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So many of us find it hard to step out of the whirl and go beyond ourselves. In an age of Instagrams and streaming Twitter updates, people seem too busy to call even when something’s gone terribly wrong. They might text instead. It becomes harder to pause, and finding solace eludes us.
At least once a year, volunteers and riders in the Pass-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon break through this paradigm. During last weekend’s downpours and relative chill in the Bay State, they persevered again.
I spent the weekend with some of the PMC’s road crew and command staff traversing much of the 192-mile route. Some of their own backstories, their camaraderie, innovations and connections with riders to help fight cancer are apt to inspire you. PMCers set out to raise a record $40 million in its 35th year for a cumulative contribution to Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of more than $450 million.
These PMC volunteers continue to show up. They don’t make excuses. They’re never too busy. Giving up a weekend to offer their skills, they’ve got our backs.
A rider named Barry stood in a parking lot overlooking Onset Bay in the driving rain, bent over and clutching the back of his legs. For the third time Saturday he had a flat tire, his riding team was somewhere ahead, and during the past two hours the temperature had dropped perhaps 10 degrees to 60.
A slight tremor washed over the lean eight-year rider. He still could feel his fingers, but with his body temporarily not in motion, a few early signs of possible hypothermia were evident. Al Homer, a carpenter from Brockton and a PMC volunteer, pried the tube from the tire with his fingers, spotting the leak after pumping in a few blasts of air.
With only about three miles left to reach the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the ending point for the first day, there was no way that Barry, like most PMCers, was quitting. Within a couple of minutes Homer replaced the tube and re-mounted the wheel. Thanking Homer, the man walked his bike back to the road.
While the grit of more than 5,700 riders who pedal for loved ones and friends is celebrated each year – tested again by last weekend’s weather – less heralded is the commitment of the PMC’s legion of volunteers. Among these 3,700 are a hardy band of bike mechanics and EMTs who are seemingly omnipresent when riders need a hand along the routes, and a command staff coordinating logistics behind the scenes to make the iconic event hum even when faced with fresh challenges.
Plenty of those surfaced during Saturday’s rain. By late morning heavy showers began scouring stretches of the route from Rehoboth to Lakeville and beyond. Road crew veterans like Homer knew exactly what that would bring: more flats as road debris collects on the tires – and potentially worse. “Dehydration in the heat, hypothermia in the rain,” he said.
During the weekend 10 cyclists were transported to the hospital and 80 riders reported hypothermia, some declining medical treatment, while others donned thermal blankets or rested on warming mattresses brought in last minute to the gym on the academy campus. It was what founder and PMC executive director Billy Starr called the “coldest sustained rain” in the event’s 35–year history. Yet the conditions did not dampen most riders’ resolve – with a million miles covered during the weekend, only several dozen riders stopped early, with some picked up on buses or their family members at the final water stops.
Homer, 54, and his wife Janice are among a road crew and command center group who usually spend the weekend supporting the PMC. About 75 people make up the road crew while a few dozen others manage communications, logistics, and medical emergency responses in a command hub at the maritime academy.