For nearly 30 years, avid bicyclist and longtime Falls Church resident Carol Sly has been undertaking an annual 160-mile journey across Massachusetts for the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge. In that time, Sly has raised over $181,000 to support cancer research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. In addition to her fundraising accomplishments, Sly has also been a platelet and bone marrow donor through Dana-Farber. Sly is currently preparing for her 26th race, which will take place the first weekend in August.
Sly balances her career as a graphic designer with a training schedule that ensures she is well prepared for her two-day trek. This year she began training in June, riding up to 50 mile a trip throughout the week; she’ll bike about 100 miles during the week and 150 miles on the weekends in July. She will also make a trip to Winchester in order to train on the hilly terrain of that region. Some participants only ride about 25-50 miles before the big race, but her training regimen is more intensive.
“Some people are all about the cause, and some people are all about the riding; and I think I fall somewhere in between,” Sly said.
As a student spending summers in Maine without a car, Sly found biking an easy way to run everyday errands while also staying fit. Her real love for biking took hold when she biked cross-country after receiving a bachelor’s degree in art and sociology and before starting graduate school for graphic design. Again during graduate school, biking became Sly’s primary means of transportation and an everyday aspect of her life. Several of her friends who knew of the PMC and Sly’s passion for biking introduced her to the race in 1985. Since then, she has only missed three rides: two for pregnancies, and one for a knee surgery.
When Sly began the race, the minimum amount of money to ride was $500, which “at the time, in graduate school, that was a lot of money to raise,” Sly said. Now, the minimum to ride (the two-day route) is around $3,500. It’s an amount that Sly continues to exceed. Her fundraising from last year totaled over $15,000. The first year Sly ran the race was the first year the event raised over $1,000,000; last year’s fundraising total climbed to over $4 million.
“The thing that is so special about the PMC is all the rider-raised money, every penny of it, goes to fight cancer,” Sly said.
All the overhead costs for the race, which would usually be pulled from the fundraising efforts, are covered outside of that money.
One of Sly’s favorite aspects of the race is its sole dedication to raise money for cancer research.
“It’s all about the money, it’s not about how fast you go or anything, it’s just about how much money you raise,” Sly said.
Even the recognition ceremonies honor people for their fundraising efforts, not their race times.
Aside from raising money through fundraising, Dana-Farber and the PMC also recruit riders to become platelet donors. In the earlier years of the race, she became a platelet donor and later registered with the national bone marrow registry and became a bone marrow donor. A few years ago, she found that she was a match for someone in need of a transplant and donated her bone marrow.
“It was just an amazing experience,” Sly said.
She never met the patient because of the country’s no release policy; she was only provided with his age, how many kids he had, and what disease he had.
“We were a perfect match, and after so many days, about 147 days later, he was in complete and total remission,” Sly said.
The main thing that continues to draw Sly back to the PMC, besides its immense fundraising efforts, is the camaraderie between everyone involved.
“Everybody is there because they know somebody who has been affected by cancer, or they just want to help somebody,” Sly said.
On the first day before the 80-mile water stop, the streets are lined with large pictures of all the children currently being treated at Dana-Farber.
“Right about where the heat cuts deep and you feel your absolute worst, you see these hundred pictures of all these kids, so that’s always fairly moving,” Sly said; the tree-lined streets, all wrapped in red ribbons for the race, are like “a mile and a half of just good feelings.”
As a longtime rider of the PMC, Sly has been able to watch the race grow from more humble beginnings to the massive undertaking it is 34 years later. Though Sly had no personal connections to anyone suffering from cancer when she began the race, over the years she has known more and more people who are affected by the disease.
“It’s very exciting to see that this many people are out there trying to raise money and make a difference, but the organizers would be happy to end it tomorrow if they found a cure for cancer,” Sly said, “It’s a really dynamic and exciting event, but it is kind of sad at a certain level, that we’re still out there doing this, this many years later.”
Much progress has been made over the past decades but Sly says, “You just can’t believe how great the need is to keep doing research and trying to figure this out and make it better.”
To learn more about Carol Sly’s fundraising efforts, visit pmc.org.