LEWISTON — Here’s what it sounded like when the Dempsey Challenge Weekend got off the ground.
“Oh, that’s tasty,” cooed a woman sampling a sushi roll from Sea 40. “Oh, that’s just delicious.”
“Well, there,” declared a woman who just bought a big heap of jams and jellies. “I guess my Christmas shopping is officially underway.”
“You’ve never had lobster mac and cheese?” thundered an incredulous teenage girl standing in line at Pinky’s Dashboard Diner. “Then you just haven’t lived yet.”
If you wanted it, needed it or simply craved it, you could have probably found it at the Dempsey Challenge Courage Fest Marketplace, which was rocking and rolling Friday at the old Bates Mill atrium.
“We’ve got some really, really good stuff,” said event manager Mark Turcotte. “And every vendor here is local.”
Those vendors were everywhere — upstairs and downstairs, inside and out. They were selling everything from spicy crab to wine, beer and cider. There were 30 vendors in all — and every one of them was donating most or all of the proceeds to the cause.
Standing near the doors, author Kendall Scott was selling copies of her book, “Kicking Cancer in the Kitchen.” When the throngs began pouring in at about 4 p.m., Kendall was pretty much the first person they saw.
That was just fine by her.
“Everybody’s been really friendly,” she said. “It’s a very upbeat event.”
Her book provides personal stories and recipes that Kendall says helped her a great deal when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2008.
“I started making changes to my diet,” she said. “And I felt so much better.”
The festival Friday night was the first of its kind to kick off the Dempsey Challenge. Shelley Stone, one of the leaders of the Courage Fest, says they already had people signed up for booths at next year’s event.
“We’re really pumped,” she said.
By 5:30 p.m., hundreds were milling around, both inside and out. A band had started to play in the lower level and more people kept wandering in.
Among them were Lyle and Lisa Uecker of Kaukauna, Wis. They wouldn’t miss this for anything, they said. For the Ueckers, the Dempsey Challenge is as significant as any other big event.
In 2009, Lyle was diagnosed with lymphoma. The diagnosis came the very same day he got a call from a man announcing that his bicycle, straight from Italy, was ready to go.
“I just hung up the phone,” Lyle said. “I was going to just send the bike back.”
But his wife wouldn’t hear of it. She had stumbled across an ad in a bicycle magazine, announcing the Dempsey Challenge way up in Maine.
“She told me, ‘When you’re cancer-free, we’ll go up there,'” Lyle said.
That was in January. Fast forward to September.
“Two weeks before the Dempsey Challenge, they gave me a scan,” Lyle said. “They said, ‘It’s gone. Go out and live your life.'”
True to her word, Lisa made arrangements for them to travel to Lewiston-Auburn for the challenge.
“We were just waiting for that all-clear,” Lisa said Friday.
The couple has been here every year since. They’ve met Mary and Patrick Dempsey and so many other people, they can’t count them all.
“We’ve made new friends every year,” Lyle said.
He and his wife will both be riding this weekend. On the front of Lyle’s bike hangs the radiation mask he had to wear back in those grim days of 2009.
“Every year, I put that mask on there,” said Lyle, now 46. “It’s just to remind me that I’m here. That I made it through.”
Components of the Dempsey Challenge could be found in several corners of the city throughout the day and into the night.
By mid-afternoon, there was an open house at the Dempsey Center on Lowell Street. At one point, 100 or more people could be seen standing on the sidewalks around the building. There was thunderous applause as one of the riders arrived from South Carolina.
All day, people swarmed Simard/Payne Memorial Park off Lincoln Street, where they picked up their event packets and browsed the merchandise tents.
After nightfall, it was the return of the film, “The Peloton Project” at the Franco-American Heritage Center. Admission: free. Crowds: big. Film: heartwarming, as always.
Later, if you had an ounce of energy left, the official Dempsey Challenge after-party got underway at Gritty’s in Auburn, with live music, Courage Ale and Twenty 2 Vodka. One dollar from every pint of Twenty 2 Vodka Signature drink sold will be donated to the Dempsey Center.
As happens every year, local folks found themselves mingling with people from faraway places — people who were new to the Dempsey Challenge or coming back for the fourth or fifth time.
“So many people come from all over the country — all over the world, really — and we want to give them something that’s uniquely Maine,” said Andrea McNulty, an event assistant who was working the crowds at the Atrium late Friday afternoon.
Well, there was that — from lobster to blueberries, the Friday night event had a definitive Maine flavor. And there’s one more Maine thing — an East Coast thing, really — that will come into play later in the weekend when all those bikes get rolling and all those joggers start hoofing along.
“I’m only good for 10 miles or so,” said Lisa Uecker, who’s accustomed to the flat terrain of her home in Wisconsin. “You guys have hills up here!”