6. Billy Starr: It’s A Wonderful Life
In 1973, Billy Starr’s backpack was packed and he was all set to leave for a dream trip hiking in Nepal. But like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Billy never got out of town. His mother was diagnosed with cancer and Billy spent the next year at her side in the hospital. When she died in 1974, Billy’s mind was not on the Himalayas, it was on something much more challenging — dealing with the pain of his mother’s death. It was this pain that eventually drove Billy to start the Pan-Mass Challenge, a fundraising bike ride that began with just 36 riders back in 1980 to become the largest single fundraising event in the U.S. In this podcast, you’ll hear Billy talk about the humble beginnings of the Pan-Mass Challenge and how he took his personal pain and turned it into a way to help so many people. George Bailey would be proud.
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David Abend: Hi, this is David Abend, founder of the Bucket and your host for this edition of the Bucket podcast. I’m talking today with someone who’s fundraising ride has raised more than 650 million for cancer research. He is none other than Billy Starr, founder and executive director of the Pan-Mass Challenge.
Welcome Billy. The ride was about a month and a half ago, is this a downtime for you at all? What’s been happening at this point?
Billy Starr: There is no downtime, but the pressure is off. We’re a year-round operation. I remember my friend in the ski industry making comments like people say so what do you do the rest of the year. There are 11 of us full-time now and over 350,000 people donating to what this year will be a 60-million-dollar goal. By the time this thing plays we’ll be over 700 million dollars since 1980. It is our 40th year, there is no downtime. This is the time to strike with sponsorship. Innovation on the weekend. We’re going through an alignment here, a strategic business plan. It doesn’t end, and that’s a good thing.
David Abend: Wow! How many riders rode this year?
Billy Starr: Over 6,800 on 12 different routes in 46 towns.
David Abend: How many of those are alumni, if that’s the right word?
Billy: 82%. If you were to take away the first-year rider, the average guy or gal in this event has ridden for over almost nine years. I mean, you won’t find that kind of fidelity anywhere.
David Abend: What is harder ramping up for 2020 or ramping up for 1990?
Billy Starr: That’s an interesting question. It’s hard when people are an overnight sensation. I mean everything comes in its time. I can say in 1990 — 1989 that was the first year I knew we were going to give a million dollars in a year. My mantra for that year, which we put on the jerseys, was “be one in a million”. This year we have a 60-million-dollar goal and whatever we give will be the biggest check ever in the history of the Dana Farber.
That may be hard to repeat, but we’ve only not grown in one year out of 40. We’re all about the growth and staying true to our mission, which is giving these doctors the funds to go get the cures for cancer. We have growth programs. We’re going to be introducing a legacy program. We have growth opportunity in our winter cycle, our kids program, our Sunday ride 2,500, which had about 800 people in it, but could accommodate 2,500. That’s a relatively new program. This year in particular we’re putting a freeze on the traditional rides —how many people we can take at the Mass Maritime Academy and the Provincetown Finish Lines. So, when you can’t increase numbers of riders, these multimillion-dollar increments get tougher to achieve.
David Abend: You seem like the kind of person who gets a rush out of leaning into the wind, so I would think in 1990 where you had the challenge of are we going to make this real, but they’re just different challenges that come up every year right?
Billy Starr: There are always challenges. I suppose if I would take from the genesis of the idea itself to the end of the inaugural year, in that moment I said this is it for me, this is my life. This is what I’m gonna do. In 1980 when I created the PMC, I knew as a logistical kind of guy what to do, but there was no plan for 1981 and that probably is the critical moment. That was it: I’m going to try and make this thing big, great and significant.
David Abend: How many riders in 1980?
Billy Starr: 36
David Abend: Wow. You said this is a year-long thing. How much of it is a full-time job?
Billy Starr: There are 11 people in the office, who are doing business development, marketing, finance, administration, kid’s rides. I have the kid’s rides program that has 4,000 kids in 37 towns that raised a million dollars this year. We’re doing a spinning program at Fenway Park, which is in its fourth or fifth year.
David Abend: Is that a virtual.
Billy: There’s that as well. That remains as a potential growth program, but it’s interesting that the kind of money we raise is done by a man or woman whose commitment goes beyond average. The PMC weekend is tough to replicate. It’s been written about, studied. If you want the PMC experience, you have to buy into the mob. This is nothing anyone could do on their own. Sometimes we want to be a part of something that’s bigger than ourselves.
