Tim Lester and Jeanette Sullivan were on the home stretch of a 50-mile bike ride, about 10 miles northeast of Bend.
The couple of 20 years were participating in the 2007 Tour des Chutes, a popular Central Oregon bicycling event held annually in July to raise money for national and local cancer programs.
Sullivan, a 30-year Bend resident, had been diagnosed four weeks earlier with pancreatic cancer. The cancer was inoperable, her prognosis grave.
Knowing that Sullivan was feeling ill, Lester took a long turn riding in front, providing a draft to make the going easier on his partner pedaling behind.
But Sullivan was not one to take the easy road home.
“Toward the end of (the ride), I thought, ‘Jeanette needs a little help,’ so I was pulling her back this side of Redmond,” Lester recalls. “Then,” he continues, “she went out ahead of me and just plain dropped me for the last 10 miles. I thought, ‘That amazingly wonderful, strong woman. She’s on her own, and she’s going to finish strong.’”
The 2007 Tour des Chutes was the last time Sullivan rode her bike. She died 11 months later — this past June 15 — at her home on Bend’s west side. She was 59.
When mourners visited the Lester-Sullivan home in the week after her passing, they saw displayed along either side of the driveway dozens and dozens of T-shirts collected from Sullivan’s nearly three decades of endurance racing. Posters from bygone races were tacked to the sides of the house and to the deck railing, and trophies were stacked on the wooden steps leading to the front porch.
But her life won’t be remembered in racing memorabilia.
Her lasting mark is how she inspired others — whether sharing a passion for exercise with young people, motivating and encouraging her many friends, or helping to ensure that the Tour des Chutes continues for years to come.
Just this month, the Central Oregon Running Klub (CORK) named a high school running scholarship in her honor.
“Jeanette is part of why Bend is the way it is,” says Gary Bonacker, a longtime friend of Sullivan’s and the creator of the Tour des Chutes. “She stirred interest in other people to get involved with sports — and in particular, triathlon.”
In her will, Sullivan left financial contributions — their recipients call them “major” — to both the Tour des Chutes and the Bend Metro Park and Recreation District. Funds from the park district endowment will be earmarked to provide scholarships allowing low-income families to participate in the district’s programs.
Bonacker declines to reveal the amount of Sullivan’s donation to the Tour des Chutes, saying only that the sum was “an amazing gift” that will be used to secure the financial future of the fundraising event, and that will eventually be tapped to assist local cancer treatment programs.
“She wanted to help (Bonacker) and do something for cancer research, to do something that had an athletic aspect here in Bend,” Lester explains.
“Something that we did together as our last ride.”
A way of life
For Sullivan, training and racing were never hobbies. They were a way of life.
“She was about as enthusiastic an exercise person as you could ever meet,” remembers John Sullivan, of Redmond. He and Jeanette were married for 13 years before divorcing in the mid-1980s.
“I watched her go from just starting out before we were married — she played a little tennis and did some jogging — to just thriving on hours of exercise a day. She consumed it.”
The Sullivans moved to Bend from the Eugene area because they loved downhill skiing. Jeanette, a physical education teacher, landed a job at Obsidian Middle School in Redmond. Soon thereafter, Jeanette and John, who were also avid distance runners (Jeanette had completed eight marathons by the time she was 36), joined the nordic ski crowd and began racing. A running injury forced Jeanette to take up swimming and cycling to stay in shape.
“Then she started doing what I thought was the most insane thing I had ever heard of,” recalls Bonacker. “It was called a ‘triathlon.’ I’m thinking, ‘This is nuts.’”
In 1981, Jeanette Sullivan entered her first triathlon, in what was then a little-known trend in sport. Her triathlon debut — a one-mile swim, 50-mile bike ride and 13-mile run — took place in Spokane, Wash.
After completing 10 more triathlons in 1982 and 1983, she applied for and was invited to compete in the 1983 Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii. And in what was her first competition at the Ironman distance (2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run), she finished 64th out of 148 women, in 13 hours, 27 minutes.
“It was the most meaningful experience I’ve had athletically,” Sullivan told the Redmond Spokesman in a story published later that year. “The athletes, the people and friends I made, were the best part.
“It was pure play,” she told the newspaper. “Some talked about it in terms of work. When it becomes work to me, I’ll find something else to do.”
Over the next 20 years, her love of training and racing never did become work.
Sullivan went on to complete 15 more Ironman-distance triathlons — including eight world-championship races in Kona, Hawaii. That was on top of literally hundreds of shorter-distance multisport, running and nordic ski races she entered over the years.
Sullivan’s devotion to Ironman took her to races in Australia, Malaysia and Korea. Among the highlights of her racing career was competing at the inaugural Ironman New Zealand in 1985. There, she won her age group, placed fifth overall among women, and posted a career-best time of 10:54.
Sharing her passion
Jeannette Sullivan and Tim Lester met during the summer of 1988 while riding in a bicycle tour of Oregon. Lester, then recently retired from a 22-year career in the Navy, had been en route to California from Washington when he stopped for lunch near Tacoma and noticed the Oregon ride while flipping through a bike-event booklet.
