The Pan-Mass Challenge has grown into the most successful charity event in the entire country, last year raising over 37 million dollars thanks to the efforts of over 5,500 participants. This year's event, the 34th Annual PMC was expected to raise roughly the same amount of money, with 100 percent of the funds going to cancer research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
But it was not always this way. Back when the event started, if you could even call it an event at the time, it featured event founder Billy Starr and three dozen friends back in 1980. The group of friends rode across the state to raise money for cancer research in memory of Starr's mother, whom he had lost to cancer six years earlier.
Not long after its inception, Wilmington resident Mickey Rooney decided to join the fight along with Starr and the still relatively small group. In 1983 Rooney, at that time 45 years old, joined approximately 300 other riders on the ride and he has never looked back.
Now 75 years old and showing no signs of turning back, Rooney this past weekend participated in his 31st PMC, riding the 111 mile route from Sturbridge to Bourne to do his part for this great event.
After all these years, and another successful ride in the PMC, Rooney was able to reflect on that first ride so many years ago.
“Back when I started there were just four or five of us younger guys, and we were reading the sports page and we saw this event and we just decided to get involved and take a bike ride,” Rooney said. “That’s how it all started. There were maybe 300 riders in the whole thing but we really enjoyed it. A lot of us stayed together for a long time. Unfortunately Mother Nature took some of us, but a lot of us just stayed with it.”
After so many years participating in the event, Rooney has become a regular both every year at the PMC as well as with frequent trips to visit Starr in his office in Needham. While the event organizers such as Starr certainly look forward to seeing Rooney every year, he also looks forward to returning to see regular riders such as himself at the starting line.
“Everybody gets to know each other over the years and it is great to see everyone every year,” Rooney said. “We are all kind of doing the same thing, so we get to know each other.”
Perhaps the people he knows best is the group he has ridden with during the past several years, the Patriots Platelet Pedalers, which includes several other rides from Wilmington as well.
Rooney says that having such a great group to train with makes it easier to prepare for the event.
“It’s kind of the same group almost every year which is nice,” Rooney said. “We get together beforehand to get ready for it, which helps all of us.”
Of course Rooney does plenty of training on his own as well, heading out for afternoon bike rides to prepare himself for the grueling ride ahead. At 75 years old, with 31 years of riding experience behind him. Rooney has certainly developed a training routine for himself, but he insists that there is no real secret to getting ready for the event.
“It’s a pretty simple operation really,” Rooney said. “Just get on your bike every time you have the opportunity. People like me who are older have a little more time to ride during the day so it gives me an opportunity to train.”
The training certainly seemed to have paid off for Rooney once again this year as he got on his bike at about 5:00 a.m. on Sturbridge and finished up at Mass Maritime at about 4:00 p.m. While the ride was very challenging, Rooney’s great conditioning paid off for him.
“It went very well this year,” Rooney said. “It is a long ride, and it seems like there is nothing but hills on this route, but I made it through and I thought it went very well.”
Another big part of the event every year for Rooney and all of the participants is the fund raising that goes along with it. Rooney did not want to speculate on just how much money he has raised for cancer research over his 31 years of participation, but his year he raised over $11,000 thanks to some very generous donations.
“I am not sure how much we have raided over the years, but I wish I had 10 percent of it,” Rooney joked. “I am so fortunate that so many people keep giving money year after year. And the great part about the Pan Mass Challenge is that 100 percent of the money we raise goes to Dan-Farber. It is such a well run organization. They deserve a lot of credit for what they do.”
And Rooney knows that he would not be nearly as successful in his fund raising without the generosity of so many Wilmington residents over the years.
“I would like to personally thank all of the Wilmington residents, including bike riders, volunteers and people who have donated,” Rooney said. “It is a real nice representative of all the people in Wilmington. It’s been incredible the way so many people have helped out.”