I don’t have to tell you that the average person’s event is not average. Many of them could have whatever infrastructure they want in their life, but they can’t have this — a community of decent, like-minded people who are dedicated to funding the cures for cancer and doing it with bicycles as a catalyst. The synergy of physical, emotional and spiritual gets distilled into this massive check which represents all our hopes going to a world-class institution, The Dana Farber.
David Abend: It is incredible. If someone wanted to hear your story they can certainly go to your website. I read the book Closer by the Mile by Ken Brack. But for people listening who don’t know it, can you tell us how this all started? How you started the ride to raise money and why?
Billy Starr: I would say Closer by the Mile is more the PMC story than it is necessarily my biographical story. In quick succession, I lost my uncle, then my mother, and my cousin to cancer. I was just graduating college and it definitely derailed me. I was from a close family. I saw the changes in my father. I was a 60’s kid who was off to Nepal when my whole world changed. I drove a truck and went to the hospital three times a day with my father. I lived at home and my world shrunk. I started to see life very differently. I felt more fragile and I never gave a lot of thought. When I talk to young people today and they say, “You were a political science major, so you’re a lawyer right?” I remember once being picked up by a woman while hitchhiking, another old antiquated phrase. She picked me up, that doesn’t happen anymore, and she said that to me. And when I said no I am not, she said, “What a waste.” That was her comment. She was only two or three years younger than me, like what had I done with my college career. I think it’s fair to say not many of us were thinking too much. I just assumed it would work out, and then suddenly the gears were not working out.
My whole sense of self and global purpose changed. It wasn’t an overnight epiphany. I bounced around for another six or seven years and did a lot of things. I can make the back narrative about how being an athlete, a journalist and in sales, doing all these things came forward in who I am and perhaps where my success lies. But this was a business plan? Not even close.
David Abend: That’s a very interesting story. I have read about it in terms of this nice little package, but it sounds like it wasn’t that clean.
Billy Starr: It wasn’t, but I think it’s again, it’s looking back, you know at some point somebody’s got to have the belief in something to stay with it. I’m sure there has been a lot of great ideas that either couldn’t be executed or were prematurely abandoned. This was probably a pretty great idea that took a long time to flesh out. By the time I hired my first full-time employee I was 10 years in. I joke because I don’t deserve a lot of credit. If I were more of a businessman, I would have hired somebody sooner. I was building culture, but I was probably retarding my own growth at the same time by not bringing someone in. But I just I worked for 15 years out of my father’s house. I never carried debt. That was both a personal thing I learned from my father, but not exactly how you build a business. At the same time, I was becoming very good at getting people to contribute. Donuts, oranges, trucks, professional skills, not cash, but I was building up this event and getting it paid for. All the ingredients that you would need for that in those days. One year only in Springfield, 220 miles and then moving permanently to Sturbridge in 1981. We stayed one route only until 1997, when I started seeing my friends were having children. They weren’t in the shape they used to be, but they’d become decent fundraisers. I didn’t want to lose them. They had street cred and it wasn’t about the mileage anymore. The mission was moving more to the center. In 1980 the Pan Mass Challenge was absolutely looked at as an extreme-hard-guy event. I consider one of the great ironies of life. Not only getting older, but then 40 years later riding 200 miles when we’re all older. Nobody sees this as a big deal anymore. Not that it isn’t hard, but in the world of ultra-events, it’s nothing. Technology’s better, the nutrition’s better, the clothing’s better. That which we didn’t know, while I was building this event, is legend. I say that with great humor because I attracted a person who had the ability to laugh at themselves while keeping their eye on the mission of what we were there to do.
We were elevating ourselves by expanding our identity by being fundraisers for cancer research on a vehicle that meant something to us, a bicycle. We didn’t invent the bicycle, but the fundraising event on a bike.
David Abend: When you went through that experience of these people who are close to you dying of cancer, did it make you think of your own mortality, your own life, how many years you had left, and what you were going to do with those years?
