John Marshall knew his mother biked unimaginable distances before he was born, but when he decided to join her annual 192-mile cycling challenge, he didn’t anticipate it being so intense or exhausting.
“So you wake up at ridiculous times in the morning and there are hundreds of bikers you see in the dark, and there are people everywhere and there are streets where they cheer for you,” said Marshall. “It was quite the experience. It was exhausting but it was fun….it was [also] an amazing experience because you feel like you’re [a part of] something bigger”
Marshall, 22, will be joining his mother, Carol Sly, and one other Falls Church rider, Andrew Rotherham, for the 39th Annual Pan-Mass Challenge. The two-day cycling trip, which raises money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, covers between 139 and 192 miles through Eastern Massachusetts depending on the route. For Sly, it marks her 30th year doing the event.
“The PMC [Pan-Mass Challenge] boasts a retention rate of 79 percent, meaning that three out of four riders typically return to ride the PMC again the following year. With the vast majority of riders returning year after year, riders like Carol, who has been involved with the PMC since 1985, are essential to the success of this event and to the PMC’s mission to one day eradicate cancer,” said challenge spokeswoman Hannah Charney.
For Sly, the Pan Mass Challenge provides added purpose to her cycling and motivates her in her training cycle. Sly is a life-long endurance sports specialist who has done triathlons, marathons and even biked cross-country in 1983. Since her knee surgery in 1991, she has largely been confined to cycling.
“A lot of my riding is training for this goal,” she said.
A transplant from New England who currently works for Falls Church City schools, Sly was first introduced to the race in 1985 when she was attending graduate school in Boston. The only three times she’s missed the race since her debut were during her two pregnancies and after the knee operation.
Sly also uses the opportunity to venture far out. On many weekends, she drives to her in-laws’ house in Winchester and bikes through West Virginia. One of her goals each year is to check off her favorite rides.
In contrast, Marshall doesn’t train as much but generally relies on overall fitness to make it to the end. He was a cross-country runner at George Mason High School and ran the 5K in under 18 minutes.
“I’m not a shining example of training, but the ride itself is super rewarding, and I’m still gonna do it regardless of whether I have the time to train or not,” said Marshall.
Sly’s husband, Steve, joked that one of their son’s primary motivations is beating his mother.
A third Falls Church rider, Andrew Rotherham, agreed with the assessment that the challenge is extremely rewarding.
“I had a friend who lives in Massachusetts, and he knew I cycled. He told me ‘Outside of your family and your work, it will be the most meaningful thing you do all year’ and it’s completely true,” said Rotheram.
Entering his seventh year, Rotheram’s cycling journey with the Pan Mass Challenge has had added meaning because he’s witnessed loved ones struggle and lose to cancer. He initially rode to honor friends, but since he started the annual race, his father was diagnosed and eventually succumbed to the disease. One of his father’s doctors was a Dana-Farber researcher and doctor, so Rotheram has seen the incredible progress the institute has been making.
Interacting with the issues that surround cancer research in a triumphant way has also been part of the experience for Sly and her son. The PMC recently equipped riders who have gone into remission or survived cancer with a “Living Proof” button so others can know they’re personally experiencing solidarity with those riders.
“The first year that we met a rider who had been treated and was riding it was like ‘Oh my word it was incredible’,” said Sly.
Last year, the Pan Mass Challenge raised $51 million and they have raised $598 million since the race’s inception in 1980.
The Pan Mass Challenge will take place on Aug. 4 and 5 and commence in Provinceton, Massachusetts. Andrew Rotham’s fundraising page can be found at profile.pmc.org/AR0140 and John Marshall’s fundraising page can be found here: profile.pmc.org/JM0887.