures, gestures requiring the most minimal of time, are the most profound. A kind word. A ribbon remembering a loved one, honoring their fight. A quick note saying, “I will be thinking of you this weekend” means the world to people. Find the time. You are not that busy. It’s worth it.

I am proud to be a part of the Pan-Mass Community. So proud. It has become a part of who I am. It has woven itself into the very fabric of my being. I feel like for one weekend a year, I am a part of something great. Really great. Impactful. To be surrounded by people doing the same is inspiring beyond words. I am finding, as the years go by, that the PMC feeling stays with me longer and longer each year. It changes your perspective. Your focus becomes on what is truly important in life. And isn’t that wonderful?

The PMC isn’t about me. But by accident, I have become a better human being because of it.

Here’s to the next 10 years.

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The Secret of the Pan Mass Challenge

Well, now I guess we can call it the worst kept secret of the Pan Mass Challenge: The riders get as much – or more – out of it as anyone else.

Yeah, you read that right. 190 miles in the saddle. Sore backs, sore legs, tense arms, and sore rear ends (that all the chamois butter in the world can’t soothe). Callouses, blisters, chafing, swelling and abrasions. Some years, a flirtation with heatstroke (not 2014). Miles under a relentless sun (also not 2014). Others, a battle with torrential rain and a brush with hypothermia (Ding! Ding! Ding! That would be PMC 2014!).

But none of it matters. None of it.

Because for two days, for the small price of the above, you get to see the best – THE ABSOLUTE BEST – that humanity has to offer. I guess (though doubt) that it is possible that the people who ride in and volunteer at the PMC might be absolute jerks for the other 363 days of the year, but for those two golden days, they are: Selfless. Loving. Reflective. Caring. Friendly. Emotional. Open. Thoughtful. Committed.

And it doesn’t stop with those who are directly affiliated with the PMC. All along the 190 mile route, there are people who come out to support the riders.

At 6 AM.

Through late afternoon.

With cowbells, kazoos, bullhorns, Gatorade, water, bubbles, costumes, bagpipes, percussion bands, food, lollipops, twizzlers, pompoms, music, signs and words of support. And Thanks. So, so many thanks.

I saw people standing in the pouring – AND I MEAN POURING – rain along some roads on Day 1 just to point out potholes to riders so they could avoid them. And in the last miles of the Day 1 route – when the going had gotten tough, and in many ways, stayed tough, for miles and miles and miles, what did I see? A man, standing in the pouring rain – no hat, no umbrella – saluting the riders as they passed. Just standing there, rain pouring over him, with a perpetual salute. I didn’t pedal that last stretch to mile 110 on Saturday. No.  I floated those last few miles, on air and a limitless supply of tears.

So that is the real secret of the Pan Mass Challenge. For the price of some discomfort, you are given the opportunity to live in a loving, caring supportive world for two days. To see what life is truly like when people come together for a common cause and forget about themselves for a little while. Such a small, small price to pay for such an amazing experience.

It’s no wonder that riders and volunteers come back. Year after year.

It’s no wonder that almost every picture from the PMC shows a rider or volunteer with a smile on their face.

Between the 5500+ riders, the 3000+ volunteers and then the countless supporters along the route, you realize two very important – and uplifting – things that stick with you long after the muscles have recovered, the wounds have healed, and the soreness is a distant memory.

One: There is still a lot of love and caring in this world. There is still so much good that people have – and want – to offer, even though we can’t always see it.

Two: we’re all in this together.

It might take time – it will take time – but with commitment like this?

Cancer Doesn’t Stand a Chance.

Perspective.

I had planned to sit down today and write a post about how my running is meh. How I’m not getting to run often enough – certainly not as much as last year at this time – and how it is making me crabby and less than optimistic about any of my upcoming races. Blah, blah, blah.

And then I checked my e-mail.

A longtime friend died yesterday, of cancer. He was fifty years old. He leaves behind a beautiful wife, an 8 year old daughter and a 6 year old son. A loving extended family and a massive group of friends who cared for him dearly. He was diagnosed in the fall of 2012 and fought bravely ever since.

I wrote about Jodi once before, when he was first diagnosed with cancer: Cancer Sucks

And again last summer when I dedicated my final “long” Pan Mass Challenge training ride to him:  Pan Mass Challenge Training Ride # 5

I wore a ribbon for Jodi during the PMC, and was so honored to have him along for the ride. I had so hoped, and prayed, to ride again for him this year as a survivor, not a patient. I never would have permitted myself to consider that I would be riding in his memory in 2014.

There is Jodi  on the back of my PMC shirt. I couldn't have done the 200 miles without him and my other "ribbons."