Billy Starr: Not then. I was 29, healthy, very out-there kind of athlete, I thought the world was my oyster. I think more that way now. It was always about the generation above, now it’s us. I don’t have to tell you, you know, if you’re lucky in life you grow to an older age, and friends die. You can’t help but think of all these things you did with these people, they’re part of my life, and its dozens, if not hundreds of people. You can’t help but be impacted by the life arc, it’s why our children will never think like us. I didn’t think like my parents. It’s just these generational things. It’s great to mentor, but some people are more mature, some are old souls, some are no souls, but the end of the day 20 is not 60. I remember where I was at that time and it was all about building this event. It wasn’t that my time was running out. It was how to make a mark. I mean I had parents like that. I was supposed to do something meaningful.
David Abend: What would you be doing now if this hadn’t happened?
Billy: Unemployable — I don’t know. I tell this joke about my dad. My dad was of the World War II generation. If I were ever fortunate enough to have my story made into a movie, I’d pitch it as Sanford and Son crossed with Touched by an Angel. I worked out of my father’s home. I was a very out-there, aggressive guy and a risk-taker. My dad was a World War II generation, sweet and conservative. In 1976, pre-PMC, I’d gone into my family business of food service equipment. My cousin is still running it. My dad was the oldest of four brothers, their father created it and all of our cousins worked in it. They were nine of my generation. Almost immediately I knew I was going to quit. I worked six months and at same time I was planning my escape which was I’m going to walk the Appalachian Trail. I want to get back to nature. I’m in this goddamn Rat Race. I hate it, but my dad has done all this for me. My brother, he’s four years older had become a professional career journalist. I’d be the family legacy in the family business. Meanwhile, I was planning this trip for months before I tell my dad and I go, “Dad I feel terrible. I know you’ve done all this for me, but Dad it’s not for me.” He looks me and goes, “this, I never wanted this for you. You should be in some kind of high-end sales.” And I said, “You think you ever could have said that to me!” [laughs] I bet there are a lot of people that can relate to that story.
David Abend: Did you feel an obligation?
Billy Starr: We were a close family. I made assumptions. He didn’t share, he was a World War II generation. He put a roof over our heads, he bought me a corned beef sandwich every day, he did his job. He was a loving wonderful man. All my friends loved him.
David Abend: So, was that liberating for you?
Billy Starr: Yes. I went to walk the Appalachian Trail with my buddy who’s out in the other room. I hired him, and he rode for 10 years and I hired him in 2000. And I know who he is. He’s been here for 22 years.
David Abend: I’ve hiked pieces of it, but I’ve never done the whole thing.
Billy Starr: I didn’t do the whole thing. I did Maine and New Hampshire. It was memorable. Lessons I learned on the Appalachian Trail were absolutely incorporated in the PMC. The first lesson was a very pivotal one and was about getting people to buy in and share the work. When I did this, I said to the three guys, “This is going to be great fun. I’ll do everything.” I did all the food caches and all the planning, and we started on May 15, 1976 at the Northern terminus, Mount Kahtadin… It’s winter. If you know anything about the Appalachian Trail, that’s the northern hundred ten miles. We’re packing 10 days of food. We’re getting winter blow down. We’re getting lost, but we also most significantly had eight straight days of non-stop rain. Now, you don’t know that, we don’t have Google. We are just hypothermic every day coming into a lean-to, rationing provisions, knowing that you’re going X miles.
David Abend: You look cold just talking about it.
Billy Starr: It’s a great memory though. At the end of that hundred and ten miles two of the guys quit and he didn’t quit. He wanted to quit, but he wouldn’t leave me alone. I wouldn’t quit not because I was tougher than they were, but I did all the work. I’ll never forget it. That was the first lesson. The second lesson was the disproportionate impact of the kindness of strangers. As we hiked in, I’m saying the weather’s going to get better, it can’t get worse. We would have these random acts of kindness and I could tell a lot of stories, but here’s a composite story. You run to some guys hiking for two days and they’ve packed the kitchen sink because, if you’re smart, it’s just as much about the camping as it is the hiking. They got the wine, the cheese, steaks. They know their carrying too much food, like they throw a stick of cheese like we’re dogs. We were so appreciative. I thought about that for weeks. Why did I think they were so great because I was hungry, and he answered the need? It may or may not have been that big a gesture, but to me it was everything. Three years later when I’m building my vision, I got to put that in. I know I’m going to put people in a certain amount of discomfort, but I’ve got to answer the need or they ain’t going to come back. So already I was thinking, you know, this this had to be more than a marathon that breaks people. It had to be sustainable. I had to build infrastructure, but those were two really critical lessons that I wanted to build into the Pan-Mass Challenge.
