A Magical Race: Running 13.1 With Donna

What do you get when you combine more than 6,000 runners and walkers with seemingly hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers, fans, cancer survivors and neighborhood residents out to cheer you on, most of whom were dressed in pink? A marathon & half marathon for a wonderful cause, and a spirit and energy that really brought out the best in people and set the tone for a really wonderful race experience.

That’s what this year’s 26.2 with Donna National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer was like for this runner, anyway. There really was a sea of pink everywhere, from the Runners Village at the start of the race to the runners dressed in pink shirts, tutus, feather boas, skirts, wigs, and bras — and that was just the men. ;)

Begun just a few years ago — this year’s 2011 race was just its fourth annual running — the 26.2 with Donna event is the brainchild of Donna Deegan, a Jacksonville television news anchor who had her own battle with breast cancer several years ago. Her public fight against the disease helped shine a spotlight on the need for more research dollars and for more support for women fighting it every day, and led to her involvement in creating The Donna Foundation and the race that today serves as its major fundraiser.

Heading up the bridge at the first hill of the race, over Jacksonville's Intracoastal Waterway

In a big way, the cause defines the race in a way that to me, was really unprecedented for a running event. Many races donate significant portions of their proceeds to charitable organizations, but few personalize their event in quite the same way as the 26.2 With Donna race — and that’s probably what helps set the tone for the event, which I’d have to say is one of the friendliest races I’ve ever been to.

It’s possible that I was even more aware of that because for me, I very nearly didn’t make it to the race. For starters, I was all set to drive down from Atlanta to Jacksonville with a good friend of mine, but when he came down sick with a sinus infection on the Friday before the race, I was kind of at a crossroads. It would have been absolutely lovely to have stayed around home for the weekend and catch up on rest and errands — it had been a really busy week for me with work — but I said, what the hell, why not? And decided to go ahead and make the race anyway.

One of the many characters out to pump up the runners' enthusiasm

I was in luck as I had a family member who lived within driving distance of Jacksonville and the race start — but driving distance in name only. Little did I know we couldn’t actually drive and park near the start; we had to take shuttle buses from the parking lot to the starting line. And, for kickers, the last bus left at 6:00 AM for the starting line — which, for me to make it in time, meant I was going to get up at… 3:30 AM.

That little fact didn’t sweeten the deal, let me tell you. But, it was a little like a poker game, in that over the course of the weekend, I kept having more “chips on the table” when it came to the race — I’d driven five hours to get down there, paid for the entry fee, picked up supplies for it, so I was running out of reasons not to. Needless to say, I passed up a late-night meal and plenty of wine to go with it on Saturday night and made it out for the race on Sunday.

And I’m so glad I did. As I mentioned, I was there by myself so I thought I’d be a little lonely, but it didn’t take long before I was meeting people also on their way to the start, who just introduced themselves and got me to talking as well. And that’s really what I mean by the tone of friendliness and support and just good, positive energy you feel there — from the gentleman from Iowa I met on the shuttle bus who was there to walk the half marathon with his wife to the woman from Colorado I met who lived at 10,000 feet above sea level and chatted with me as we waited in the 39-degree morning air for the race to start, really everyone was incredibly friendly and generous.

And once the race got started — we started probably 10 minutes late from the scheduled 7:30 AM starting time — we headed out from the Mayo Clinic just south of Jacksonville onto Highway 202. This stretch, which lasts a little over three miles, takes you across the bridge that spans the intra-coastal waterway and features really the only hill of the race, a long and gradual hill that’s somewhat difficult not really for the hill itself but for the sideways incline you experience as the cloverleaf entrance and exit ramp brings you up from San Pablo Road onto Highway 202, also called Butler Boulevard. It’s these entrance and exit ramp stretches — because they seem so long — that are the toughest part of the race, terrain-wise.

Heading out onto Jacksonville Beach, between miles 5 and 6

However, that’s also where plenty of supporters are out to cheer on the runners, if nothing else because that’s when you really need it — especially after miles 2 and 3 along the bridge on the way out turn into 11 and 12 on the way back, and you’re in need of a little inspiration. ;) Fans holding signs and what seemed like hundreds of local college students were out (on a Sunday morning, no less!) to cheer us all on there on the bridge.

Once you’re over the bridge and into the middle part of the race, the course brings you in closer to the city itself, for stretches through the Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach neighborhoods. Palm trees and beach bars and restaurants line the streets as you head between vacation homes on one side of the street and the oceanfront hotels along the other, and thankfully this stretch is as flat as you’d imagine Florida to be.

Runners make their way along the shore of Jacksonville Beach

The real highlight of the course is the run on the sandy beach itself, which you hit between miles 5 and 6 of the half marathon route — pink race signs flapping in the wind let you know that you’re there as you make the turn from the town onto the beach, and then the sea gulls flying just overhead are the sure sign of course that you’re there.

Everyone needs sunglasses here, as the sun was bright and the waves were crashing on the shore, but apparently either through luck or great planning they happened to time it perfectly so the tide was out and there was plenty of hard-packed sand to run on — not the soft, fluffy stuff that otherwise might have been a nightmare to run on.

After the mile 6 point we were back on the road and heading through neighborhoods, and it was really a blast to see all the signs and the people out to cheer everyone on. A few miles later — the second half has a long straightaway stretch for a few miles before bringing runners back to the bridge — we were headed back to the Mayo Clinic, and the race finish.

Once we were all done and finished, I had the pleasure of meeting a man who’d also just finished and told me he’d just celebrated his 80th birthday. I’d actually seen him take a fall on the pavement for a brief moment earlier in the race, but he got up, dusted himself off and kept going. One of the things he told me that left a big impression was that for so many people his age, “they equate retirement with being sedentary.”

That, he added, is the recipe for so much of what ails so many of us health-wise. “When you get to be my age, you gotta keep moving,” he added. “You gotta keep moving.” Wise words indeed.

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