There is Jodi on the back of my PMC shirt. I couldn’t have done the 200 miles without him and my other “ribbons.”

Everything that you need to know about him is in my two posts. He was kind, loyal, generous and loving. Hardworking and funny. Loved by everyone who met him. One of “the good ones.” No, scratch that – one of “the great ones.”

It breaks my heart that all of the excellent treatment, good karma, love, prayers and positive energy that were offered to him just weren’t enough to save him. I feel so devastated. And defeated.

We have so many people fighting against cancer- doctors (I’m thinking of your wife, Drunken Cyclist, and the other amazing doctors who have the courage to do what they do), researchers, fundraisers, entire foundations and medical centers…you name it, the collective “we” are doing it to fight the fight. But cancer is such a formidable opponent. So daunting. So overwhelming. And disheartening. Especially on a day like today.

After processing the news, I did what I always do when I’m down. I went for a run. And the sadness is still there – will be there for a long time to come – but I no longer feel so defeated. I saw signs for a Susan G Komen race along my route, and saw signs for other, lesser-known cancer fundraisers. I saw a cyclist in a PMC bike shirt and a car with a Connecticut Challenge sticker.

And I thought to myself – I am someone who rooted for Rocky every freaking time, even though his opponents were always “unbeatable.” I cheered on the ragtag 1980 US Olympic Men’s Hockey team and saw them beat the Russians. I’ve been a Goddamn Red Sox Fan since 1969 (and don’t be fooled by their recent performance – their seasons from 1969-2003 were pretty grim). I don’t give up when the odds look bad or defeat seems likely.

So, once again: Screw You, Cancer. You may have taken this round, but the fight isn’t even close to being over. I won’t give up doing whatever I can to get rid of you, and I don’t think anyone else will either.

And with that, I’m off to write my Pan Mass Challenge solicitation letter.

Dear Jodi, rest in peace. There is a hole in the world today that can never be filled.

Top 10 Best Moments Riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge

Ready? Ok. Without further ado I present to you the Top 10 Best Moments riding in this year’s Pan Massachusetts Challenge! {Cue drumroll.}

10. Rise and Shine. Waking up in the ‘Bates Motel’ with your best friend, giddy with anticipation, kitting up, and dashing off to meet the shuttle bus to the start. There is nothing like the excitement that surrounds PMC Weekend, a 2-day, 193 mile cancer fighting odyssey across the great state of Massachusetts. Coffee. Bagel. Bike. LET’S DO THIS!

A Sea of Humanity.

A Sea of Humanity.

9. The Start. The Start is something. Truly. Thousands of bikes. Thousands of people. Thousands of reasons to feel like you’re a part of something epic. Such palpable energy. To my left, a rider with one leg mounts his bike, adjusts his helmet and pedals away, smiling. He is Living Proof of why I ride. The tears begin…

And they're off!  PMC2013 is rolling.  A beautiful sea of cyclists, united.

And they’re off! PMC2013 is rolling. A beautiful sea of cyclists, united.

8. Cherry Street. (Which should be named Cheery Street!, complete with the exclamation point.) The entire street is flooded with people. Some in costumes. Some with cowbells. All with huge, open warm hearts, waving signs and clapping. CHERRY STREET LOVES THE PMC! Ribbons on every tree. Bands around every bend. Cherry Street is like no other. And what do you hear? THANK YOU. Thank you for riding. Over and over and over….

Welcome to Cheery Street!  The happiest street on earth!

Welcome to Cheery Street! The happiest street on earth!

Amazing.

Amazing.

7. The Volunteers! The PMC would be nothing without the (seemingly) millions of happy, wonderful volunteers who feed you and help keep you safe. You can’t turn around at a rest stop without bumping into a smiling volunteer, purple Gatorade jug in one hand, peanut butter fluff sangy’s in the other asking you if you need anything. I have said it each of the 9 years I have ridden in the PMC, it is tougher to volunteer than it is to ride. There. I said it again. And I mean it. These people are happy little angels. With Sports Beans.

All lined up and ready to feed you!

All lined up and ready to feed you!

6. The Route. 2 days. 110 miles the first and roughly 83 the second. All well marked, well supported and littered with cheering supporters. Permanent PMC street signs along the whole, rolling, winding, beautiful ride. The towns you ride through along the way couldn’t be nicer or more supportive. They come together beautifully. Like we all should. And not just during PMC weekend.

