Sunday, October 04, 2009

First Dempsey Challenge is a hit

Over the course of a lifetime, we look back to events, and periods of time that represent turning points for us, crucial moments. Sometimes these moments are personal, other times they connect us with something larger than ourselves.

When I decided back in June that I was tired of being overweight, out of shape, and neglectful of maintaining a modicum of fitness, I didn’t think that I’d be riding in an event that would be a major fundraiser for cancer awareness, supporting families and cancer survivors. I also didn’t even consider that I’d be part of a team made up mainly of family members and riding in memory of my late father in law, someone who had a real impact, albeit a delayed one, on my life.

Patrick Dempsey is an A-list celebrity, best known as Dr. Derek Shepherd, on Grey’s Anatomy. What many people outside of Maine don’t know is that he grew up in tiny Buckfield, Maine, a community that is easily missed, unless you have a reason to turn off busy Route 4 and head west into the center of town. Like similar communities in rural Maine, the economic changes and shifts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have all but removed any vestiges of local trade and industry. The town is now a bedroom community for Lewiston/Auburn to the southeast.

While Dempsey’s star has risen far beyond the tiny hamlet where he grew up, he obviously hasn’t forgotten his roots. Like almost all of us that have been touched by cancer in some way, this vicious disease struck his mother in 1997, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was successfully treated, but the cancer returned twice, requiring further treatment.

His mother is doing fine today, living an active, healthy life, but Dempsey wanted to do something more for others. His own experience with his mother helped him to realize that access to good, reliable resources are essential in helping not only the cancer patient, but also members of the family, as well as caretakers. Because of this experience, Dempsey decided to give something important back to the very community that helped his mother through her journey to recovery and health. As a result, The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing was born.

In an attempt to generate funding, as well as continue to raise awareness about the center and what it has to offer, Dempsey announced in early 2009, The Dempsey Challenge, a bike ride of varying lengths—100, 50, 25, and 10 mile rides, as well as a run and a walk as part of the festivities.

Celebrities are notorious for lending their name to causes, and having little, or nothing to do with the event. Occasionally, they make a cameo appearance, the crowd ogles, and goes “ga, ga,” and that’s about it. The star gets some positive press, and hopefully a bit of money makes its way into the till of whatever organization is running the benefit event.

Not only did Patrick Dempsey do more than make a token appearance and then dart out, he was an active participant, riding 50 miles, and bringing along fellow cycling rock stars, George Hincapie, and David Zabriskie to accompany him on his ride. In fact, Dempsey, a competitive cyclist, was out on Maine’s back roads, along with world class athletes Zabriskie, and Hincapie on Saturday during the day’s steady rain and occasional downpours, warming up for The Dempsey Challenge ride, happening on Sunday.

Our own Team Tarazzmatazz contingent were in the parking lot by about 7:00 a.m. and it was a good thing, as the parking area on the corner of Lincoln and Main was nearly full and about 20 minutes later, was at capacity. As my wife and team captain, Mary said, “cyclists get out early.”

After Saturday’s torrential rains, and late night lightning and thunderstorms, the fact that it was not raining, and merely overcast was a portent positive for riding. The mood was festive and by 7:30, there were already long lines for the row of Porta Potties lined up against the former Grand Trunk Railroad Depot, on Beech Street.

As the 8:00 a.m. starting time approached, a couple of thousand cyclists were jammed into the staging area along Oxford Street, waiting for the 100-milers to go out, and then the 50-mile group (which included Dempsey and Co.), and then the three biking members of our team, riding the 25-miler. Even a slight delay of five minutes couldn’t dampen the positive energy of the riders.

[staging area packed tight before the start of The Dempsey Challenge ride]

I was feeling a few butterflies, which reminded me of what it once felt like, back in the day, when I was still pitching semi-pro baseball, and that feeling in the pit of my stomach that always arrived minutes right before I threw my first pitch.

Mary, Rosie (a friend from work), and I were eager to be on our way, headed out on the course, along with others nearby. About 8:20, we got the word that the 25-mile group could begin moving forward, and like water surging over a dam, our group was off.

The course was very well designed, and the initial part of the route was marvelous, with Auburn’s finest making sure that the early stage of our ride was free of automobile interference. There were a few challenging hills early in the ride, but by-and-large, the route was not overly taxing for Mary and I, since we’ve been riding most of the summer, and training religiously for this ride since July. It was really special to see so many people out on their lawns, and along the early parts of the ride, cheering the riders on, shouting encouragement, and offering personal messages via handmade signs.

Not only were there 3,500 participants biking, running, and walking, there were also several hundred volunteers, all offering a smile, a word of encouragement, and even a drink, or a snack.

One of the takeaways from The Dempsey Challenge’s maiden voyage is that it couldn’t have been located in a better community. To those coming in from outside, like Mary, a representative from Amgen, one of the event’s major sponsors (along with Mercedez-Benz), her first experience in Lewiston was an overwhelmingly positive one. As we chatted in line, waiting to pick up our lobster dinner, she told me how impressed she was with Lewiston, the enthusiasm of the participants, and how beautiful she found the early fall foliage. Hailing from Thousand Oaks, California, and having grown up in Portland, Oregon, Mary told me that she was very impressed during her first visit, including a wonderful meal on Saturday, at Fishbones, one several great restaurants that now dot the community.

Lewiston and surrounding communities have embraced this first time event with a great deal of enthusiasm. To have 3,500 sign up to take part the very first year, and to have assemble such a strong organization enabling such a great event the first time makes me excited for next year’s 2nd go round, as it can only get better.

Today was special for me, personally, as the day was infused with meaning as a member of Team Tarazzmatazz. The family connection was important, as all of us were participating in memory of Joe, Mary’s dad. Also, Mary and I had gotten fit through training to ride, with me losing 40 pounds, and Mary 25.Lastly, the fact that a local boy that’s found fame far beyond his hometown, yet hasn’t forgotten where he came from, and even that despite somewhat dire weather predictions, only a few sprinkles fell on the festivities, made this one of the best events I’ve participated in for a long time.

I leave you with the saying that Mary had printed on the front of our Team Tarazzmatazz t-shirts we wore, in memory of Joe T, “remember the good times.” This is one time that I’ll savor and keep with me for years to come.

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[Mary and I after our ride]

[Participants enjoying themselves at Simard-Payne Police Memorial Park]


Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Jim and Mary and the whole Team! Looks like it was an incredible event, and you both did a terrific job. Wish I could have been there to ride with you. All the best, Anne

Jonathan Braden said...

AWESOME work Jim & Mary!!!! You guys are looking GREAT!!! I can't wait to start working off some of this Texas summer weight with some running. It's strange down here how the heavy season is in the summer - between 100 degrees, countless BBQ's, and very little movement, it's hard to stay in shape. Keep it up!

Jim said...

@ Anne

Thanks for the comment. I didn't think I'd become so passionate about cycling, but the more I do it, the more I enjoy the time it affords to think, see the countryside, and back roads of Maine, and you can't beat the calorie burn.

Hope things are well with you in the Pacific Northwest.

@ Jonathan

I watch the national weather almost every day and think of you when I see the temperatures posted for Dallas and Houston.

We're headed for our own "heavy season," and the dark days of winter. I guess I'll have to break down and join the gym, as I'm committed to staying in shape.

Looking forward to catching up with you Friday, at Gritty's.