First among the last

First among the last

After Meredith Strang Burgess participated in Tri for a Cure for the first time, she received a note from her minister telling her how proud she was of her for just completing the race, and congratulating her for not giving up.

“Then it hit me that she had seen in the newspaper that I had come in last. We all had such a chuckle out of it,” said Burgess, who was not just last, but decidedly so. At around 3 hours and 45 minutes, her time was about an hour behind the person who came in before her.

“So if you look at it like that in the newspaper, not only am I last but I kept people sitting around for an hour,” said Burgess, who lives in Cumberland.

What the newspaper results didn’t note, however, was that Burgess had the goal of being last. She’s taken last place for the first two years of the Tri and plans to take that honor again this year.

Burgess said she used to be competitive and was in her school’s swim team, but her life changed in September 1999 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. What followed was a year and a half of treatment that included a double mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy.

“I have no desire to win anything,” she said. “I have nothing to prove to anybody. I’ve already proven it. I’m alive.”

In 2006, to celebrate her fifth year since completing treatment, she participated in the Danskin Triathlon in Webster, Mass., with best friend and fellow survivor Julie Marchese. The day before the event, motivational speaker Sally Edwards addressed the crowd and made a pledge to them.

“She said that nobody gets to be last, that she’s last, and it’s this huge relief,” said Burgess. “It’s really hard to explain.”

That event inspired the creation of Tri for a Cure in Maine. Burgess said race directors Marchese and Abby Bliss did the work to make it happen, while her time was taken up with serving in the state Legislature, running a business and taking care of her family. For her part, Burgess, owner of Burgess Advertising and Marketing in Portland, takes on the role of event promoter and designated last person in the race.

Burgess starts the race, which begins with a third of a mile ocean swim, by getting in the water after everyone else has completed that leg. However, her time officially begins with the first wave of swimmers, who enter the water in eight or nine different groups.

Burgess not only makes sure that she’s last, but also works to help other people complete the race. So far, no one who has started the Tri has ever dropped out.

“Usually I catch up with people who are having a hard time. The goal is to get them to finish no matter what,” said Burgess. “I tell them, ‘It’s OK, take your time.’”

She described coming up to a woman having a hard time on the bicycle leg because she had no food or water with her. Burgess stopped with her, found a shady spot to rest and shared some of her own supplies. Last year, she came up to a group of women who were ready to quit and used humor – telling them they needed to run the last stretch to look good crossing the finish line – to help motivate them to continue.

Though other people have told her they want her job, Burgess, who this year celebrates her 10th year since completing treatment, is committed to continuing to be last. In fact, she loves it.

“It’s the best job in the world,” she said.

Meredith Strang Burgess applauds as she crosses the 2009 Tri for a Cure finish line in last place. She is clapping for the person in front of her.

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