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Updated: July 15, 2019

Tri for a Cure raises $2M to fight cancer in Maine

Start of Tri for a Cure fundraiser in South Portland showing amount raised Photo / Jim Neuger Top fundraisers show the amount raised in this year's Tri for a Cure, held Sunday in South Portland.

They swam, they biked, they ran their hearts out to raise more than $2 million to fight cancer in Maine in Sunday’s 12th annual Tri for a Cure triathlon fundraiser in South Portland.

This year, 1,312 women, ages 16 to 81, registered for Maine Cancer Foundation’s annual event to raise money for cancer prevention, early detection and access to care. They represented 27 states and Canada.

Whether they participated as individuals or on a relay team, this was less about competing than about joining together in a worthy cause — as Dennis Tatlock from Waterboro remarked while watching cyclists from a shady spot.

“It is not about how fast you do it, it’s only about doing it,” he said, joined by family members all keeping an eye out for his girlfriend, Vanessa Darling, and her red helmet. 

The 58-year-old throat-cancer survivor plays basketball and did all three legs of this year’s Tri, raising around $2,000. She had also participated last year, which her boyfriend remembered being "a lot more emotional." 

Tri for the Cure is often emotional for Paige Teller, a surgeon and co-director of Maine Medical Center’s Breast Care Center who has formed the "Power of 3" relay team with two former patients, Helene Palmer and Sue Ensminger from Boston.

“I know more people in the Tri every year,” Teller said, “and I’m so proud of each.”

Teller is the swimmer on the team, while Palmer cycles and Ensminger runs. 

Palmer, adjusting her pink tutu that got soaked in last year's rain, said doing the Tri every year is both a challenge and a "lovely way to celebrate" and support Maine Cancer Foundation and the Maine Medical Center.

During Sunday's opening ceremony, Tri for a Cure founder and race director Julie Marchese told the crowd that Tri had raised more than $15 million since 2008.

“There is not one other fundraiser in the state of Maine that has put that kind of money back into our communities,” said Marchese, who created the event with friend Abby Bliss. “We didn’t do that. You did!” 

She also gave a shout-out to the 500 volunteers to help out and Rwanda Coffee Co's Mike Mwenedata, who raised a little more than $3,000 for Maine Cancer Foundation in a one-man triathlon in Maine. He told Mainebiz on Monday that he had run 462 miles in 40 days.

"Maybe next year we can find a way for other men to do the same thing," Marchese said.

Then just before the first group of swimmers made their way down to Casco Bay, she reminded them that “you’ve done all the work, now it’s your time to shine.” 

Along the race route, supporters shouted messages of encouragement and held up posters, one of which read, "Cancer Round Two: If I can do this, so can you," while another read: "You've got this. Go Nana."

Some runners crossed the finish line while holding hands. One even carried a baby.

Butterflies and bathing caps 

Maine’s only all-women triathlon consists of a USA Triathlon-sanctioned one-third mile ocean swim, a 15-mile bike ride and a 3-mile run, in that order.

Melissa Smith, CEO of presenting sponsor WEX, does all three, telling Mainebiz before the start that she’s done the Tri “every year but the year I was pregnant." 

During the opening ceremony, Smith said she hopes that that none of her children will ever have to deal with cancer, saying, "that's my hope and my dream."

Smith also confessed to experiencing butterflies before embarking on the swim, in which participants were grouped by ages and swim-cap color, supporters on land straining to spot familiar faces in the water.

'Happy to be here'

Inside the water, each group got a pre-race pep talk from Meredith Strang Burgess, an advertising executive, breast-cancer survivor and leading fundraiser, who has the yearly honor of finishing the Tri last.

Tri for a Cure athletes in the water
Photo / Jim Neuger
Meredith Strang Burgess, center, gives swimmers a pre-swim pep talk at Tri for a Cure, held Sunday in South Portland.

“It’s my job, I do it really well,” she said while laughing about the fact that by the time she finishes her run, most people have already gone home.

"After my cancer," she said, "I lost every competitive bone in my body.  I'm happy to be here today."

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