SOUTH PORTLAND – Sharon Leddy-Smart crossed the finish line of Sunday’s Tri for a Cure triathlon somewhere in the middle of the pack. Her exact place didn’t matter. Neither did her time. What mattered was who was waiting for her at the end.

“I’m not a crier,” she said later. “But I didn’t expect that.”

It’s a safe guess that each of the more than 1,100 participants in the 5th annual Tri for a Cure fundraiser has been touched by cancer in some way. Many are survivors. Some have loved ones battling the disease. Others have lost loved ones to the disease. They all have a story.

Leddy-Smart’s story began five years ago, when the South Portland mother of five was recruited to participate in the cancer research fundraiser by a friend who helped organize the event.

“I usually say ‘I’ll try anything,’ and I wanted to support my friends,” she said.

The Tri for a Cure features an ocean swim of one-third of a mile, a 15-mile bike ride through South Portland and a 5K run that ends on the Southern Maine Community College campus.

Leddy-Smart, 45, trained for weeks with her friends and completed that inaugural race in 2008.

“I think it was harder than I thought,” she said. “The distances individually are manageable, but when you put them together, that’s when it gets tough.”

Her experience was enough to convince her to sign up the next year. Like before, she trained in advance of the race. Two weeks before the event, though, she went to the doctor. The cause of the race she had been training for was now her cause. She had breast cancer.

“I didn’t think I would be able to do the race that year, but I did,” Leddy-Smart said. “It was a strange feeling, though, because at that point I didn’t know what my path would look like. I didn’t know what I was up against. I was participating with all these survivors and it seemed like they were in a tunnel and I was so far away.”

A few weeks after her second race in 2009, Leddy-Smart had a bilateral mastectomy to remove the cancer from her breasts. Radiation and chemotherapy followed and, eventually, reconstructive surgery. As she progressed with her treatment, she looked forward to the Tri for a Cure every year as a source of inspiration. Whatever she was going through, there was always someone else involved with the event who had it worse.

“I tell people that it’s really just a chapter in your life,” she said. “It will pass. And when it does, you come out stronger, you have a better appreciation for life, for your friends and family.”

The hardest part of her diagnosis was telling her children. The older ones understood, but her twins, who were 4 years old at the time, had a harder time.

“I told them everything that needs to be done is happening. I said there would be days where I wouldn’t feel wonderful and won’t have energy to do the things we normally do, but those days will pass, we’ll get it through it as a family.”

One day during Leddy-Smart’s recovery stands out. She was getting ready for work, brushing her teeth and putting on makeup. She had lost most of her hair to chemotherapy and didn’t look like herself. Her daughter, Ava, who was 5 at the time, was in the bathroom with her.

“I don’t know what popped into her head, but as kids do, she started asking all these questions,” Leddy-Smart said.

Ava asked if Thomas (her 16-year-old brother) had cancer. Her mom said no.

Does Kaeli (her 14-year-old sister) have cancer, she asked. No. Does Sydney (her 12-year-old sister) have cancer? No. Does Jack (her twin brother) have cancer? No.

Then, there was a pause.

“Mommy,” Ava asked. “Will I get cancer?”

Leddy-Smart, who doesn’t cry easily, swallowed a lump in her throat. She told her daughter she hoped that she would never get cancer.

“What I wanted to be able to say was, ‘of course, you’ll never get cancer,'” the mother said.

She thought of the Tri for a Cure. She thought of the importance of funding research for new treatment and medicine and, just maybe, a cure.

Fast-forward and Leddy-Smart is the top fundraiser for this year’s event. She raised more than $10,000 from friends, businesses and strangers. In total, more than $1 million was raised for the Maine Cancer Foundation, which uses that money to award grants for research projects related to cancer. In five years, the event has raised more than $5 million.

Julie Marchese, one of two co-founders of Tri for a Cure, said the race has evolved each year and has become a celebration of the strength of women.

Tara Hall, executive director of the cancer foundation, said the money raised in the last five years has been nothing short of spectacular and is particularly noteworthy because every dollar stays in Maine to support cancer research at places like the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.

As this year’s race drew closer and Leddy-Smart continued her torrid fundraising pace, she got a call from her cousin, Samantha Smith of Falmouth. Smith had bad news. She had just been diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, and had started treatment.

Leddy-Smart invited Smith to the race. She made arrangements for her cousin to sit in the VIP tent near the finish line.

“She’s on the emotional roller-coaster ride that all cancer patients have been on, and it’s really difficult,” Leddy-Smart said. “This is such a motivating and inspiring event. I wanted her to see it.”

As Smith waited for Leddy-Smart to finish the grueling swim-bike-run, she talked about the last few months.

“I decided I wasn’t going to let myself feel down,” Smith, 44, said. “I looked to Sharon. She’s been a rock star. I told her I wanted to be like her.”

Leddy-Smart was on the homestretch late Sunday morning, running at a brisk pace, a determined look on her face. She crossed the finish line and there was Smith, not sitting in the wheelchair that she’s been using for the last several weeks, but standing. Proud.

Smith held a medal in her hands. All Tri for a Cure finishers get one. Usually, it’s a volunteer who hands them out. Smith got to hang the medal around Leddy-Smart’s neck. They hugged and cried.

“I knew she was going to be here,” Leddy-Smart said after the race. “But I didn’t know she would literally be standing here with my medal. I wasn’t prepared for that.”

Next year, Leddy-Smart is almost certain to compete in her sixth Tri for a Cure.

If her body lets her, Smith said, she will, too.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.