LEWISTON, Maine — Jolene Schatz had a double mastectomy 18 months ago, just in case. Doctors had warned her: Breast cancer was so common in her family, it was probably just a matter of time.
“They said she would get cancer if she didn’t do anything about it,” said her husband, Jonathan.
The Old Orchard Beach couple drove up to the Dempsey Challenge last year, but she wasn’t able to walk, still recovering from a complication of surgery.
On Saturday, they were there bright and early.
At 6:30 a.m., the pair was at the starting line in wild pink hats and pink shirts and with pink stars on their cheeks. The back of his shirt bore the names of 14 people who had battled or lost to cancer.
“Now it’s going to be a tradition in our family; we love this cause,” said Jolene, 38. “Just being a part of something that’s so important, to me, it just makes me feel very good.”
An estimated 2,400 people took part in the 5-kilometer and 10-kilometer walk-runs on Saturday morning, the kickoff for the fifth annual Dempsey Challenge. It’s the primary fundraiser for the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing. While the fundraising total won’t be announced until Sunday, organizers teased that for the second year, walkers, bikers and runners had raised more than $1 million.
As the starting line crowd started to swell, actor Patrick Dempsey cheered and waved from a nearby stage and declared it “good to be home.”
“You never knew it was going to happen,” said Dempsey when asked by an emcee whether he had envisioned the event becoming so large. “I think it’s a real testament to the community. We own this together; it’s ours.”
His namesake center provides help free of charge to thousands every year: those fighting cancer, survivors and their families.
Dempsey joked with the crowd and praised its “phenomenal job, once again.”
“I love coming home because everybody is open,” he said. “Everybody has got a great story. Everybody has got a great heart.”
He awarded the first annual college challenge cup to Bates College, which had competed with Colby and Bowdoin to see who could draw more participants. One hundred people from Bates raised more than $30,000, which will be matched by the youth-oriented group Positive Tracks.
“What did Bates do? They beat Bowdoin very badly,” Dempsey teased.
He accepted a cap and shirt and posed with students, Bates President Clayton Spencer and mascot Bob the Cat.
Challenge participants turned out from 34 states and seven countries. They included 16 cyclists from Greenville, N.C. who rode 1,300 miles to be there as part of the Challenge to Conquer Cancer team.
Katy Romano of Atlanta, Ga., raised $22,880, setting a new individual record. Team McKesson, a local company, was the top team fundraiser at $37,627.
The Clover Health Care team raised more than $2,000, many of them dressed in vibrant tutus for the run. Preschoolers designed the back of their shirts, making up a story about “the adventures of Dempsey girl.”
“I love everything the center has to offer,” said team member Christine Foss of Lewiston, who was running the 10K and planning to bike on Sunday.
Dee Hymel of Morgan City, La., and Sarah Anderson of Waukesha, Wis., were there for their fourth year. The two met at Gritty McDuff’s in Auburn during the 2010 challenge and have returned together each year since.
“I just love the atmosphere,” Hymel said. “I lost my mom in 2001 [to lung cancer] and I struggled for a long time. After my dad passed, I knew I needed to get over this, move on.”
Reaching out and funding the Dempsey Center online helped.
“I’m doing something so positive,” she said. “It just kind of rejuvenates and rekindles my spirit, and I take it back with me.”
She planned to make her 2014 hotel room reservations for next year’s event before leaving town.
When 8 a.m. arrived, Dempsey and the crowd counted down from 10 for the start of the 5K. It took 9 minutes for everyone to cross the starting line.
Bo Norcross, 16, of Auburn, part of Richard’s Army, and Charlie Burckmyer of Portland, part of the Northeast Bank team, crossed the finish line first.
“My uncle passed away from cancer and it seemed like a great cause,” Burckmyer said. “Bo was leading it; I was just kicking along on his heels.”
After a full day of events on Saturday, 1,100 people were registered to cycle routes along Western Maine in the second half of the challenge Sunday.