David Abend: There’s a theory of decision making. I don’t know if you’ve seen this because it’s very much related to hiking and outdoor stuff. The more committed, the more that you’ve done, the less you’re likely to quit. And that’s obvious, but that’s not always a good thing, like it in terms of disaster stories where people have put in all this effort. They might go further than they should have because it’s like I did all this. It’s an interesting balance.
Billy Starr: I listen to a doctor yesterday make comments of analysis of someone in my position, saying you have to have passion, you have to be able to communicate, but you also have to have the integrity not to blow it up when means of getting to the next place may destroy everything. That’s an interesting lens on it. Flash forward 40 years. I know what I’ve built here. I know why it’s both sustainable and valuable. I won’t sacrifice that to go for an extra five million dollars. I want the five million dollars, but not to destroy what’s been built which is a smart, safe, emotional, spiritual weekend. There’s a lot of things behind it.
David Abend: At The Bucket we have this thing called the Bucket Age, which is basically a way to put things in perspective. You take your life expectancy, statistically, and you subtract your current age and you end up with your bucket age. So, statistically I got until about 85. Provided I don’t get hit by a bus or I don’t get a disease or anything like that. I’m 61 so my bucket age is 24. That’s statistically how much time I have left and we use that as a way to put things in perspective. What’s your bucket age?
Billy Starr: My Bucket Age would be 17.
David Abend: Have you ever thought about things that way?
Billy: Yes, I suppose, but I’m one of those lucky guys who created his own life narrative. I still have goals and couldn’t possibly be more effective spiritually or impact to society other than consulting on exactly what I’m doing. Leading my own organization, being physically still at the near top of my game, completely vested with a lot of upside, recognizing that we’re all mortal. If I can say it just it slightly differently, which is not about the spiritual but really about the physical. What we see generationally is that I don’t necessarily believe I’m going to live forever or 100 or 90, but I think I’m going to live longer better. I think that’s what me and my friend say for those of us who think we’ve got that equation, health, family, physicality and spirituality. There are better books than others, but the capricious nature of life nobody escapes. I’ve had more than my share of dramatic escapes or impacts that have nothing to do with anything other than, man plans, and God laughs type of stuff. I don’t consider myself a religious person. I do consider myself spiritual. I think I’ve expressed it in that which I created. I want to be doing it effectually until I don’t feel like I can do it well or loose the desire for it and that hasn’t happened.
David Abend: Let’s say that tomorrow through your help that cancer is cured.
Billy Abend: Wouldn’t that be something. That’d be a great punctuation mark. I’d like to go to that party.
David Abend: So, what would you do after that?
Billy Starr: Well, truthfully when I started, I thought cancer would be cured in my lifetime. The more educated you get there are many forms, I don’t think that happens. I think no different than the doctors who are my role models, it changes nothing. You push the ball forward. In our 40-year career to this point, PMC funding is tangible, the role it takes. We funded over 700 initiatives at Dana-Farber last year. We document now from the doctors who ride: how much money went to your lab? What did you do with the lab? What have you learned over the last year? Our people want to hear that. We are pushing the ball forward and together we achieve what none of us could do alone.
David Abend: What are some of those things that you hear back when you ask that question?
Billy Starr: Childhood cancer has moved from 20% curable to 80-85% curable. That’s not insignificant. When I see the tougher ones, the ones the barely moved, like brain and pancreatic, and I think about these courageous doctors, how did they go to work every day? I remember David Nathan in 1997 worked with Sidney Farber in the 40’s. Everyone died, how did they go to work the next day and look what they’ve done? As my dear friend Patrick Byrne, who’s in the news these days, says we all rest in the shade of trees planted by others. I believe that. We’re all making an impact. If I can make an impact riding a bike by spreading the message and raising money from people who have money to give and should be giving. It’s a pretty good life’s work.
