CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — The motivations are varied for the 6,000 runners who will participate in Saturday’s 15th annual TD Beach to Beacon Road Race.
For elite runners, there’s the pursuit of record times and cash prizes. For many others, it’s just the chance to be part of a world-class field while spending a day absorbed within the state’s running community.
For others still, such as 39-year-old Stephanie Cole of Sebec, this experience will represent a reaffirmation of life itself.
Cole will be competing in her first TD Beach to Beacon race just 141 days after undergoing open-heart surgery. And while she doesn’t expect to emerge among the top finishers when she crosses the finish line at Portland Head Light in Fort Williams Park, she likely will be among the day’s biggest winners.
“I’m more than excited about it,” said Cole, an occupational therapist at Mayo Regional Hospital in Dover-Foxcroft. “I can’t wait to run again, and to get my life back.”
Cole, a native of Gray, was born with a congenital heart defect and had open-heart surgery for a pulmonic stenosis repair at Portland’s Maine Medical Center in 1977.
In the aftermath of the surgery, her doctor told her to focus on living a heart-healthy life.
“Thus I began running with my dad when I was 10,” she said. “I’ve been a runner ever since.”
Cole went on to graduate from the University of New England in Biddeford, where she met her husband, Jeffrey, who is now a doctor based at Mayo Regional. Together they moved to Detroit, Mich., where they spent the next 13 years.
Cole continued to run, estimating herself to be an 8-minute miler although for her it wasn’t about the time — it was about maintaining good health.
That wasn’t enough. By October 2010 she was told to stop running after learning the right side of her heart had become enlarged due to the deteriorating condition of the repaired valve.
“I was shocked to have to stop running,” she said. “I’d lived the last 32 years feeling great.”
Cole and her husband moved back to Maine with their daughters, Erica and Ali, in April 2011. As her heart condition worsened, she was referred to the Cleveland Clinic where, after undergoing a week of testing in January, she underwent surgery on March 16 to have a new pulmonic valve installed.
“It was beyond scary, beyond stressful and took lots of faith to get through it,” she said.
Cole recuperated for six weeks before beginning to run again, an experience that initially left her “slow, tired [and] sore.”
Then came another scare.
“My heart rate kept elevating, so [I took] another trip back to Cleveland in July,” she said. “I think I went through every test ever invented, but the blessing was that I was fully cleared to run — no restrictions at all.”
Cole missed the registration deadline for the TD Beach to Beacon, but will make her formal return to running in Maine’s biggest race thanks to Shipyard Brewing Co. owner Fred Forsley. He is a family friend for whom she had worked during her college days. When Forsley learned Cole had missed the registration, he put her on Shipyard’s team for the race.
“Prior to surgery, I asked my doctor [Dr. Robert Stewart, a pediatric cardiac surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic] if I could ever run again,” Cole said. “He was confident I would be running by summer. I dared to dream I might get to run the Beach to Beacon. I told myself if I could run it, I would have my life back. That would be worth all of the stress, pain, fear and expense.”
Cole has been training at a 10-minute-per-mile pace, and while she hopes to maintain that level amid the warm, muggy conditions anticipated for Saturday’s race, it’s not the time that ultimately will matter.
“I expect the race will take about 65 minutes, and that’s OK,” she said. “I just know I will be back to me when I cross the line.”