BOSTON — The first year Shawn Mullen rode in the Pan-Mass Challenge, he was 25 miles into the 192-mile bike-a-thon and had just reached the top of a big hill. There, on the side of the road, was a young boy, holding a sign.
It said, I’m here because of you.
“You never forget that,” Mullen said. “He’s standing there waving. Grown women holding similar signs — ‘I’m a survivor,’ ‘Keep riding hard,’ all along the route. It’s just amazing. It’s incredible.”
Mullen and the rest of the Boston Bruins Foundation Pan-Mass Challenge team gathered in front of TD Garden on Friday afternoon, their vans stocked full of equipment and sustenance, ready to set off for the starting line in Sturbridge, Mass. From August 2 to August 3, they will traverse the entire 192-mile course that ends in Provincetown. Some of them are new this year; 18 of them are returning riders who have been a part of the Bruins Foundation team for years.
All of the proceeds from the PMC will support adult and pediatric cancer care and research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through the Jimmy Fund. This year, the PMC has raised over $26 million thus far; since its inception in 1980, the race has raised $414 million.
“Any little thing we can do to help out is great,” said Boston Bruins Foundation Executive Director Bob Sweeney. “Everybody is excited on the Friday [before]. The PMC does a good job the day before — it’s a celebration. There are lots of events going on out in Sturbridge, and everybody’s into it. It’s all for a great cause, and we have some very strong riders, which we’re proud of, and guys that have been doing it year after year. So we’re fortunate to have them.”
The Bruins first got involved with the PMC when Sweeney decided to take part in honor of a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer, and later, in honor of a young boy named Jeff Hayes who later succumbed to Ewing’s Sarcoma.
“We still have a strong group, and we always stop just outside the Hayes house on the route the second day,” Sweeney said. “So it still holds a place in our hearts. Everybody has their own cause. I got to meet so many great people — so many great people out in Sturbridge that are involved in this. It’s almost like a reunion every year.”
This is Mullen’s sixth PMC, his fifth with the Bruins team. He began riding with the Bruins Foundation after meeting Sweeney at a kids’ hockey tournament. In the years since, Mullen has become the Foundation team’s leading fundraiser, accruing a total of $130,000. This year, he has raised $23,470.
“I’m pretty proud of that, and the Bruins have supported me all the way along,” Mullen said. “It’s just a good feeling.”
Before his first PMC, Mullen — a late entry to the Challenge who found himself scrambling for a way to raise enough money to ride — came up with an idea. He would hold a Spin-a-Thon at the gym where he was a certified spin instructor.
That first year, Mullen rounded up 16 people to ride with him, and he raised almost $6,000. Since then, the Spin-a-Thon has grown exponentially.
Mullen was first inspired to take part in the PMC by his father, a survivor of prostate cancer, and a friend who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. He continues to ride in honor of them each and every year. Their courage — as well as the courage of cancer patients everywhere, some of whom come out every year and support the riders along the route — leaves him with no shortage of motivation.
“There’s one water stop where all the Pedal Partners photos are lined up,” Mullen recalled. “That’s a moment where you shed a few tears because you’re riding by these photos of kids who are clearly cancer patients, who have been connected with the team by the PMC, and it’s pretty amazing.”
The 192-mile ride itself is never easy. The training is difficult, and it often involves 4 a.m. wakeup calls, followed by miles and miles of biking. But it’s that motivation — from his father and his friend, from those Dana Farber patients — that compels Mullen and his fellow Foundation riders keep going.
“The 111 miles [on the first day] is a lot of adrenaline and fun, and you’re really excited,” Mullen said. “It’s really that second day that’s tough. We get up before the sun, and you’re sore, and you’ve got to get on the bike again, and that 81 miles is a lot. It is a big challenge — that’s why they call it a challenge — but it’s also mentally tough because you’re riding with a lot of riders on the road, you’ve got to be careful about where everybody is, and so it’s tough. But it’s a great tough because you know you’re surrounded by people who are all doing something so great, for a great cause.”
And that moment when the riders finally finish that 192nd mile — when they approach the finish line — makes it all worth it.
“I have to be honest — I still get goosebumps when I get into Bourne at Mass Maritime. I still get goosebumps when I cross the line in Provincetown,” Mullen said. “It’s just something amazing. The last few years, it’s been about 12 of us from the Bruins that have all come in — four across, three or four deep — together.
“It’s an amazing feeling. You’re physically exhausted, but there’s a great emotional high when you finish it.”