David Abend: That question was about you though. That was question was if this cause was fixed, what about you? Would you find another cause? I know this is fantasy, but I’m really trying to ask you are there other things that you want to do?
Billy Starr: The Pan-Mass challenge should definitely still exist just because it shown to be effective, whether it’s the next social or medical issue. The truth is it will be chosen by the board. If you’re literally going to say that you got 17 years and boom it’s cured tomorrow, thinking about this right now, I think I’d be putting my head together with the best and brightest saying, does that mean Dana Farber is going out of business? I doubt it. Let’s get real, even when you click your heels like that. These are now brilliant people. Okay, what they going to put their energy to? Good luck prying this event away from Dana-Farber. That’s not even Billy’s call. That’s the board’s call. We’re an independent 501 c 3 100% dedicated to Dana Farber, we’re 60% of the Jimmy Fund’s annual revenue, 18-20% of the Dana Farber’s operating revenue. There’s a lot riding on us.
David Abend: There certainly is. Do you ever take a step back and say, “Holy shit, I did this.” I know you did it with other people, but you’re the reason it’s here.
Billy Starr: You’re in it every day. I joke that I have a seasonal celebrity. People come up to me, they are very emotionally, congratulatory, appreciative and it’s nice. I think everybody wants validation. There’s a wonderful quote. It’s my favorite. It’s by a former Appalachian Trail hiking record holder. And, I do love it because I relate to it, so you can edit as you see fit. “A true legacy is not so much about performing when the whole world is watching, as it is a dedication to your cause when no one is watching.” Jennifer Pharr Davis, former record holder AT speed hiker. I love it. I mean that’s about passion. I love what I do. I sit there and think about it a lot. I always want to make it better.
David Abend: You have that expression, “Commit you’ll figure it out”, which obviously has worked for you and the ride. Do you think that that could be something that people use anywhere in their lives, especially for some of the people we’re trying to reach, in terms of they’ve gotten to a point in their life where things are in flux? They may have retired and they’re trying to figure out what to do, and they’re kind of out of their element. It seems like commit you’ll figure it out is something…
Billy Starr: It can sound capricious and even frivolous, but a lot of people need a push. At the end of the day, wherever that psychic high jump is it takes you over bar, that makes you put forth an effort, that’s more than superficial, you’re probably going to get more from it and you’re probably going to be more effective towards that end. There’s no question commit you’ll figure out a totally resonated in my crowd. When I put it on a t-shirt, people just loved it. We’re too comfortable. That’s what you say to your friends. My friends would joke, that what Billy said to me, I’m not going to hold your hand through the whole thing. If you believe in me or my value system to some degree, you’re going to get the same rewards.
David Abend: It seems like it helps people get out of their comfort zone, because they think they’re always supposed to have a plan, and it’s like, no commit and then the plan will come.
Billy Starr: In some case, yes and many cases, yes. We can look on my life narrative and say yes, it wasn’t a business plan. I had no underwriting. I had no buy in. It was an epiphany that then took a plan, based on my own commitment and some background and things I outlined before. As an athlete you understand that you need food and water. You’ve got to create a route. You’ve hiked a trail, well here’s a trail: Springfield to Provincetown. Resupply, I need people, I need police. Etc.
David Abend: It’s so complicated. But you figured it out.
Billy Starr: It gets more complicated if you have any level of success with it.
David: Is there something you have yet to do? If death showed up today, you’d say I wish I had done that?
Billy Starr: There are many places I suspect I’m never going to get to. I think in my 20’s when my wanderlust was greatest my personal story changed, and I didn’t get out into the world as I had anticipated. I did more in my thirties. Now I like to bike in beautiful spots all over the world, but I no longer see myself climbing Everest and I don’t care. I do believe that what I’m doing right here is the most important thing I can do regardless of temporal pleasures of drinking wine and riding my bike, both of which I enjoy very much.
David Abend: What you just said, I don’t know if anyone’s ever said this to you, is a little bit like George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life. He was going to go travel the world. He had all these plans, and then his father died, and it changed and affected so many people.
