If all goes well, Mari Miya of Pownal will complete her fifth Tri for a Cure on Sunday morning, July 29. And like she has for the past four years, she expects to break down and cry when she comes across the finish line.
“It’s a combination of completing it and thinking of those people I’ve lost to cancer,” explains Miya, 63, who is herself a cancer survivor. “It’s a feeling of elation, of accomplishment, and it’s also humbling to be part of this incredible effort.”
In the past four years, the Tri for a Cure triathlon, which begins and ends on the Southern Maine Community College campus, has raised more than $3 million for cancer research and patient support, according to the Maine Cancer Foundation. In that time, the race has grown steadily, to the point where, for the first time, a lottery determined who would get to participate in 2012.
This year, 1,200 women are registered, among them 200 teams of women who will share the one-third-mile swim, the 15-mile bike ride, and the 5K run. In its first year, the race raised $250,000. This year’s goal is to exceed the 2011 total of $1.2 million.
In many ways, the Tri for a Cure has become a social phenomenon in southern Maine. It seems like everyone knows someone who is racing in or volunteering at the Tri. And while the event is the single biggest one-day fundraiser in Maine, according to the Maine Cancer Foundation, its impact goes well beyond the money raised for cancer research.
“It’s really magical. It’s far beyond a race,” says Julie Marchese, who coordinates the race and co-founded it with Abby Bliss in 2008. “It’s an empowerment of women, coming together for a cause.”
Marchese, 52, and a cancer survivor herself, patterned the Tri for a Cure after a sprint triathlon that she and some friends had raced in 2006 in Massachusetts. A member of the Maine Cancer Foundation’s board of directors, she says she presented the idea to the board as an alternative to the more traditional golf tournament they’d put on in the past.
From her own experience, Marchese knew that this race could be much more than a way to raise money, because of its emphasis on creating health, supporting women cancer survivors, and literally changing the way participants think about themselves.
“For 70-80 percent of participants, this is their first triathlon ever,” says Meredith Strang Burgess, who has participated each of the last four years. “First they say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m doing this.’ Then they say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I just did that.’”
Burgess holds a special distinction in each year’s race. Being a cancer survivor, she starts with the first wave of swimmers. But she will not cross the finish line until the last runner/walker has finished ahead of her. She purposely finishes last to support those who may be lagging behind or may feel as if they can’t complete the race. Burgess was a competitive swimmer in college, but now she revels in the chance to support others. She got the idea to finish last during her first triathlon in 2006 in Massachusetts. She says she pedaled up beside a biker who had gotten off her bike and was despairing that she wasn’t going to make it.
“We walked up the hill together and I told her, ‘You’ve already won your race. You’re here!’ That’s how I feel now. I’ve already won my race.”
Marchese says the emphasis on supporting cancer survivors is what separates the Tri for a Cure from other fundraising events. The day before race day, there is a yoga session for survivors on the beach, and after that, a survivor breakfast. Cancer survivors also get to register first. And on race day, survivors are the first wave of swimmers to leave the beach.
“So many fundraisers don’t connect you with cancer,” Marchese says. “We talk about it, we have survivors go first. We make cancer real. That’s what resonates with people.”
The volunteer network, which numbers more than 450 on race day, also resonates with participants and the thousands of spectators who will line the course. David Marchese, Julie’s husband, has been the volunteer coordinator in year’s past. This year, he says he has stepped back a bit and let others take the lead. He will still be there, however, not only on race day, but on setup day (Friday) and on expo day (Saturday), when participants pick up their race packets, check out all the vendors on hand, and cheer on the participants in the kids’ fun run.
“One year we were putting up banners at midnight and back out on the course at 4 a.m.” he says. “On race day, we go overboard making people feel safe and comfortable.”
Julie Marchese thinks so many people connect with the Tri for a Cure because it is a challenge, but a doable one, thanks to the training and advice available. In the months leading up to the race, training sessions acquaint participants with the bike course, nutritional considerations, and how to “transition” from one event to the next. The Maine Cancer Foundation sponsors four swim clinics at SMCC to help participants feel prepared to don their wet suits and brave the waters of Casco Bay. The Twilight 5K road race on June 14 acquainted runners with the race course. Social networks spring up, Marchese says, to make training more fun.
“It takes a great effort. You can’t just go out and put on your running shoes,” Marchese says.
Mari Miya says she had to learn to swim to do her first triathlon. An avid biker and runner, she relished the challenge, and now, she says, swimming is her favorite part of the race.
“I’m very slow, but it’s very Zen,” she says.
In 2010, Miya was actually third in the 60-64 age bracket with a respectable time of 2 hours and 17 minutes. But for Miya, who is dedicating this year’s race to the friend she just lost to colon cancer, the race is not about how long it takes to finish. That is a sentiment she shares with many.
“I always say my goal is to finish, but the bigger picture is to raise funds,” she says. “I write the names of people (she’s lost to cancer) on the back of my bib to take them on the journey with me. You just hope it can be different some day.”
Tri for a Cure athlete Mari Miya of Pownal has participated in all Tri for a Cure segments since the beginning.
Meredith Strang Burgess, left, a Tri for a Cure veteran, and Julie Marchese, who helped created the event in 2008. Courtesy photo