This year’s Peaks to Portland, a 2.4 miles swim through Casco Bay will be held virtually due to a prohibition of large-scale events this summer due to COVID-19. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — Merry Farnum has competed in 32 Peaks to Portland races, but this year’s event will be unlike any other she has taken part in.

The 2.4-mile swim from Peaks Island to East End Beach, which predates World War II and has been a major fundraiser for the YMCA of Southern Maine for the last 38 years, will be held virtually this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. The event has raised between $900,000 and $1 million over the past five years, and the YMCA hopes the change won’t negatively impact the fundraising that it relies on, said Helen Breña, president and CEO.

When Farnum, a Falmouth resident, heard the race was being held virtually she was disappointed, she said, but she remains committed to raising money for the YMCA. Proceeds from the race go toward financial assistance for families who cannot afford summer camps, day care, after-school care and other youth programming.

“I know the Y really depends on the money year after year. I believe in the scholarships for the kids,” she said.

Each swimmer must collect at least $125 in pledges to participate. Last year, the more than 450 participants raised $200,000, which went toward providing financial aid to more than 1,000 children in 2019.

Genevieve Worthley, of Portland, runs up on to East End Beach on her way to placing first in the women’s division at the annual Peaks to Portland swim last year. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

Breña said she is “not quite sure what to expect” this year in terms of how much money will be raised or how many swimmers will participate. Sign-ups are still available.

Offering financial assistance is important for the YMCA because it does turn kids away based on their families’ ability to pay, she said. Last year it provided more than $1.2 million in financial assistance for child care, summer camp, swim lessons, early childhood education and more.

“Peaks to Portland is a huge fundraiser for us in being able to provide financial assistance for all kids,” Breña said.

The fundraiser is even more critical this year because with the pandemic, many families are facing financial insecurity, she said.

Instead of swimming the 2.4 miles en masse from Peaks Island to East End Beach, participants this year will log that distance over a 25-day period from July 1 to July 25, the day the event was supposed to be held. The distance can be broken into shorter swims and done in any body of water.

Valerie Levanos, a Cape Elizabeth resident participating in her first Peaks to Portland this year, has raised more than $1,300 so far.

Levanos has never done an open swim before, but was convinced to do so through a swim endurance class she was taking to rebound from a running injury.

She is sad she won’t be able to experience her first Peaks to Portland with a field of other swimmers.

“It makes me nervous,” she said of doing the swim on her own. “Having the support of the other swimmers was going to hep me swim across the bay.”

Farnum said she’ll miss being with the other swimmers, too, but noted the participating in the race virtually will take the pressure off trying to keep up with others. Raising the money, she said, will still be a challenge.

“Swimming is the easy part. It’s raising the money and the training that is difficult,” she said.

Swimmers line up for their heats on Peaks Island for the 2019 Peaks to Portland Swim. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Levanos has decided not to cut her swim into shorter legs.

“I’ve never done something like this, but part of the challenge is doing it in one fell swoop,” she said.

Farnum said she plans on swimming around Clapboard Island, a small island just off Falmouth Foreside.

Breña said she hopes the fact the Peaks to Portland can be completed in smaller intervals will encourage more people to participate.

“There is a lot of people who want to help us, but don’t particularly think they can swim 2.4 miles all at once. We are hoping there will be folks who haven’t done it before who can now take on the challenge,” Breña said.

The swim dates back to the 1920s, but was discontinued during World War II over fears there were naval mines along the route. The race has served as a fundraiser for the YMCA since 1982.

“People have been deeply connected to the race because of the challenge, but also because of the cause and what it is for,” Breña said

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