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5. The Stories. Every rider has a story. And every rider rides for a reason. Ride along and within about a mile, you’ll meet someone alongside you who asks you the most asked question of the weekend: Why are you riding? Your mother. Your daughter. Yourself. This year I heard all three. We wear our stories on our backs, on our bikes and in our hearts. Each story so very personal. Each rider so open to talk. It’s cathartic. To remember. To mourn. To celebrate. To put a face on this insidious disease. Cancer has faces. Lots of them, sadly. It’s not just about the disease itself. It’s about people. People connecting with other people. We become stronger, together with every pedal stroke. Our stories unite us.

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Me. And why I am riding. I dedicated this year’s PMC to my friend and colleague Bret Perry, Superman.

Who I am riding for...

Who I am riding for…

4. The Lunch Stop. Lining the road en route to the lunch stop are photos. Many. Many photos. They’re all of children who are currently fighting cancer at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. These little super heroes are Pedal Partners, many of whom will be at the Lunch Stop to meet up with their Teams who are riding in support of their fight. These little kids are amazing. And I completely fall apart every time I ride into lunch and see their strong, brave, smiling faces. I pedal harder. I become more committed to this cause. All because of them.

Pedal Partners. The strongest, bravest kids on earth.

Pedal Partners. The strongest, bravest kids on earth.

3. Mass Maritime Academy. 110 miles. Day 1 Complete! BRING ON THE BEER! Sit. Chill. Drink and Laugh with friends. Park that bike, grab a Harpoon IPA, and head off to the showers! Off to the Ship I go! And by ship I mean SHIP. Like 3 bunks on top of each other. Like “ALL ABOARD!” Like a huge ship with REAL sailors and shit. It’s something. It’s also where I met my friend Stirling. We were bunkmates. We met 3 years ago while she was battling osteosarcoma. And she rode. While undergoing chemo. Under ‘Fighter’ in the dictionary should be her photo. I’ve never met anyone like her. I liked her immediately. She had this light. This ability to just completely light up a room. That might sound trite, but it’s the truth. Although I didn’t know Stirling long, I didn’t have to. The impact she had on me will stay with me. Forever. Stirling lost her battle with osteosarcoma one week before last year’s PMC. As then, the tears roll down my face as I sit here blogging. I will always ride in her honor. This year I rode in her team kit. It was an honor and a pleasure. I forever will be STIRLINGSTRONG.

Stirling.

My bunkmate, Stirling.

2. Fundraising. Weird that raising the required fundraising minimum is a “best moment” huh? 100% of all donations go directly to the Jimmy Fund at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Since 2007, every dollar raised by PMC cyclists goes straight to the Jimmy Fund. In total? $375 million dollars has been raised by PMC cyclists since 1980. (Wowzah!) PMC seed money allows clinicians and scientists to pursue innovative cancer research and make a difference in the cancer treatment landscape. (Lemme tell ya, as a research scientist, finding funding ain’t easy. Period.) Fundraising itself is NOT easy either. But you wind up figuring it out. Believe me. Commit. And you’ll figure it out. And along the way you will encounter generous, kind, giving, selfless individuals to support you. Kindness. Generosity. Selflessness. Those three words are synonymous with the PMC. They make my whole heart smile.

Living Proof.

Living Proof.

And the BEST MOMENT of riding in this year’s PMC???? This.

I proudly present to you THE NUMBER ONE BEST MOMENT RIDING IN THIS YEAR’S PAN MASSACHUSETTS CHALLENGE:

Photo credits: http://www.pmc.org

Pan Mass Challenge – The Recap (sort of?) (part 1?)

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I just don’t know how to capture the Pan Mass Challenge experience in words. (Perhaps that’s why I haven’t even attempted it during the almost month that has passed since that amazing weekend.)

There was just so much – the ride itself, the spectators, the volunteers, the cancer patients and survivors, the pre- and post-ride celebrations, the signs, the ribbons, the photos, the stories people shared. The friends I made. The moments Colby, I and the rest of our team shared – funny, poignant, scary, touching, thought-provoking, moving, downright hilarious – they were all there.

It was a lifetime of experiences crammed into one weekend.

I can say with conviction that the thing I worried about the most before the weekend– the ride itself –is the last thing I think of when I reflect back on the weekend. The ride went fine – absolutely fine. Cycling that distance was much more manageable than I expected. I’m sure it hurt at points, but who had time to notice? So easy to keep pedaling when there are so many more important things to focus on.

I have GOT to recap this because I will never ride in my first PMC again. I hope to ride in my 10th, 15th, 20th PMC – and beyond – but I’ll never again have the “First Time Rider” experience. I feel like have to write it down so I can remember, but it sure is going to take a bit. And certainly more than one post.

The ribbons I wore on the back of my shirt. It was an honor to have each of those people along for the ride.

