If you’re not familiar with the Pan-Mass Challenge, it’s an amazing opportunity for thousands of cyclists (experienced and casual) to pedal their energies for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The main ride runs 190 miles through 46 Massachusetts towns, though there are 12 different routes of varying distances to accommodate riders of all abilities.

I rode the PMC for the first time in 2015. After hearing many inspirational stories from coworkers about their experiences, and after suffering the loss of my mother to brain cancer, I signed up.

I was motivated for two reasons: to force myself to get in better shape through training for the ride; and to feel like I could do something to help cancer patients. The latter reason was especially important to me after feeling so helpless during my mother’s illness.

Preparing for the PMC was fun, scenic, and social since our Onshape team organized group training rides. Together we practiced drafting from one another as we rode in a pace line. Riding in a pace line takes practice and trust. The leader of the single-file line sets a pace appropriate for the group, and takes the added workload of being the first into the wind. The rest of the cyclists in line benefit from a strong leader who can keep a steady pace, point out obstacles and keep the group moving forward as one. Leaders peel off when they get tired, and the next cyclist in line takes that position. In this manner, we move forward, sharing the load and reaping the benefits at the same time.

Pace lines remind me of my mother’s illness. My sister was our leader, she organized us in my mother’s care, took the lead most of the time, and was able to fall back and let another take the lead when she needed a break. In this manner, we moved along, trusting each other, working hard for the group and resting when needed while someone else took the lead.

As I trained with Team Onshape for last year’s ride, I heard more stories about the rewarding experience and got advice ranging from what and when to eat, what to bring, and where the most enthusiastic crowds position themselves along the course. I thought I was well-prepared as PMC 2015 approached.

I was, and I wasn’t.

Although I was ready for the physical demands of the ride, I had no idea about the emotional experiences I would have along the way. I heard about the parties, the music, the signs, the cheers. What took me by surprise were the people with personal signs. I rode by a small boy, standing with a woman I assumed to be his mother. He had a colorful sign that read: “Thank you riders. I’m cancer free!” I choke up even now thinking about him.

I rode past an older man, probably in his mid-50s like me. He stood alone in a driveway holding a piece of cardboard that read: “Thank you riders. Cancer took my dad, but it won’t take me.” It was unbelievable to me how many people yelled out “Thank you!” as I rode past. I couldn’t believe that riding my bicycle, something I love to do, would mean so much to anyone. I was overwhelmed with the gratitude of strangers standing by the side of the road.

During my mother’s illness, I had felt completely unable to help her in any real way. I couldn’t imagine that by riding the Pan-Mass Challenge in her memory, I would feel as though I personally could do something that would help someone fighting cancer. But that is exactly what happened.

I think the power of the PMC is twofold:

  1. The PMC donates 100% of every rider-raised dollar to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, so you are confident that the money is helping cancer patients and their families.
  2. The event makes you realize that the thousands of riders pedaling from Sturbridge to Provincetown represents hundreds of thousands of donors who care about cancer patients.

Seeing how many people really care had a profound effect on me, the daughter of a cancer victim. Seeing the droves of people who came out to spend their day by the side of the road, thanking people they’ll likely never meet, was astounding and makes me want to ride the PMC as long as I can.