Billy Starr lost his mother, uncle and cousin to cancer.
He wanted to do something to honor his lost loved ones, so Starr founded the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge in 1980. Since then, the 190-mile bike-a-thon has raised more than $303 million for cancer research through the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, according to a PMC press release.
Starr is also largely responsible for starting the athletic fundraising event or "a-thon" industry, which today raises more than $3 billion for causes all over the world, the release said. When Starr first started biking to raise money, there were only a handful of walk-a-thons and just two bike-a-thons in the United States, PMC notes. The existing events were more about raising awareness than money.
"I was very much a '60s kid," Starr said. "I felt that I was meant to do something with my life that matters for society. My mom was a career volunteer and I was looking to rebuild community. For the first 10 to 15 years, it was all about demonstrating that I was making tangible progress and building the event to something that could handle thousands of people."
On Aug. 6 and 7, the PMC will welcome 5,500 cyclists from 37 states and eight countries. The goal is to raise $34 million for Dana-Farber. One-hundred percent of every dollar raised by the riders will go to cancer research, the release said.
"The fundraising is at the center of it and the bike ride is the candy," Starr said. "Anyone who can ride 200 miles, that's your blessing, so raise some money."
Starr follows his own advice. He's personally raised $1.2 million for Dana-Farber. He said the PMC inevitably creeps into his mind whenever he's cycling on his own.
"There's no escaping it," he said. "It's bigger than me. It's huge. It's ingrained in my DNA."
Starr consults with organizations around the U.S. and Canada to help them form bike-a-thons. Before the Lance Armstrong Foundation started its LiveStrong Rides to raise money for cancer research, the organization sent two representatives to the PMC to see how a successful fundraiser was run, according to the release.
Starr said he's flattered by all the attention his event has garnered.
"I'm in a very fortunate position of having had a dream come true," Starr said. "It comes with responsibilities and maturity but I'm very much in touch with who I am."
To learn more about PMC, visit the event site here.