It’s the opening ceremony. Kelly Kirkpatrick gazes at the sea of spectators on a nearby hill cheering for hundreds of triathletes wearing pink swimming caps as they prepare to plunge into the ocean.
She gets goose bumps.
“Wow, this is amazing,’” she thinks every year, as the triathletes prepare to kick off the race at Spring Point Ledge Light in South Portland.
Kirkpatrick, 34, will be participating in the Tri for a Cure on July 26 for her third time. From her perspective, the all-women’s triathlon “is an empowering, emotional, and overwhelming experience,” she said.
A pink swimming cap indicates that the triathlete is a cancer survivor. Most of the participants also know someone who has been affected by cancer, whether it’s a friend or family member.
“It’s impossible not to be overcome with emotion, being surrounded by such powerful women,” said Kirkpatrick, who was diagnosed with a rare cancer called ependymoma at age 25.
What she thought was a pulled muscle in her back turned out to be a benign spinal tumor that she had removed with spinal surgery. But two years later, the cancer returned – this time it was more aggressive.
“I had another spinal surgery, followed by radiation of my lower spine,” said Kirkpatrick, “and a few years later, radiation again, to my upper spine. It is common for ependymomas to (return), but since it is rare, there is no cure or specific treatment plans.”
At the time, Kirkpatrick declined chemotherapy. In 2012, three months before her wedding, however, a follow-up MRI found lesions on her brain. So she changed her mind and underwent the treatment.
“Our honeymoon was a trip to Dana Farber in Boston, Mass., to participate in a clinical trial involving a combination of chemotherapy,” Kirkpatrick said. “Luckily I experienced no cognitive deficits, but radiation surgeries and a case of shingles while on chemotherapy have left my legs with nerve damage, making running and biking a bit challenging.”
Kirkpatrick said she decided to participate in the Tri for a Cure after spending time volunteering and being completely “blown away and inspired” by all the triathletes. But Kirkpatrick, a Gorham resident, admits running was a bit of a challenge during last year’s Tri.
“I am regaining strength and function in my legs every day, but it is still a constant reminder of what my body has been through,” she said.
Describing her experience in 2013, particularly during the one-third-mile swim, Kirkpatrick said, “I panicked the second I hit the water on race day, but even in the water there was so much support.”
Last year, after training at the Michael Phelps Skill Center in Saco, and with several other women in sheJAMs, Kirkpatrick decided to try all three legs of the race. She even managed to cut 6 minutes off her original swim time.
On July 26, however, Kirkpatrick will only be participating in the swim portion of the Tri with two other women on a relay team they’re calling “Shoot for the Cure,” which includes Sue Brewer, a fellow cancer survivor she met during her first year of training.
“She helped me step outside of my comfort zone,” said Kirkpatrick. “I have always been a private person, so I was always reluctant to be identified as a survivor. Sue helped me remember to be proud of what I have been through and not try to hide it.”
Kirkpatrick, who is a member of the sheJAMs training group, has been spending an hour at least three times per week leading up to the race, either in a pool or in the lake, to improve on her swimming. In addition to a 12-week training program before the Tri, sheJAMs also offers programs in the off season to keep the women active.
“I am hoping to cut a few more minutes off my swim time this year, but it has never been about the time for me,” she said. “It is important for me to just enjoy and take in all the day has to offer.”
Kirkpatrick said she “highly encourages” other women to participate in the race, whether they decide to commit to the triathlon, volunteer or just watch.
“I never would have thought I could do a triathlon,” she said.
“It will be very hard to not be inspired by the amazing women that take part in the race,” Kirkpatrick said. “If you’re nervous about doing the whole race, get a team together or join a training group like sheJAMs. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.”
A ‘special’ race
After winning the battle with breast cancer, 40-year-old Kim Wheeler participated in all three legs of the Tri for a Cure for the first time last year.
Wheeler was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 at the age of 34 and has since treated it with various forms of chemotherapy, as well as radiation.
“At the time I learned I had the BRCA2 genetic mutation (breast cancer carrying gene) which can cause other cancers,” said Wheeler, of Topsham, who was diagnosed with appendix cancer last year. She has since had another round of chemotherapy.
Despite her diagnosis, Wheeler did not give up on training for the Tri.
“While on chemo this winter and spring, when I felt like I had the energy, I would walk on the treadmill, ride the stationary bike and use the elliptical machine,” she said. “I was not at my 100 percent energy level; however, it felt good to be working out as I wanted as much normalcy as possible while on chemo.”
She even walked and ran in the Maine Cancer Foundation’s Twilight 5K on June 11 in South Portland just a week after completing another dose of chemotherapy.
She said simply thinking of and training for the race helped her get through her recovery from surgery this past fall and her chemo treatments.
“I received my chemo for breast cancer at Mercy Hospital and they sponsored me by giving me one of their free registrations for my first Tri for a Cure,” said Wheeler.
Wheeler said her experience with cancer has truly inspired her to help find a cure. Her goal this year is to raise $1,500 to fight cancer in Maine.
“Participating in the Tri for a Cure allows me to be able to raise money for the cause so that others don’t have to go through what I experienced,” she said.
Her favorite part of the event is the support the participants receive, whether it’s from other sheJAMs members, friends, family, or race spectators.
She encourages other women to participate in the Tri for the “great camaraderie,” and says “it is a great feeling of accomplishment to know that all of the training and fundraising has paid off.”
And this year is no different. Wheeler said she looks forward to swimming, biking and running with hundreds of other triathletes, and seeing her family and friends cheer her on as she crosses the finish line.
“I completed chemotherapy the first week in June, just seven weeks before the 2015 Tri,” she said, “so crossing the finish line will be even that much more special to me this year.”
Her advice for other women who are thinking of doing the triathlon is to “think positive that you can do a triathlon with training. No matter how old you are, with hard work and a little determination, anyone can complete a Tri.”
Kelly Kirkpatrick, a Gorham resident, rides her bike during Tri for a Cure in 2014. Courtesy photoKim Wheeler of Topsham participates in the running portion of the 2014 Tri for a Cure. Courtesy photo Freeport’s Staci Olson, 38, finished ninth in her division and 39th overall (of 605 individual competitors) in a time of 1:29:14.2 in the 2014 Tri for a Cure.Staff photo by Adam Birt