Every morning at 5:30 a.m., Jon Schoen heads out on his bike through the hilly Connecticut roads from his home in Darien up to Easton and back. Some mornings, his daughter, Dillon, joins him, but for the most part it's just him and the pavement.
The early-day rides are part of Schoen's training for one of the largest athletic charity events: The Pan-Massachusetts Challenge bike ride that will wind through 46 towns in Massachusetts Aug. 2 and 3. Schoen will join nine other Darien riders to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Schoen's life has been touched by cancer more than once. His father died from multiple myeloma and his mother from breast cancer. His two sisters were diagnosed with and overcame breast cancer.
At Christmas, Schoen was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which metastasized to the bones in his hip and back.
"I think that when you sit back and you find something like that out in your life, for me, it's made me more aware of other people walking around with secrets and struggling on their own," Schoen said. "It makes you empathetic to other people's situations and not just your own."
Few know about Schoen's diagnosis.
"For me, doing this race is such an emotionally uplifting experience," Schoen said. "You're doing it with people who are survivors or have been touched by (cancer). We all have people who have been touched by some form of cancer. The facts are, there still needs to be scientific studies."
Schoen is not the only one in the PMC who has cancer. According to Jackie Herskovitz, a spokesman for the PMC, of the 5,800 riders this year, 300 either have or have had cancer.
"I just felt like I can't just sit here and wait for things to progress," Schoen said. "I needed somewhat of a personal goal. In March, I said I'm not sure what my situation is going to be, so I'm ready to go."
In life, Schoen said, there are three goals people strive to achieve: Good personal and mental health; good relationships with people in their lives; and a sound financial standing.
"I think you can't have it perfect in all three of those categories," he said. "Health issues come up and you have to deal with it. You have to explore your faith and you can get through any of these difficulties whether it's in your health, finances or relationships."
For five other Darien riders, the PMC has become a summer tradition.
Team Forward, comprised of James Palen, John Slonieski, Tom Ritchie, Don McCarthy and Jason Chandler, was formed five years ago. They are also joined by Paul Battaglia, of Denver and Mark Morehouse, of Chicago. The team has raised more than $270,000 since it was formed.
The PMC pairs teams up with a Pedal Partner, a child who has dealt with or is dealing with cancer. As part of the partnership, the team rides for their Pedal Partner and gets to know the child's family.
This year, Team Forward will ride for London Hinz, of Rhode Island, for the second year in a row.
Hinz was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and Langerhans cell histiocytosis, one of the most common cancers in infants, at the age of 8 months. Since being diagnosed, Hinz has undergone numerous procedures and chemotherapy treatments. Since May 30, just after turning 3 years old, she has been cancer free for one year.
During the ride, Team Forward will meet with the Hinz family at a rest stop to reconnect.
Every year, Team Forward has opted to ride in the two-day ride that starts in Sturbridge, Mass., and ends in Providence, R.I. Palen said hundreds of people come out from the towns to support the riders as they pass through.
"In one certain town, two old women are on bagpipes," said Palen, who is the chairman of the Darien Republican Town Committee. "In another town, it's people in hula skirts. The whole better part of Massachusetts comes out for this."
Palen said the ride is not about the cyclists but is about the charity.
In 2013, the PMC was Dana-Farber's largest single contributor and the event raised $39 million, more than 50 percent of the Jimmy Fund's annual revenue, according to Herskovitz. The Jimmy Fund is the fundraising organization for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
When the Pan-Mass Challenge started 35 years ago, 35 cyclists raised a little more than $10,000 for Dana-Farber, according to the PMC website. Since then, the ride has developed into the most successful athletic charity event and has raised more than $414 million. Race organizers have set a goal of $40 million to be raised for the 2014 race.
"PMC riders are not focused on how fast they ride, but how much money they raise," Herskovitz said.
Average riders will raise $6,000, Herskovitz said, though the minimum is different for a one-day rider versus a two-day rider. The two-day riders must raise a minimum of $4,500.
Schoen already has raised just less than $10,000 with a month left until the ride.
"Here's the beauty of the PMC money: It's seed money," Herskovitz said. "You need to pay the researchers before you can develop the idea enough before you can say to the government or a private funder, `Hey, this can work.'"
Herskovitz said the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has received more than $1 billion in federal funding because of the research the money from PMC supported.
"The race will give me continued faith that I have the support around me for family and friend to do a good thing and raise the money but also strive to get healthy and better and find cures to let people live longer and healthy," Schoen said.
"The whole environment and spirit is incredible," Herskovitz said. "This is one weekend out of the year that people are doing the right thing and coming together for a common goal."
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