The ribbons I wore on the back of my shirt. It was an honor to have each of those people along for the ride.

Here are some of the moments that loom large in my mind, even now:

• Starting the ride at dawn on a cloudy August morning with U2’s “Beautiful Day” blasting in the background; Colby to my left and a man with one leg to my right, tears falling down my cheeks.

• The complete and utter friendliness of every single person I met associated with the event – be they a rider, a volunteer or a sideline supporter.

• Beloved Cherry Street – a PMC institution. The whole freaking street turns out to cheer the riders on. Ribbons on Every. Single. Tree. Signs, bubbles, lollipops and refreshments. Bands. Crowds. Adrenaline Boost.

Cherry Street - Home of the PMC's biggest fans

Cherry Street – Home of the PMC’s biggest fans

• Talking to a fellow rider – an older gentleman – who has ridden the PMC for 30 years. 30 years!! I hope I can do it 29 more times.

• Seeing someone holding a sign reading, “My daughter is not here to cheer you on this year because she is healthy and AT COLLEGE! A miracle! Thank you, Riders”

• Rolling into the Mass Maritime Academy at the end of Day 1 and experiencing an “emotional episode.” Overwhelming gratitude for your health, your life and your loved ones can be crushing sometimes.

Colby snapped this pic of me checking in at Mass Maritime. The tears had already started flowing and I had barely unclipped.

Colby snapped this pic of me checking in at Mass Maritime. The tears had already started flowing and I had barely unclipped.

• Seeing my sister, Mimi, our friend Patty & her daughter Quinn at the lunch stop, which was a major haul for all of them. We were so, so grateful that they came to support us!

• People sitting outside their homes, with coffee and cowbells, ready to cheer on the riders. At 6 AM.

• Seeing my mom and my husband, my two biggest inspirations, at the finish line.

My favorite PMC'er with me at the finish. Yet another adventure we tackled - together.

My favorite PMC’er with me at the finish. Yet another adventure we tackled – together.

There is no question in my mind that my biggest takeaway from the weekend is what a gift it was. For 2 ½ days I was surrounded by the best that humanity has to offer. Every person that I came into contact with was there because they wanted to give back. They wanted to help. They wanted to provide support. They wanted to step outside of themselves and touch someone else’s life. It was such a gift to be surrounded by so much positivity, love, generosity & hope for an entire weekend. Pure bliss.

I think I’m still walking on air a bit. I hope I never come down.

Colby and I enjoying some recovery drinks after finishing Day 1.

Colby and I enjoying some recovery drinks after finishing Day 1.

Pan Mass Challenge 2013

Yesterday, I rode my bike (inside, on my trainer) for the first time after registering for my first Pan Mass Challenge on Thursday. Coincidentally, the power company shut off power to my road for power line repairs just before I got on the bike.  So, no Spinervals video for me; instead I got plenty of time to think during my hour-long ride.

For those who don’t know, the PMC is a cycling event that raises money for cancer research. Colby has ridden for years, and I am thrilled to be joining her this year. As Colby has done in the past, we are opting to do the longest PMC route – a 2-day, 190 mile ride from Sturbridge, MA to Provincetown, MA. 100% of donations raised by PMC riders go directly to fund cancer research and care at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.  It is a huge event, with a huge mission and a huge impact.

Cancer research has saved many lives, including my husband’s life. My husband had cancer in high school – long before I met him.  So, in our case, cancer research not only saved my husband’s life, it also gave me my lifeThe life I have now. Had he not been successfully treated for cancer, he would not have been alive in 1993, when we met. I would never have met him. Never have married him; never have enjoyed the past 20 years with him, were it not for advances in cancer research before he was diagnosed in 1987.  Almost my entire adult life, as I know it, would not exist. Chills.

Cancer research gave my children their lives. I will never stop being overwhelmed by the fact that my three children would not exist were it not for the brilliance of cancer researchers in developing treatments.  I have a lump in my throat just typing it. My heart catches just thinking about it. To say I’m grateful is an understatement of epic proportion.

With no distractions before me yesterday, I thought only of the PMC during my ride.  Gratitude that it exists and helps to fund cancer research.  Gratitude that I can participate and give back, knowing that someone, somewhere, helped to fund research that saved my husband’s life. Gratitude that although I have zero skills in the area of science, I have a healthy body and a willing heart, and the founders of the PMC found a way for people like me to do their part in the fight against cancer.

Needless to say, it was a teary ride.  But that’s ok – it really was more than a ride; it was the beginning of a mission.  If yesterday was any indication, I will be one emotional, teary mess all the way from Sturbridge to Provincetown on August 3rd & 4th.  And I will be grateful for every mile.