Tri for a Cure raises nearly $2 million

Jul. 16—SOUTH PORTLAND — The 16th annual Tri for a Cure kicked off under rainy skies and a tornado watch Sunday morning, prompting officials to cancel the biking portion for some racers. More than 1,000 athletes participated in the all-women's triathlon to raise money to fight cancer.

Before it began, Thea Cerjanec, 61, of Freeport, and Mary Sexton Sands, 59, of Falmouth, wore wet suits and smiles. They were ready to go.

"I am here, I am a breast cancer survivor, stage three," Cerjanec said. "I went through the double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation. Eight years ago I was in the middle of that. I could hardly walk."

That has changed.

Looking fit before the race, she said Sunday would be her first time doing the whole triathlon herself.

In previous years, she participated as part of a relay team and did just the running portion. The entire event usually consists of swimming for one-third of a mile, biking for 15 miles and running for 3 miles.

"I thought it's time to try this on my own. And I'm not getting any younger," Cerjanec said. "It's a push. It isn't going to be easy. But I'm excited to finish. I am going to finish!"

Ruth Gunnell, 41, of Bangor was there for her sister-in-law, Jessica Grondin, a cancer survivor. Gunnell was part of the relay team and swam.

Olivia Reale-Hatem, 23, of Burlington, Vermont, was participating to honor her mother, who died of cancer in 2017, and for her best friend's mother, who is a breast cancer survivor.

"I think it's amazing! I love the energy," she said looking around at all the athletes and supporters. "There are so many people here for so many different reasons, and for the people they love who are fighting cancer."

Reale-Hatem said her mother participated in the first Tri for a Cure in 2008, before she was diagnosed, and would be thrilled with how much it has grown. "She did the very first one, the whole thing," Reale-Hatem said.

As the pre-race ceremony got underway, yoga teacher Andrea Gleason led athletes with warmup moves. They stretched, made motions of riding a bicycle, then ran in place while taking long, deep yoga breaths. She led them to put one hand on their heart, the other hand on the person standing next to them.

"This is your reminder. You are not alone today," Gleason said. "You are here together. Call it community, family, or tribe. You have each other's back."

She said they all have one common rival, cancer.

Before the athletes jumped into the water, the event's top 10 fundraisers in the fight against cancer were recognized. Elaine Smith ($20,001) and Meredith Strang Burgess ($19,250) were first and second.

Burgess has started a tradition of being the designated last finisher because, an announcer said, she is always behind them.

The Maine Cancer Foundation said the total amount of money raised by the athletes was $1,886,739 as of Sunday night. This year's fundraising will continue for another two weeks.

"Because of you, people in Maine have a better chance of surviving cancer," said the foundation's executive director, Ray Ruby. "Because of you, hundreds of Mainers in all 16 counties will have transportation treatment tomorrow morning. Because of you, our loved ones, and neighbors are being screened now for early detection. Because of you, members of our families might never have to hear the words, 'You have cancer.'"

Tri for a Cure founder Julie Marchese took the stage before the race to say it was started when her mother got breast cancer. "When you want to give back, you go big," Marchese said, thanking sponsors, saying there have been so many people through the years who have been supporters. "The one thing that has been my mantra this year has been gratitude."

With the song "I Will Survive" blaring, a long line of athletes made their way onto the beach and into the water for the start of the race. Water safety officials were in kayaks, while boats from the Coast Guard and Portland Police Department were ready if anyone needed help.

Before long, swimmers came out of the water and climbed a hill to the "Wetsuit Strippers" pad where volunteers helped them get out of their suits. The athletes then ran to the next stage of the race and grabbed their bicycles.

As they made their way on the long ride, fans watching the race lined the athletes' path, applauding, cheering, and ringing cowbells.

After the 15-mile bike race, participants left their bikes behind to finish the race on foot for the last 3 miles.

Some athletes who finished swimming quickly were able to ride their bikes, but race officials halted the biking portion because of a tornado watch in Cumberland and York counties. People coming out of the water were told to skip bicycling and go running. Some of the relay teams who were prepared to bike could not.

In addition to the athletes, about 400 people volunteered for the event. Between Saturday, which was the expo day, and Sunday, an estimated 5,000 people attended the event, Ruby said.

"People were absolutely thrilled," he said. "Their loved ones were here cheering them on."

The Tri for a Cure was founded by Marchese and Abby Bliss. It has become the largest triathlon in Maine.