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How a breakfast and a bike connected two brave women fighting cancer; Sarah Emerson will ride a bike belonging to the late Elaine Bourne over the finish line at this year’s Tri for a Cure.

In 2017, Sarah Emerson stood on the sidelines at the Tri for a Cure. She was deep into her fight against breast cancer, but she wanted to show her support for the participants. So she made a sign and held it up as women raced past her. “I had chemo on Friday,” the sign said. “You can do this!”

Many of the women running the race stopped to give her back that encouragement. They hugged her, took pictures with her and told her they’d see her on the course the following year. In 2018, Emerson walked into the survivor’s breakfast, an event held the day before the Maine Cancer Foundation’s annual Tri for a Cure. “There were only a few empty seats left and I grabbed one of the last ones,” she says. A few minutes later, another woman slid into the seat next to her and introduced herself as Elaine Bourne.

Sarah Emerson will ride Elaine Bourne’s bike in this year’s Tri for a Cure. “I know she will be with me the entire way.” Photo by Heidi Kirn

Bourne had been training for the 2018 triathlon for months. In September 2016 she’d been diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, a fast moving, aggressive form of the disease. She’d viewed that diagnosis into a call for both acceptance and action. She’d bought herself a beautiful new Trek bike and started training for the Tri’s 15-mile bike ride, the 1/3-mile swim and the 5K, all while working full time and pushing back against cancer. But that May, while running another 5K—Bourne was an avid runner and had run several Beach to Beacons—something felt not quite right. She was winded. She had to take breaks from running.  By June, Bourne learned that her cancer had reached Stage 4 and metastasized to her brain.

But she refused to drop out of the race. She reached out to the Maine Cancer Foundation to ask for help figuring out a way to participate that wouldn’t include all three portions of the triathlon. She was matched her with someone who could do the swim and the bike, but her partner would use her own equipment. Bourne’s shiny new Trek would not be used.

On the July day in 2018 at the survivor’s breakfast, seat-mates Emerson and Bourne spent the morning getting to know each other. They realized they had been treated by the same oncology team. They chatted some more and Emerson was captivated by Bourne’s grace and outlook. Here was the woman who had sat down after her diagnosis and written down this quote by Imam Al-Shafi’i: “My heart is at ease knowing that what was meant for me will never miss me, and that what misses me was never meant for me.” Bourne would die before the month was out, but she was not missing the 2018 Tri for a Cure. Or the chance to make a new connection with Emerson.

“Every time I get on the bike I get a little stronger and feel fueled by her,” Sarah Emerson says of Elaine Bourne. Photo by Heidi Kirn

At the 2019 Tri, Bourne’s bike is scheduled to finally make it across the finish line.  Sarah Emerson will be riding it, thanks to Bourne’s partner of six years, Ken Darby. Bourne and Darby met while working at Volunteers of America Northern New England, where Bourne was the director for group’s Community Mediation Services program. He’d been with her when she started her cancer treatments on Halloween in 2016, traveling with her—and their dog Ivy—to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “Elaine’s only rules were no fanfare, no whining and no drama,” says Darby.

And seemingly, don’t stop. Darby watched her buy the bike and throw herself into training for the Tri. And he’d seen her struggle at that 5K in May of 2018. “She had to walk most of the way and was uncharacteristically winded,” he remembers.

But she still walked the 5K portion of the Tri on July 22, 2018, just three weeks and two days before her death. After she was gone, Darby focused on her friendship and the love and acceptance he’d felt from her over those six years. “But what do you do with the sadness?” he says.

As he grieved, he also faced the practical issue of giving away Bourne’s belongings. “Distributing a loved one’s possessions is never easy,” he says. The bike she’d been so excited about was one of them. He thought about selling it and donating the cash to the Maine Cancer Foundation. But, “that didn’t feel personal enough,” he says. With the foundation, Darby decided it would be better to make the bike available for another participant to ride during the Tri for a Cure. Many cancer survivors were interested in riding the bike across the finish line for this year’s race, but after learning about Emerson’s encounter with Bourne, Darby knew who should be riding it.

As she trained this spring for the race, Emerson said she thought of Bourne’s strength and determination. “It is not easy for my body right now,” she says. “I’m tired and I hurt, but every time I get on the bike I get a little stronger and feel fueled by her. When I want to quit, I take from Elaine’s strength and determination. Riding her bike on race day, the way it was intended to be used, will be extremely emotional. I know she will be with me the entire way.”

Katie Bingham-Smith is a writer, shoe addict and mother living in Bowdoinham. She pays her kids to rub her feet and never turns down anything with caffeine.