STURBRIDGE — After 11 years of riding in the Pan Mass Challenge, you might think that the event has become routine, or even boring for Rick DiFronzo. But for the Tewksbury resident, there is never anything boring about competing in the PMC and raising money for cancer research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. That was the case once again this past weekend when he competed in the 40th Annual Pan Mass Challenge, biking 192 miles from Sturbridge to Provincetown over two days.
“Every year you do it, and you train all summer long and you wonder if this will be your last one,” DiFronzo said. “But all of the hype at the start of the ride and then you see all the people along the route and the signs they made saying thank you, and you see all the survivors, it makes you want to come back.”
One thing that was much nicer this year than the past few years was the weather. After dealing with heavy rains the past three years, this year’s weather was perfect, at least for DiFronzo.
“The weather was outstanding. It was a little hot, but I like the heat,” DiFronzo said. “The rain the past three years presents some challenges, plus it makes things dangerous. But even last year in the rain, I was riding along and I saw an elderly gentleman sitting outside in a chair underneath an umbrella, holding up a sign saying thank you. Seeing something like that has to motivate you.”
But while the crowds certainly provided motivation on race day, it is another form of motivation that truly drives DiFronzo, and has been driving him ever since his first ride in 2009. That motivation comes from his daughter Lia, who lost her battle with a rare form of Leukemia on October 6, 2008 at just eight years old.
Lia had battled the disease for two and a half years, and had fought it every step of the way, even becoming a part of the PMC as a Pedal Partner along with the John Hancock PMC team in 2007 and 2008.
“Lia had been born with a heart defect, so the first number of years of her life she went through several heart surgeries, and she came through those. It just couldn’t keep her down,” DiFronzo said. “In 2006 she was diagnosed with Leukemia, but she never got discouraged. She faced the challenge head on and wanted to do whatever it would take to fight it. Her bravery and courage is what led me to do this and has also helped inspire so many others.”
Lia’s courageous battle is what led DiFronzo to his first PMC back in 2009, and now eleven years after her tragic death, she continues to motivate him not only when he is riding, but through every day of his life.
“She would not let things get her down or bother her,” DiFronzo said. “When I am having a bad day, I just ask myself, how bad is this compared to what she had to go through. Each day is a good day if we are able to be up and living our life. Whatever problems we may have are nothing compared to the challenge she had to face.”
This year, like every other year he has taken part in the PMC, DiFronzo rode with the same John Hancock PMC team that Lia was a Pedal Partner with DiFronzo worked at John Hancock for 22 years, and although he has moved from the company, his relationship with his former employer remains strong.
“After Lia passed, I started riding with them, and even now they still have an emblem on their shirts in her memory,” DiFronzo said. “I enjoy riding with them. They are great people and it is great being with them.”
John Hancock has also been instrumental in DiFronzo’s fundraising efforts through the years, including this year. Over the past 11 years DiFronzo has raised approximately $90,000 in the fight against cancer an incredible achievement helped by the generosity of so many people since he first started riding. DiFronzo knows how blessed he is to have so many people still willing to donate after all of these years.
“It is really remarkable, and it is a tribute to those who have known Lia and have been inspired by her. Many people I have known a long time have made the commitment to donate for as long as I continue to ride,” DiFronzo said. “John Hancock has also been a big help because a lot of my former coworkers have donated and John Hancock will match it. I feel very fortunate to have so many repeat contributors.”
While DiFronzo is doing the riding, he is not the only member of his family committed to the PMC’s cause as his wife Laura and their son Rico, now 21, are every bit as much a part of the team as Rick is, and they have been right from the start. When Lia was battling Leukemia, she received two bone marrow transplants, with the first one coming from Rico, who was only eight years old at the time.
Their commitment to the cause includes finding time for Rick to get in his training rides. Laura and Rico, who have also done their share of fundraising for cancer, understand the commitment required by Rick as he prepares for the PMC.
“It has been a challenge over the year to find time to spend with the family while also finding time to ride,” DiFronzo said. “They do the Jimmy Fund walk, so they know it is a commitment and know what it is like to commit time to something like this. But we also make sure we reserve some time for family events.”
DiFronzo will likely be reserving time to train once again next year, as he plans on being back for his 12th PMC in 2020.
“Each year I try to evaluate how I feel physically and I decide if I want to do it,” DiFronzo. “It is definitely not easy, but like I said, it is nothing compared to what Lia has gone through.”
If you would like to donate to Rick’s ride and assist him and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in their fight against cancer, please visit his PMC page at http://profile.pmc.org/RD0136