Martha’s Vineyard bicyclists take the Pan-Mass Challenge

A thumbs-up, a raised fist and a broad smile — one, two, three — exemplify the mood of the riders, no matter how tired they are.
Photo courtesy of Pan-Mass Challenge

A thumbs-up, a raised fist and a broad smile — one, two, three — exemplify the mood of the riders, no matter how tired they are.

Just about now, four days after they completed a 192-mile bicycle trek across much of Massachusetts, John Schilling and Jim Reynolds might be starting to feel like their old selves again. Mr. Schilling, a 56-year-old insurance agent and the fire chief of Tisbury, has been riding the Pan Mass Challenge for 20 years. For Mr. Reynolds, 60, an attorney and principal at Reynolds, Rappaport, Kaplan and Hackney, last weekend’s ride was his 17th.

The Pan Mass Challenge was created by Billy Starr, who lost his mother to melanoma at the age of 49. In 1980, he and three dozen friends rode 220 miles from Springfield to Provincetown, raising $10,200 for the Jimmy Fund, which supports cancer research and care at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. This year, some 5,300 riders participated, raising a total of $34 million.

As the race has grown, the course has been altered and other courses added. Sturbridge is now the starting point — at 5:30 am — for the longer race, whose first leg is 111 miles on Saturday to Mass. Maritime Academy in Bourne, followed by 81 miles on Sunday on to Provincetown. Three other two-day rides are offered, as are five one-day rides, the shortest 25 miles long. Depending on the distance ridden, riders must raise between $500 and $4,200 for the Jimmy Fund.

A former high school athlete who is a bit obsessed about fitness, Jim Reynolds took up running when he moved to the Island in 1976. “I was part of that group that put together the original Community Services Road Race on Mothers Day, along with Jay Schofield, Mike McCarthy, Pat Gregory, and a whole bunch of runners,” he said late last week. “I followed a few of those guys to the marathon in 1979 and got hurt.”

For the next 12 years, Mr. Reynolds swam nearly every day in the pool at the Mansion House. “And then I found cycling, and I found a great love,” he said.

In 1995, Mr. Reynolds rode his first Pan Mass Challenge at the invitation of some old high school buddies. He had also witnessed cancer’s devastating capriciousness firsthand. “My sister’s husband died in 1990 at the age of 29 from cancer,” he said. “The Pan-Mass offered an opportunity to link a passion that I have with helping out other people. And it was a great way to reconnect with old friends.”

A lifelong Islander, Mr. Schilling ran cross-country at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. “My college years weren’t the healthiest time of my life,” he said with a chuckle. “In my early thirties, I returned to running and biking, and I have been at it ever since.”

After several years of training, mostly alone, on the Island, a friend suggested that he might be interested in the event (PMC). “I was looking for some sort of bicycle challenge,” Mr. Schilling said. “I was intrigued by the idea of riding from Sturbridge to Provincetown, especially after riding in circles on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Undeterred by the fundraising requirements, Mr. Schilling jumped right in. “My first year, 1992, you only had to raise $750. Right away I was hooked. I met a great group of people that I continue to ride with and have had relationships with over two decades.

“The first year I did it there were 1,400 riders, and now there are 5,200 or 5,400 riders. My first year we raised $1.9 million; last year it was $33 million. All of what we raise, 100 percent, goes directly to Dana-Farber.”

The Red Sox Foundation, a presenting sponsor for 10 years, was joined last year by New Balance in leading some 200 other corporations in funding the infrastructure of what has become a massive undertaking. Volunteers, at the rate of one for every two riders, play a huge role as well.

Both Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Schilling spoke raved about the overall spirit and camaraderie among the riders and volunteers. To share it, however, many lonely, grueling hours of training are required, starting about May 1.

“I generally ride 20 to 25 miles a day, and then on Saturday, I try to make one long ride,” Mr. Reynolds said. “It increases as the season gets longer. I start at 35, then up to 45 to 50 and then up to 60. I’ve done up to 75 in past years, but this year I’ve just done 65 a couple of times.”

Mr. Schilling tries to get in about 2,000 miles in before the event. At first he rides 25 miles — to Beetlebung Corner and back from his home in Vineyard Haven, but he increases the distance steadily to a 40-mile loop to Aquinnah. On weekends he builds to a long ride.

“I go out early in the morning, about 5:30, to get off the road before the work traffic starts and it’s an absolutely beautiful time of day,” Mr. Schilling said. “There’s a whole regular crew that you see out biking at that time of day. We know where to stop for Gatorade, where all the Porta-Potties are. Menemsha has great bathrooms.”

For Mr. Reynolds the event is a target for his year-round fitness regimen, which includes pilates, yoga, and spinning when it’s too cold to ride. “I point to it,” he said. “I ride it as hard as I can, because I’m still something of a competitive athlete. I focus on getting down the road and off the road before it gets too warm. And they provide massages when you get to Bourne, so it’s good to get in line early.”

A good massage after physical exhaustion always feels good, as does the knowledge that you are fit enough to ride more than 100 miles at a crack. But both riders are quick to point to the other benefits of riding the Pan-Mass Challenge.

“The people from Dana Farber come each year to thank us,” Mr. Schilling said about the pre-race activities Friday evening. “It’s very motivating to hear researchers saying because of you they’ve been able to make so much progress. And on the Cape, on Sunday morning, the people are amazing: they come out in their bathrobes with their coffee to pick up the morning paper, with signs and noisemakers, and it’s really quite uplifting.”

For Mr. Reynolds, there are constant reminders along the route that keep him pushing, pushing, pushing. “Teams sponsor a so-called Peddle Partner, a young cancer patient, and to see those kids’ pictures along the side of the road — you know, with no hair, and smiling — it’s extraordinarily inspiring.”

On Monday, with 192 miles behind him and no broken bones to report, Mr. Reynolds repeated the sentiment. “It was very energizing to be around all those people dedicated to that one cause.”

And the ride itself? “I held up pretty well,” Mr. Reynolds said. “I went pretty fast for an old guy for the first 70 miles on Saturday, and then my food intake was a little off, and I struggled for about 20 miles, but then I picked it back up.

“On Sunday, by the time we got up to Provincetown the wind was right in our face. It was pretty brutal the last ten miles.”

High points of the weekend for Mr. Schilling came before the race and just before it ended. “During the opening night ceremonies, a dad got up and spoke about his son who was a success, and only Dana Farber would treat him,” he said. “It brought tear to your eyes, and it reaffirmed why we’re there.”

On Sunday, another father had a sadder story to tell. “Near the end, when we were riding into a headwind, a riding buddy and I came up on a dad riding a tandem bike by himself, and he had a picture of his son on his back. We got in front of him and pulled him along. It was one those special moments, helping him carry some of the load that he’d been carrying by himself all weekend long.”