Run with Donna 26.2 – Jacksonville Beach, Florida (February 14, 2016)

Billed as the National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer, this race series (half, full, and ultra) consists of a course that runs through upscale beachfront communities beginning in Ponte Vedra and encompassing the neighborhoods of Jacksonville, Neptune, and Atlantic Beaches and then back again, ending with an uphill across the intracoastal waterway bridge to the finish line at the Mayo Clinic.

I did this marathon back in 2009 and thought it was time to try it again. I remembered the race as a lively romp through lots of friendly neighborhoods. There was even a section on part of a sandy beach with a clear view of the Atlantic Ocean – breezy but pleasant. I was extremely impressed with the number of people who had set up impromptu aid stations with drinks, snacks, and music. Even though I finished in just under 6 hours, there were enough runners ahead of me that I never had to worry about getting lost. This year some of those things had changed. There was no more running on the beach and racers were sparse during the second half of the course.

So this year, instead of my usual Austin marathon excursion, I decided to attempt Donna again. On Saturday Darcy and I drove to downtown Jacksonville for the expo at the Prime Osborn Convention Center. It is tricky to drive around JAX so I was glad that Darcy had done his usual homework and knew exactly how to get there and then to our host hotel, the Sawgrass Marriott in Ponte Vedra. The expo had the usual vendors selling running gear plus a number of health and medical booths with useful information (Mayo Clinic JAX is one of the major sponsors). It was easy to get my bib, backpack, and long sleeve tech shirt (pink, of course) and then wander around the various vendors looking at stuff and nibbling on free samples of chocolate covered popcorn and wine.

The Sawgrass Marriott is a golf resort, very pricey (with a daily resort fee) but pristine and attractive. There were a few perks for staying there. For one thing, the start line is a relatively short walk away from the hotel. We took the back way and climbed up a short ravine to the rear of a strip mall and from there to the start but there is also a way to walk along A1A – no sidewalks but an extensive grassy pathway. Another reason to stay at the Sawgrass is the post-race party for hotel guests. This included light hor d’oeuvres, two complimentary drinks, and entertainment, all conveniently located in the bar.

Darcy scouted out local restaurants but most of the sit-down dining options were beyond our budget, so we opted to shop for meal supplies at a nearby Publix and ate subs (Darcy) and cheese, crackers, and wine (me) for dinner on Saturday. Race morning was cold for Florida, in the mid-40’s, so I dressed warmly, even though I was concerned that six plus hours on the course might warm me up considerably. As it turned out, the day remained fairly cool and I only felt overdressed for that last half hour or so.

Notes on the race and course:

  • We started on time but it was a ‘pulsed’ start, so we organized ourselves into corrals by pace and then each corral was allowed to cross the start line. It was not a long wait, even for the last few corrals (I was with the 6-hour group) – only about 2 minutes between each pulse
  • Jeff Galloway was a guest speaker at the expo and runner, along with his wife Barb, in the marathon. If being surrounded by run-walkers is your definition of misery, the first 7 miles (until the half marathoners peel off) will be very unpleasant. It was difficult time getting around the run-walkers when they begin their shuffle/walk, especially when they form a wall of 4 or more around the pacer group leader. I was relieved when the majority made the turn at their half way point
  • The course was completely flat except for the last couple of miles when we climbed along a highway overpass and across a bridge
  • There were large signs with arrows all along the course, plenty of volunteers, police, and course marshals, and numerous aid stations with water, Gatorade, and gels. I was pleased to see that many neighbors still set up informal aid stations with real food. At one, I selected a peanut butter and jelly half sandwich carefully wrapped in a plastic baggie. The only treat missing was candy hearts (though I did see hard candy and chocolate kisses)
  • Most people do the half marathon (3622 finishers) while only 947 people finished the full

After mile 7, the crowd of racers thinned considerably. The route is shaped like a very elongated rectangle and It got pretty lonely until the turn-around at mile 12 ½ – at that point I recognized my friend Matthew and the next 8 miles went by swiftly as we gabbed about race schedules and food and travel. At mile 20, I tried to get him to join me in picking up the pace a little, without success, but I was ready to push hard for that last 10k. I crossed the finish line in 6:13, close enough to 6 hours that I was satisfied. The medal was in the shape of a heart on a bright pink lanyard. There was not much food left by that point – just bananas, mini blueberry muffins, and some hot soup – but Darcy had some chocolate milk for me back in the room, so I was set. We boarded one of the numerous buses at the Mayo Clinic staging area and were driven back to the parking lot at the start.

It was a satisfactory, if somewhat boring, race. The cause was certainly worthwhile and many of the details were handled well (there had been criticism in prior years about bus logistics but those appear to have been resolved). I doubt if I will do it again, at least not for a while, but I am happy to have finished it a second time. With the seven-hour time limit, walkers and back-of-the-pack runners should be able to feel confident doing either the half or the full. There were pacers for the 6:30 and 7 hour racers, a nice touch for those who might be hesitant about their ability to walk a full marathon.


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