Pedaling with a Purpose
Kate O’Halloran, MBA’98, participated in her first Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC), the renowned summertime bikeathon that has raised more than $410 million for cancer research, because its founder, Billy Starr, made her. The year was 1998, and as vice president of her soon-to-graduate MBA class, O’Halloran was involved with selecting a Commencement speaker. Classmate Leslie Semonian, MBA’98, who had been battling cancer and admired Starr, nominated him. O’Halloran’s job was to “make the ask.”
Pan-Mass Challenge rider Kate O’Halloran, MBA’98, in Maine with her trusted bicycle Photos: Greta Rybus
“I can still remember—it was winter, and we had lunch at the Exec Conference Center,” says O’Halloran. “I asked him to be our speaker, and he said, ‘I’ll speak if you ride.’ At that point, I didn’t even have a road bike. I had a mountain bike, but I did nothing endurance related. But I said sure.”
Starr was a tremendous speaker, says O’Halloran, and he didn’t forget their pact. “When I saw him that May, he asked if I was registered,” she says. “So I had to register.” Her boyfriend at the time gave her a used triathlon bike as a graduation present. About eight people from her class rode in the Pan-Mass Challenge that summer, including Semonian, who lost her battle to cancer a little more than a year later.
Seventeen years later, O’Halloran still participates in the PMC every summer and journeys on the same bike that was given to her for that first trip. Instead of the two-day route that begins in Sturbridge and ends the following day in Provincetown, nowadays she bicycles one of the one-day courses that begins at Babson, which serves as a host for the event. She rides in memory of friends such as Semonian and her parents, both of whom she lost to cancer. Over the years, she has raised more than $100,000.
O’Halloran was in college at Brown University when her mother died of breast cancer. Being the youngest of five and a “tough” kid to handle in high school, O’Halloran still feels the loss of not being able to reconnect with her mother later in life. “The way you think as a young person is so different from as an adult,” she says. “I was so caught up in my life at Brown. I never thought my mother was going to die. I was completely stunned. I really struggle with my mother’s death—I still have demons from my time at Brown because of that.”
So when her father called in 2003 and told O’Halloran he had prostate cancer, she drove home immediately. Home was Waterville, Maine, where she had grown up, and O’Halloran left the Boston College PhD program she just had been accepted into to move north and take care of her father. Turns out her father had been battling cancer for 10 years without telling anyone. “He was diagnosed shortly after my mother died, and I don’t think he wanted the kids to have to deal,” says O’Halloran. “Plus he’s a stoic Mainer. ”
O’Halloran was able to spend about a year with her father, who she calls her best friend, before he passed away. Riding in the PMC the summer before he died was particularly challenging, she recalls. “But it reaffirms why you do it,” she says.
After her father was gone, O’Halloran stayed in Maine. She married and is the director of development and alumni connections at Carrabassett Valley Academy. Traveling to the PMC from Maine has not been easy, she says, but she makes it work. Over the years, she has encountered other challenges. She has ridden through downpours on 55-degree days, teeth chattering from the cold. She has cycled through scorching heat, temporarily relieved at rest stops by sitting on blocks of ice (provided by the PMC) and jamming ice down her jogging bra. She has watched the sun rise while pedaling across the Bourne Bridge over the Cape Cod Canal, and she has waved to little kids in their pajamas on the side of the road as they anxiously wait with a sign for a loved one to ride by.
She has cycled with friends, but marriage and children caused many to stop riding. For about five years or so, she rode alone, but she didn’t mind. “You meet people along the way,” says O’Halloran. The PMC puts tags on the backs of shirts, so as riders approach each other, they can see names and how many years the riders have participated. “I always ride up to first-year riders and chat,” says O’Halloran. “I love to chat. It makes the trip go by faster.”
A few years ago Susan Dolphin, MBA’98, who rode with O’Halloran as part of the original Babson group in 1998, began riding in the PMC once again. “Susan took some time off to have kids,” says O’Halloran, “but now she’s back.” Last summer, Dolphin and O’Halloran rode together. This year, they’ll cheer each other on, but they chose different routes.
Now that O’Halloran has reached her goal of raising $100,000, she plans to ride until she has finished 20 PMCs in a row. “I think I need to do the two-day route one more time,” she says, adding that everyone who participates in the PMC should bike the two-day Sturbridge to Provincetown route at least once. “The wave of people as far as the eye can see at the starting line, all wearing the same shirt and there for the same cause—it’s extraordinarily moving.”
Ultimately, riding is a selfish endeavor, says O’Halloran. “It gives you a chance to do something tangible. It’s a reminder that if you have your health, you’re fortunate. That sticks with you.” —Donna Coco