South Portland triathlon pushes personal limits

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Nearly 1,000 women are registered to take part in the third annual Tri for a Cure on Saturday, Aug. 15.

The majority of them, race director Julie Marchese said, have never participated in a triathlon.

“Each year, 85 percent of our women have never done a triathlon before,” Marchese said. “This has taken Maine women off the couch and out to change the health and wellness of themselves.”

The race will begin with a 1/3-mile swim near Spring Point at Southern Maine Community College. Once they reach land, participants will embark on a 15-mile bike ride along Sawyer Road to Cape Elizabeth and back to South Portland along Ocean House Road.

The race concludes with a three-mile run through a course east of Preble Street. 

While awards will given to the top three finishers in 14 different categories, Marchese said the spirit of competition is more inwardly focused.

“It’s about self-accomplishment,” she said. “It’s about how you did it and how it felt. It’s not about what the other women did.”

And Marchese would know. She entered her first triathlon at the age of 45, one year after being diagnosed with breast cancer, just to prove she could do it.

At the time, Marchese said she hadn’t been swimming in four years or biked in about 30 years.

“Five years ago, I couldn’t run a quarter of a mile,” she said.

On Aug. 1, Marchese, now 50, added another feather in her cap: she placed fourth in her age group in her first half Ironman competition in California.

“I just tagged a half a marathon at the end of a 50-mile bike,” she said. “I’m just basking in my glory to know I could ever do that.”

It’s that inner drive to overcome perceived limitations that has made the Tri for the Cure such a popular event.

About 100 of the 950 athletes are cancer survivors.

About 150 more athletes are participating than last year. While 800 slots were filled in 26 minutes last year, it took only a fraction of that time this year when registration opened at midnight on Feb. 1: eight minutes.

This is the first year that athletes have had to raise a minimum of $250 to compete. As of Tuesday, participants had raised about $500,000 toward the event goal of $650,000.

Fundraising was optional in the previous two years, but that didn’t stop athletes from collecting donations. Last year’s event netted $425,000.

Proceeds from the event benefit the Maine Cancer Foundation, a Portland-based nonprofit founded in 1976 to provide research grants, education and patient support grants in Maine.

MCF Executive Director Susan Rowan said last year’s triathlon allowed the foundation to award eight research grants, totalling $650,000 – about twice as many as the previous year.

“(The event) has boosted our overall annual giving, enabling us to award more grants for cancer research,” Rowan said. “It’s great, because we’re really trying to advance cancer research throughout the state.”

Although the number of participants is limited, Rowan said there are no plans in the works to move the event to accommodate more athletes.

Last year, the group kept a waiting list, but never had the opportunity to use it, because very few athletes dropped out.

Organizers, however, are trying to find more ways to include family members of athletes.

On Saturday, Aug. 14, there will be two events for kids. At 10 a.m. there will be a Kids Fun Run, where children ages 4-10 can race distances varying from 100 yards to a mile.

At 11 a.m. there will be a Youth Aqua/Run, where kids ages 10-15 will swim 100 feet parallel to the shore in waist-deep water and run about a mile to the finish line.

In addition to the support of Southern Maine Community College, Rowan said the event has been embraced by the community, noting that many neighborhoods hold parties and decorate their front lawns during the race.

Davis Street, Fort Road, Benjamin Pickett Street and Surfsite Road will be closed from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. for the race.

“There’s been a tremendous outpouring of community support,” Marchese said. “They make a little festival out of it.”

Beth Vose-Gimbel is one of several people who will be decorating on Sawyer Street to show support for both the athletes and the Maine Cancer Foundation.

Vose-Gimbel, whose friend and sister-in-law are battling breast cancer, said their theme will be “anything pink,” the color associated with breast cancer awareness.

“I wanted to do something, but I’m not a doctor or a scientist,” she said.

There will be people collecting donations for the Maine Cancer Foundation in front of the displays, and Vose-Gimbel will be selling a panoramic shot of last year’s event to go to the cause.

Vose-Gimbel said she has convinced two other neighborhoods to decorate their yards and hopes others will follow.

“I love Maine Cancer (Foundation); they’re so pure,” she said. “I just want to challenge people to get involved.”

For more information about the event, log on to

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or

Sidebar Elements

Bernadet Shaw of Scarborough heads uphill to the first transition area and her waiting bike during the 2009 Tri for a Cure in South Portland. This weekend’s third running of the women’s short triathlon is expected to draw almost 1,000 athletes.