Billy Starr: I don’t think they’ll be making that movie about me. But I get it. I get it. Event fundraising is a five-billion-dollar industry. You can run, walk, swim, bike for every good cause under the sun. None has had the impact of the PMC. One of my metaphors is the iceberg analogy, which is that which is above the surface is the money but the intellectual and emotional capital that’s been captured in this event, the ways that people have made relationships, that have bonded to Dana-Farber, to the cancer community, to teams of riders, to health, to elevating people to the sport of cycling — It’s huge. It’s huge. I’m not going to say it’s bigger than the money, but it’s a quality of life issue that’s elevating everybody on multiple plains. Clearly part of my audacity was I was painting on a pretty large canvas and still filling it in. You think about Springfield to Provincetown, that’s 220 miles. That’s what it was. Make that a perfect weekend, never going to happen. But instead, we keep morphing it, making it better, making it more inclusive, raising more money, through our culture and mission statement. You know if I can give the skeletal structure: 12 routes, 46 towns, 360 miles of infrastructure, 350,000 people writing checks, 11 full-time people, 14 person board, a newly created 11 Person advisory board, a 14 person head staff volunteer organization with 4,000 volunteers beneath them. Its big.
David Abend: When you started it, is this what you dreamed of or you couldn’t even have hoped for this?
Billy Starr: I think I would be unrealistic to say I hoped for a multimillion-dollar event, whatever that meant, so everything we discussed. Let’s get down and dirty, becomes a part of that building a business. It’s not just a non-profit ideology. It’s a business and a business model that required buy-in. I can tell this cute story: In 1980 I went to the Jimmy fund, again my lack of vision perhaps, and I told them what I was going to do. They say great good luck. They had the wisdom to point out one woman who worked and volunteered at the Friends of Dana Farber. Her name was Joanne Goldberg and she said to me,” What’s your mission?” I said, “My mission is to raise money.” She looked at me and said, “So you think you’re better off doing that alone?” And, what I wanted to do was purge my pain and ride Williamstown to Provincetown, a real Pan-Mass challenge, 302 miles. Instead, I think I realize not everyone was going to be an athlete like me, even the cancer connection really didn’t flesh out fully until the 90s. So, I reduced it to 220 miles, and then 1980 found a permanent home at 192 to 200 miles in Sturbridge. Then kept diversifying, and biking from Le Monde to Armstrong, to the Tour de France, to Americans Present, to cycling, from hippies to yuppies, to cycling all of us varsity athletes who now were rehabbing on bicycles from knee injuries, etc. Everything I could see was going in the direction that was typical of the people I was attracting, not extraordinary, typical. They could all find a place. Then, of course, make it for people who could be comfortable who weren’t the kind of athletes that I and others were originally. Williamstown to Provincetown by myself, 302 miles. That’s what I wanted to do. But she got me and said, “That’s bullshit, that’s self-indulgent. If you want to make a mark, get people involved.” That was sort of a turning point.
David Abend: You seem like a competitive guy. Was the “Hey, good luck with that” from the Jimmy fund motivate you?
Billy Starr: Partly. I could tell the same thing about my girlfriend in 1980. Lying in bed at the end of the first year and I literally turned to her and said, “That’s it, I’m going to make this thing big.” She looked at me and said, “That was nice but grow up.” I said, I’ll show you, I’m going to make this thing big. You’re right, I am competitive. That annoyed me. She didn’t have my vision for what mattered to me. I get it, just 36 people, we did everything wrong, everyone got lost, we ran out of food, the ferry didn’t run. It was a complete disaster, but everybody was talking about next year on the bus ride home. I’m hearing it. I struck a chord with some of these people, they were extending their identity beyond their corporal selves.
David Abend: So, tell me what it felt like when you handed the Jimmy fund the first check.
Billy Starr: Well, modestly gratifying, $10,200. I don’t think we presented a goal in 1980. But we grew from $10,200 to $40,600 the following year. I mean that’s 400% growth, that’s a big deal. I could sell that. As importantly, it worked for me. It motivated me. There’s tangible evidence of growth and I could do that for a very long time.
David Abend: Well, this has been great. Do you want to tell people if they want to participate next year how do they can do that?
Billy Starr: Thank you, pmc.org. Read up. Registration opens I want to say like January 10th to first-year riders. We have a three-tiered registration. Ride or volunteer — commit. All are welcome, but I warn you all, we sell out before the end of February.
David Abend: Well, I hope you’ll get some more Riders from this podcast.