The ride was to begin the following day, so he immediately called to reserve a spot.
Lester was impressed when, on the second day of the ride, Sullivan rolled into camp declaring triumphantly that she was the first woman to arrive. On the fourth day, Sullivan planned to ride 140 miles from John Day to Bend so she could get a day ahead of the tour. Lester was invited to tag along. (They made it as far as Prineville before too many punctured tubes forced them to hitch a ride to Bend).
“We got here and she swam (at Juniper Pool),” Lester recalls. “Then she took me up to climb the South Sister. She ran up, and I walked. Then we caught up with the bike ride and finished it.”
Lester never made it to California.
In addition to her dedication to exercise, Sullivan was known for her positive, outgoing personality, and for her commitment to sharing her passion for physical fitness with others — especially children. Co-workers at Obsidian Middle School described her as “gung-ho,” and as a woman of “endless energy.”
“Jeanette lived her occupation, and that’s always good to have a mentor like that,” says Lois Northrup, a retired Obsidian administrator. “She did so much just by modeling wellness. I have known several of her ex-students who became interested in marathons. She continued to stay in contact with a lot of them and was an encouraging force with those young people.”
After more than 20 years teaching at Obsidian and 30 years in the profession, Sullivan retired in 2000, though she continued to teach as a substitute.
Known by her friends as an enthusiastic and driven training partner, Sullivan was also regarded as a friendly yet strong-willed competitor.
Jan Hildreth, who was among Sullivan’s closest friends, fondly remembers Sullivan’s frequent 6 a.m. “check-in” calls.
“She’d be at the athletic club and just finished her swim,” says Hildreth. “She’d say, ‘What are you doing for exercise today?’ She would have already swam and run 10 miles, and then we’d meet and run another 10 miles.”
Hildreth says Sullivan hauled around in her car at all times a virtual gym locker, including gear for cycling, running and swimming, along with multiple sets of skis and boots for varying snow conditions.
“She lived to train,” says Paula Buchanan, of Bend, a former pro triathlete and one of Sullivan’s training partners.
“She enjoyed the process and the people,” Buchanan adds. “She was all about people. (At races) she would talk to anybody and everybody.”
Sullivan served as what Buchanan called a “surrogate grandma” to Buchanan’s three young children, and she would often watch the kids at the Buchanan home so that Paula, a working mom, could exercise. Buchanan would return home to find her laundry folded — and her children outside, running laps around the house.
“She loved what she was doing — wholly,” says Bonacker. “That could be getting 23rd place or winning her age group or everything in between. She was a great competitor in that sense. It wasn’t all about winning, but competing and seeing friends at a competition. That was a huge part of who she was.”
Racing with cancer
Sullivan was diagnosed with terminal cancer in June 2007. Two weeks later, and on an all-liquids diet because of the cancer, she competed in what would be her final triathlon: the USA Triathlon Age-Group National Championship in Portland. She placed 19th out of 32 in the women’s 55-59 division.
A year later, she was gone.
Just days after Sullivan’s death, Lester, her longtime life partner, was looking on at the 2008 Pacific Crest Weekend Sports Festival in Sunriver. Since Sullivan’s diagnosis, he had worn a pancreatic cancer awareness wristband. At the finish line in Sunriver, Lester asked Pacific Crest men’s half-ironman winner and pro triathlete Matt Lieto of Bend to carry on Sullivan’s spirit by wearing the purple silicone bracelet. (Some years earlier, says Lieto, it was Sullivan who had encouraged him to move to Bend. She walked into the bike shop in California where Lieto worked and convinced him that Central Oregon was good training ground.)
Lieto wore the band in August at Ironman Canada, and again last month in Hawaii at the Ironman World Championship. Even in death, Sullivan continued to inspire.
“In Hawaii, when the going got tough,” Lieto recounts, “I looked down and tried to remember that this tough lady would have been pushing it in the same conditions — and would have loved to have the opportunity to race there one more time.”
Lester also went to Hawaii in October. The week before the Ironman race, he rode the 112-mile bicycle course while carrying Sullivan’s remains, which he placed in a ceramic jar and packed in what had been Sullivan’s seat-post bike bag. He later spread the ashes in the ocean surf near the race’s swim start.
“The ashes went into the water,” he soberly recalls, “but her spirit stayed.”
Sullivan’s ashes were also sprinkled on her favorite cross-country ski trail at Mount Bachelor, whose snow-dusted slopes can be seen from the picture window in Lester’s living room.
One last ride
Though Sullivan and Lester had participated in the Tour des Chutes in previous years, in 2007 the event took on a whole new meaning.
At the start line, the 700 cyclists who took part in the ride paused for a moment of silence, remembering those whose lives had been affected by cancer.
“I stood there with Jeanette knowing that there was a 1 percent chance that I would be standing there with her the next year,” recalls Lester.
But Sullivan was not one to dwell on the negative. She was about looking forward. She was about action.
“Then we just did the ride,” Lester says. “Because Jeanette was a get-out person.”
There would be nothing halfhearted or easygoing about her final ride. Jeanette Sullivan, as she always did, would cross the finish line strong.
And no doubt, she would inspire a few folks along the way.