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Pan-Mass. Challenge has rare lean year

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / December 6, 2009

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Three decades ago, 36 cyclists took a trailblazing journey across the state, raising just over $10,000 for cancer research and care. Since that ride, the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge has exploded, becoming one of the nation’s largest and most recognized athletic fund-raisers, with more than 5,000 riders and generating a staggering $35 million for cancer research in 2008.

But this year, in a stark illustration of a grim economy, the signature fund-raiser sustained an unprecedented setback: For the first time in its history, it raised less than it did the year before.

“It was a hard year for a lot of people,’’ said Billy Starr, PMC’s founder and director. “When we started registration, there was a certain trepidation and dread that permeated everything.’’

Organizers say the event, which raised $30.4 million, will rebound when the economy warms up again. But the drop in riders and donations was a blow to a fund-raising powerhouse that had staked a reputation on exceeding itself year after year, finding ways to outdo itself even as past recessions and market crashes rocked the economy.

That the challenge raised less this year may be a measure of both the recession’s depths and, some said, its own success after rapid growth in recent years. In just the few years from 2006 and 2008, the challenge drew 1,000 more riders and raised $9 million more.

“When you are Mt. Everest, climbing it every year becomes harder,’’ said Starr, a 58-year-old Wellesley resident who started the event after his mother, uncle, and cousin died of cancer.

Organizers said the roughly $5 million decline was expected, given the economy, and that many charities sustained far bigger drops. The $30.4 million raised this year is more than any other one-event athletic fund-raiser in the nation, and the third-largest amount raised in event history, organizers said.

“Exceeding our goal in this economy is a tribute to the commitment of riders and donors,’’ Starr said, alluding to the lower $30 million goal set this year. “They have shown remarkable fidelity to the cause.’’

Over 30 years, the Pan-Mass. Challenge has raised $270 million for cancer research and treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. This year, its gift is the largest contribution made to the Jimmy Fund, the institute’s primary fund-raising arm, and represents half of its annual revenue.

About 800 riders and volunteers celebrated the ride’s 30-year history at a party last night and presented a ceremonial check to Dana-Farber.

“Almost all of it goes to research,’’ said Edward J. Benz Jr., president of the cancer institute. “It’s incredibly important to us.’’

Beyond promoting research, the event renews researchers’ dedication by underscoring the stakes involved. Many cancer patients and survivors pedal side by side along the 190-mile route from Sturbridge to Provincetown, and families of victims cheer them on from the roadside.

“It’s an event that really grounds you,’’ Benz said. “These are people you have to deliver for, because they are working so hard for you.’’

A confluence of factors has fueled the event’s growth, Starr said, including the emergence of Internet fund-raising and the heightened prominence of cycling. “We surfed in the curl of the wave,’’ he said.

Despite this year’s dip, Starr said he is confident the event is poised for long-term success. “People gave, just gave less,’’ he said, adding that minimum fund-raising commitments - which range from $1,000 to $4,200, depending on how far participants ride - will remain the same, but the registration fee for the one-day ride will drop.

The event will continue to pass 100 percent of donations to riders to the Jimmy Fund, he said. The $3.3 million cost of holding the event, including Starr’s $460,000 salary, is underwritten by sponsorship, merchandising, and registration fees.

David Hessekiel, president of the Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council, said donations raised by the 30 largest athletic fund-raising programs rose more than 7 percent last year. This year, in contrast, has been a struggle.

“You didn’t have to be Ben Bernanke [chairman of the Federal Reserve] to know the economy was not doing well, and that this was going to be a much tougher year,’’ he said.

Bill Richards, 30, of Marlborough, said it took countless Facebook appeals, mainly to sympathetic relatives, and two fund-raisers to raise $4,200. But the ride, his first, was worth it.

“It was the most emotionally draining amazing thing I’ve ever done,’’ he said, recalling how he teared up when he saw children who have battled cancer cheering the riders on.

Richards said he plans to ride again next year, but he may choose a shorter route so his fund-raising threshold isn’t quite so lofty. As for last night’s party, the $75 ticket was too steep. Christmas is coming, after all.

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