LEWISTON – Unlike the previous 11 iterations of the Dempsey Challenge, where thousands of people would congregate in Lewiston to participate in races of varying lengths, this year’s challenge went virtual, allowing people around the world to digitally bike alongside a Stanley Cup champion, a former Boston Marathon winner and Patrick Dempsey himself.

The 12th annual Dempsey Challenge, a run, walk and cycle challenge that raises money to provide free services to cancer patients and their caregivers, kicked off Saturday as thousands of riders from around the world participated in an hour-long ride on a fictional virtual island called Watopia, modeled after a pair of islands in the Pacific Ocean.

You won’t find Watopia on any map or globe that exists in the real world. It only exists in the Zwift app.

Zwift allows people to enter a virtual cycling world where they can ride on multiple courses, participate in group rides alongside other Zwift users across the world, and communicate with each other.

This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Dempsey Center decided to move the annual Dempsey Challenge from outdoors in Lewiston to the virtual world of Zwift.

A handful of special guests, all with ties to the Dempsey Center or Dempsey Challenge, were invited Saturday to Lewiston to be part of an in-person experience on the Zwift app.

Kyle Rancourt, right, of Lewiston helps set cancer survivor Trevor Maxwell of Cape Elizabeth up with the online platform, Zwift, prior to the start of the Dempsey Challenge Zwift Ride at the Dempsey Center in Lewiston on Saturday. Rancourt is on the steering committee of the Dempsey Challenge. When the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the traditional Dempsey Challenge, Rancourt mentioned having a virtual bike event on Zwift. “They ran with the idea,” said Rancourt. About 2500 cyclists from around the world joined Patrick Dempsey on Saturday’s Zwift ride. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Dempsey was joined Saturday at the center by Kyle Rancourt, a steering committee member of the Dempsey Challenge; Trevor Maxwell, a client of the Dempsey Center and founder of the online community, “Man Up To Cancer”; Dr. Lizzie Baker, a cancer survivor and cycling coach for the Dempsey Challenge’s “Training Tuesday” series; and Dennis Richardson, co-captain of the top fundraising team of the Dempsey Challenge and a childhood friend of Dempsey.

The virtual event also invited several celebrity athletes to participate, including Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall, 2018 Boston Marathon winner Desiree Linden, Stanley Cup winner Andrew Ference, and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte, all of whom rode on trainer bikes from their respective homes.

Everyone else joined in on the ride from the comfort of their homes.

The Zwift ride was livestreamed on the Dempsey Center website and hosted by Brad Sohner, a sports commentator from Pittsburgh, and Travis McKenzie, an endurance athlete and co-owner of Musette Restaurant in Kennebunkport.

Sohner said that the goal of the Dempsey Center was to raise $1.5 million over the weekend challenge, which would break the record of previous year’s fundraisers.

As of Saturday evening, $968,299 had been raised.

Carmella Petitt, a member of the Dempsey Center’s communications department, said that Poland Spring, a longtime sponsor of the Dempsey Center and currently celebrating its 175th anniversary, agreed to match every dollar raised by Dempsey Challenge participants up to a total of $100,000 from Friday, Sept. 25, to Wednesday, Sept. 30.

“Because of (the pandemic), it’s been much harder to raise money, even though the Dempsey Center needs it more than ever,” Petitt said. “This year, Poland Spring really stepped up. It’s so neat and so needed.”

Periodically, the livestream would cut to the special guests, where Sohner and McKenzie would ask them to share their experience with cancer and their thoughts on the Dempsey Challenge going virtual this year.

Randall, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2018, was biking from her home in Penticton, British Columbia, and said that being diagnosed with cancer just after winning a gold medal in the Olympics was “like going from one of the biggest highs of my life to the greatest shock.”

She said that she was getting ready for bed one night when she found a pea-sized lump that “didn’t feel quite right, but was easy to dismiss.”

“I got it checked and it was an aggressive type of breast cancer that I likely had while I was competing in the Olympics,” Randall said.

At that point, Randall said that her “athlete frame of mind took over.”

Cancer survivor Trevor Maxwell of Cape Elizabeth is one of the very few that road a mountain bike during the Dempsey Challenge Zwift Ride at the Dempsey Center in Lewiston on Saturday. “I’m in the ride, but I can’t go fast,” said Maxwell. “But that’s not the point. The point is to be here.” Maxwell was diagnosed with cancer in March 2018. “I’m still in treatment. I’m still fighting,” said the husband and father of two daughters. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“I knew that tackling cancer would be like competing for a gold medal,” Randall said. “I knew I’d need a team, to stay positive, and that would help me get to where I needed to go.”

Randall lauded the Zwift app for allowing people from around the world to interact with each other while still social distancing.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” Randall said of her experience with Zwift. “I’m a big team person, despite competing in individual sports, and the fact that we can all do this together — biking, working up a sweat, coming together — even in the middle of a pandemic and in support of an incredible cause is amazing.”

Thousands of miles away, in a room within the Dempsey Center in Lewiston, Travis Maxwell was riding in the same virtual world as Randall and going through his own fight with cancer.

Maxwell has been battling stage IV colon cancer for the last two years, and since then, he has created the group “Man Up To Cancer,” a digital content company and online community meant to inspire men to not isolate when they’re going through cancer.

Maxwell said that while physical activity is a huge part of staying healthy while fighting cancer, “you have to care about your mental health, too.”

He said that since being diagnosed with cancer, he has had three major surgeries, undergone chemotherapy, and fought “real crushing depression and anxiety.”

“The best thing you can do is reach out for help, and the Dempsey Center was there for me early in my process,” Maxwell said Saturday. “It gave me the tools to battle the mental health issues.”

And then there was Dempsey himself, located in a separate room at the Dempsey Center in Lewiston, but virtually biking alongside thousands of people. Occasionally, someone’s virtual Zwift avatar would bike alongside Dempsey and give him a thumbs up.

Dempsey said that he loved the virtual group atmosphere of Zwift and having people ride up to him in the app to say hello.

“It’s just nice to see people participating from around the world and supporting the center,” Dempsey said. “We’re able to network with other like-minded people and organizations around the world. It’s fun.”

The Dempsey Challenge will continue Sunday on Zwift, with 10-, 25-, 45- and 60-mile virtual rides scheduled throughout the day.


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