If you’ve ever heard the song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers and wondered who exactly would go this distance to accomplish a goal, Scott Rizza has your answer.
Every year, Rizza, 52, bikes around 500 miles from New Jersey all the way for Massachusetts in support of cancer treatment and research. He does this by participating in the Pan-Mass Challenge, a bike-a-thon starting in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, and held around the state, to fundraise for cancer research through the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
The Pan-Mass Challenge was founded in 1980 by Billy Starr, who has since described the event as “the most successful athletic event in the world.” It features hundreds of miles of biking routes of various intensities that go around the state of Massachusetts. Starr’s claims are backed by solid evidence; in 2017, the PMC fundraised $51 million for the Dana-Farber Institute, a comprehensive cancer research and treatment center and teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, which supported over 12 different divisions and projects within the organization. In 2018, the PMC has around 7,000 participants and the goal of raising $52 million.
Though Rizza, a Lawrence resident, is currently an avid biker and passionate participant of the PMC, he didn’t start cycling until around 20 years ago. “I was a bit overweight at the time, and I was going to the gym, but this was another outlet,” he said. “Someone had a spare bike, so then I started riding it around, even to work, and I really enjoyed it,” he said. Soon, he started participating in charity bike-a-thons, such as the Tour de Cure.
Rizza first heard about the PMC, held in August each year, from his colleagues at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “I used to live outside of Boston, but soon I moved down to the Hopewell office, along with several of my colleagues. At the time, people in the office had a team in PMC, and they recruited me to join because I’m cycling all the time and it’s an awesome cause, since everybody knows somebody that was impacted by cancer,” Rizza said.
In his first PMC, Rizza witnessed the power of the event on the opening night at Sturbridge, Massachusetts. “Billy Starr gives a presentation and tells everyone what the event is about,” he said. “There’s a lot of cancer survivors that are there, to showcase how many people have benefited from this event. Obviously, the people suffering from cancer are most impacted, but their families and support groups are there too.
“A few years later, I joined this other team called ‘Lick Cancer,’ a large and great team with a lot of organization. This year, we had about 170 people on our team, and our goal is to raise a million dollars, of which we’re at $963,000 right now.”
When Rizza moved to Lawrence in 2013, he continued his passion for bicycling and his participation in the PMC, but added an additional level of challenge for himself. Instead of taking some form of automated transportation to reach Massachusetts, he decided to start biking all the way there in order to participate. Through this, he is able to drum up local support and fundraise even more.
“I start off in Lawrence, then I ride to the office, where they throw me a send-off party and I get contributions from my colleagues,” Rizza said. “Bank of America matches contributions generously, so my fundraising multiplied. Then I ride up to the Massachusetts border, where I meet several people of my team and then we ride all the way to Sturbridge, where the PMC starts.”
For a feat on this scale, Rizza does a significant amount of training and planning to make sure he can reach his goal. During half the year, he trains for this event, along with many others, by cycling on a regular basis.
“It’s another target that keeps me motivated,” he said. “I usually do other rides during the year, but this is the one that I want to make sure I’m prepared for. My ride ends up being roughly 500 miles over five days. During those days, I focus on consuming energy bars, sports drink, and making sure to stay hydrated and stop along the way.”
Once he gets to Massachussetts, Rizza says even the logistics of the ride are “phenomenal,” with manned stops every 20 miles providing riders with water, fruit and sandwiches.
The solitude is another challenge, especially during the trip up and back. “The first couple of days I’m alone, and so it’s a long time to be in your own head,” he said. “I don’t listen to music when I’m on the road, just because I like to be able to hear the cars, so I have to keep myself occupied mentally. One of the things I did this year was think about the importance of the cause.
“It’s always a bit tougher each year, especially in the starting days. But I think of all the people who are suffering from cancer, and how hard that is, compared to my [minimal physical exertion] for a couple of days. So I don’t care how long it takes me, but I’m going to push myself to do it,” Rizza said.
This year was particularly unique, since Rizza got married in May. Because of the time commitment of planning a wedding, “towards the end, I had to train in the rain when I didn’t want to, and I really thank my wife for putting up with that,” he said.
In fact, his wife, Denise, even traveled to meet him halfway during his trip. “She met me at the New York border for both equipment and moral support. She helped me throughout the next day, acting as a support vehicle along the way.”
Overall, despite the physical difficulties of participating in the PMC, not to mention Rizza’s extended trip, he continues to participate passionately for various reasons. “It’s not that easy at first, but cyclists like a challenge, and it’s something that everyone can do,” Rizza said. “It’s also well-run, and really inspirational and fun. Then there’s time where you’re thinking about what the cause is, and that’s very emotional.”
Even though the PMC is not an inherently competitive race, Rizza believes the event is a testament to the power of athletics to bring people together for something greater. “There’s people of all ages and fitness levels doing this,” he said. “There are even some cancer survivors, those who may have lost limbs to the disease, participating. Seeing that is very motivational, and really showcases that no matter how difficult something is, as long as you persevere, you can do it.”
Looking forward, Rizza hopes to continue participating in the PMC, and even improve in his fundraising performance. “My wife’s been helping me out for fundraising in the social media arena,” Rizza said.
For those that are intimidated by the size and length of the PMC, Rizza explains the accessibility. “Now they have multiple routes, so you can start slow if you want,” he said. “There’s shorter routes, but with just a little bit of effort and training, you can achieve anything. It’s really about the cause and the fundraising.
“It’s a bit amazing what you can do when you set your mind to it,” he said.”Before I started riding, I thought someone biking 60 miles was insane. But now, people are giving me the same reaction I used to have.”