Thursday, December 5, 2013
The finish line was just around the bend, a beautiful sight for the final racers in last summer's inaugural Tri for a CURE, a triathlon for women that serves as a fundraiser for cancer research.
A voice of encouragement from behind called out: ''OK, girls. This is what we're gonna do. We'll turn the corner and you've got to run.''
Word had arrived at the finish. Organizers were stalling at the award ceremony.
The crowd of thousands stopped and turned to watch, cheer and clap.
Tears started to flow.
More than three hours after starting, the last of 500 competitors jogged over the finish line. In very last place -- on purpose -- was Meredith Strang Burgess.
Burgess, a state legislator from Cumberland and the owner of an ad agency, is a cancer survivor. She's also in very good shape. But on Sunday, she will finish last again in the Tri for a CURE on the campus of Southern Maine Community College -- a gesture of kindness that captures the spirit of the event.
It's a job she simply loves.
''I can flub-dub along,'' said Burgess. ''I survived cancer. I've already won my race of a lifetime. The rest of this stuff? It's all gravy. This is the most perfect, perfect job for me.''
The field for this year's Tri for a CURE filled in just 26 minutes after registration opened in February. More than 700 women will take on the challenge of a 1/3-mile swim off Spring Point, a 15-mile bike ride through South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, and a 3-mile run. Some 85 percent of the competitors will be first-timers.
The race, founded by triathletes Julie Marchese, a cancer survivor, and Abby Bliss, is intended to get women off the couch and into a workout. Last year, the race raised $250,000 for the Maine Cancer Foundation. About 100 of the competitors are cancer survivors.
''It's kind of what this race is all about. It's not a race, it's an event -- kind of a fitness movement that's given women a goal,'' said Bliss. ''Women who've been overweight or battled cancer, they are coming out of the woodwork. It's a feel-good event.''
Burgess got her idea after she and Marchese completed a triathlon in Massachusetts. There, a woman named Sally Edwards, who is a decorated triathlete, finishes last to save other participants from that fate.
Seemed like the perfect job for Burgess.
''It puts people's mind at ease,'' said Marchese. ''She's so noncompetitive. It's not about her time. It was such a natural for her.
''She's kind of like the cancer celebrity of Maine,'' she said. ''They know her. They know she's kind. They know she gives back. She's just a great face for the race.''
Burgess is the on-course cheerleader, the friendly voice that pulls racers along in their doubtful moments.
She begins the race with the survivors and stays in the water until the last swimmer is done. She'll walk with those who can't run, and tell them that it's OK to walk.
''A lot of women who train for this say, 'I don't want to be last.' They don't care about anything else,'' said Bliss. ''Meredith? She's so carefree. You'll find her on the water for an hour swimming with the last person. She'll loop back on the bike course, talking to women, if she finds herself too far ahead. And she holds the hand of the last person running across the line.''
In the fall of 1999, Burgess began an 18-month battle with breast cancer that led to a bilateral mastectomy. Since then, she has earned a seat in the Legislature and become heavily involved with the Maine Cancer Foundation and the Maine Women's Cancer Fund.
She founded an annual luncheon -- Cure Breast Cancer for ME -- that has raised more than $750,000.
Burgess said she finds joy in helping women have peace of mind that they won't finish last in the triathlon.
''Women are funny. And very self-deprecating,'' she said. ''They say things like, 'Do these jeans make me look fat?' or, 'I look like Shamu the whale when I put my wetsuit on.' Half are funny. Half, we all believe.
''They also say things like, 'I couldn't be in a triathlon, I'd be last,''' she said. ''And if you actually get them together they'll argue. 'No, I'll be last.' 'No, I'm going to be last.'''
Burgess is a strong swimmer, but she has a ''love-hate'' relationship with her bike and doesn't exactly run the run, but does more of a run-walk.
She trains for the triathlon when she can and kicks it up a notch when the legislative session ends.
On Sunday, she will do her thing.
''I've had people try to buy me out and let them be last,'' said Burgess. ''I'm settling into my nice role of being last.''
Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at: