The DONNA Half Marathon had, at long last arrived. It was my first half marathon since I broke my leg and since COVID. Even better, it was a new-to-me event and course, so I was ready for the 13.1 miles and all to come with it.
The Donna Half was also J’s first ever half marathon. I was glad for a big, local event for her: an actual expo, and crowd support with an after-party is a great way to commemorate 13.1 miles and we were there for it.
J picked me up at 1:30 on Saturday to head to the Expo at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds. I can’t remember the last big expo I’ve attended, and this was nice. The venue wasn’t at all busy, and we easily picked up our bibs, bags and shirts, then wandered around the booths. We picked up some complimentary swag (tattoos and balaclavas) and bought RaceDots (super strong magnets to use instead of safety pins to fasten bibs.
The Night Before The Race
From the Expo, we checked into the Margaritaville Hotel Jacksonville Beach. We decided to get a hotel room because it made parking easy, and new would be a quick 1/2 mile from the start and finish line. It was so much easier than getting up super early, driving up from St. Augustine, and dealing with parking and gear. J’s oldest daughter M joined us, and we appointed her our race sherpa. She was a treasure.
After chilling out for a few, we started to make a plan. First, we came to terms with the deteriorating weather. At the beginning of the week, temperatures were as high as 70F, but at this point, it was going to be in the 50s (with a real feel in the 40s), with rain and 20 mph winds. My plan to run in shorts was quickly abandoned.
We went to Target to pick up some extra gear. I packed emergency tights and a rain jacket, but snagged a long sleeve top to layer. J got a similar rain jacket and leg sleeve shirt. My flat runner is completely inaccurate.
From there, we hit Cruisers for burgers and cheese fries. Yum.
At the hotel, we enjoyed some wine in the lobby and then called it a night.
I woke up at 4:45, well before my 5:30 alarm. There was a steady downpour at this point. I showered, and started to layer up. We worked on fueling, loading our pockets, and packing a changed of clothes for M to hold at the finish line. I had so much nervous energy: it was like my first half all over again. We finally got ourselves together, dropped our suitcases at the front desk (no late check out), and began the trudge to the start line.
The Start Line
It was miserable, but I was so happy to see the start line and the Runner’s Village. I had the feeling of reuniting with an old friend. Is that crazy? J has never had this experience, so I enjoyed taking her around (despite the conditions), to show her all the amenities. We were both freezing and miserable, so I was grateful for a distraction.
We visited the portapotties twice, chatted with a friend, and finally made our way to the start line.
I was disappointed to see the crowd was smaller than in years past, but it was still so good to be surrounded by so many runners. We sang the National Anthem, and then the race began. The marathon and half marathon runners all took off together, and it was nice to have some race “normalcy” again.
Miles 1 – 6.5
I wish I could break this race into smaller chunks for you, but it is such a blur. From the start, J and I were slammed with headwinds and spitting rain. The wind was so loud I couldn’t hear the walk/run breaks on my watch, so we just pressed on. That same wind drowned out our voices, so it was hard to talk.
At around mile 3, I took off the rain jacket and tired it around my waist. It wasn’t comfortable and J had similar issues with the flapping and twisting. Ugh.
On a normal day, the course would have been beautiful, taking us north from Jacksonville Beach into Atlantic Beach. And I took great joy in all the spectators that still came out despite the weather. It was just a little cheer on an otherwise dismal day.
Water and Gatorade was available every two miles or so, and spectators supplemented with aid stations. When we ran by a small church, deacons and pastors distributed Communion hosts and wine for those who wanted to partake on a Sunday morning.
The course went mostly north, although we did add in a few smaller blocks along the way. I didn’t mind: direct out and backs are not my favorite, and I liked the constantly changing scenery.
At around mile 5.5, we came to the end of our northward travels. The course looped in a gigantic block through some stunning neighborhoods, and we both stopped at a portapotty this time. When we rejoined the course to head south, there was a first aid station and more bathrooms.
Miles 6.5 – 13.1
We just kept running. After our bathroom break, there was nothing else to do but move. J missed a water stop so there was a point where she got super thirsty. I insisted she take two cups when we reached the next aid station. We also snagged a cookie and some orange pieces from the kind spectators who braved the weather.
At some point during the back half of the race, there was a gel station, too. I had my I had my HoneyStinger gels so I didn’t need to take any of what they handed out, but there was a really nice selection of flavors for the runners.
At about mile 8, the rain whipped up again. I was literally about to take off my long sleeve shirt, but I had to get back into the rain jacket with hood to avoid getting wet. Ugh. And I know this is an awful picture but I just wanted to share how gorgeous and thoughtful the decorations in the neighborhood were. This street was lined with banners, pink flamingos and balloons. The homeowners blasted music and noisemakers, and held up signs. Some offered drinks and snacks. All were appreciated.
At this point in the race, I was pretty done. My hardware does not appreciate cold or dampness, and was assailed by both. When J had to make one last bathroom break I told her I was just going to keep slowly walking so she could catch up. There was no way I could stop and start again. I used the time to text Mr PugRunner to give him our position and an ETA. We had a tracking system but I had no idea if it was working or how accurate it was.
J found me on the course, and we took off again. While I had hoped to be out of the headwind, somehow it still felt strong, which was just so unfair. But we pushed right on, J got communion and the race continued.
The Finish Line
Finally, the twists and turns stopped and we were back on the main road. There was a turnaround where the marathon and ultra runners rejoined the course, so we had to pay attention to the course markings. At a certain point, one of the runners said we had seven blocks to go, and that perked me right up. Seven blocks was a tangible countdown, and they were short blocks, too! We could see the finish line in the distance (and usually that throws me off) but this time I was so grateful.
Again, the noise made it so that we couldn’t be super faithful to the run/walk intervals, so I told J that we should just run. Seeing the families cheering us on was just what we needed to get us through!
We kicked it in and crossed the finish line!
I am sharing this picture because it’s the perfect blend of joy and misery and TRex arms. If you know, you know.
Volunteers were right there handing out medals, bottles of water and mylar blankets. Hilariously, I was so excited because I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a mylar blanket after a race before.
We collected our thing and got ourselves into the Runner’s Village. Despite the freezing temperatures, I wanted a beer, which they kindly handed out with coozies.
And then we went to the next station for soup. Volunteers handed out chicken noodle and tomato with crackers, and they even had coffee at the same tent. It was not the yummiest, but it was warm and full of salt. I soaked some Saltines in the broth and that got me going again.
J went to the restroom one more time, and then we got ourselves together to get lunch. At this point, I was starving, and wanted french fries. Badly.
Post Race + Thoughts
We walked back to the hotel, which was probably the best thing we could do, and got cleaned up and changed in the restroom. By the time we were presentable, drinks and fries had been ordered and we were ready to celebrate!
First, I am so proud of J. When we started running together, she said there was not way she could run a half marathon. And look at her now!
Second, I needed this. Since my accident, I have been terrified to get back in the proverbial saddle, and now I feel so much more confident. Realistically, I don’t think I can run four and five half marathons in a year like I did in “the old days”, but I don’t think I need to shy away from the distance anymore either.
Also, realistically, I don’t think a second marathon is in my future. It was always a maybe, but now I know that 13.1 is a good place for me. And that’s ok.
As far as the DONNA itself? Give me more. I loved this course and I would love it even more with reasonable weather. The cause is incredible and the community support is unparalleled. I was sad to see how small it was, knowing it suffered due to COVID19 and the weather, but I was also so happy to be a part of it for the 15th year. Everything was top-notch, from the volunteers, to the course, to the swag. It was everything a comeback half should be (but with rain) and I didn’t know how badly I missed the world of big races.
Have you missed the “big race experience?” Ever come back to a distance after injury or illness?
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