Monday, February 22, 2016

26.2 With Donna

It seems like I had been training for years for this one race!  It was certainly a long journey but all totally worth it.  I actually signed up for this particular race as a knee-jerk reaction after getting hurt in last Fall.  I had my sights set on a BQ at the Space Coast Marathon Thanksgiving weekend, but when a deep calcaneal bone bruise lead to Achilles Tendinitis as well as Plantar Fasciitis, I was left sidelined for over a month!  I knew it would be impossible to reach my goal even if I could run Space Coast, so I immediately hopped on the computer and found the next race I could do in the area that was a BQ race.  I came across 26.2 with Donna, and before I even knew much more about it, I was grabbing my credit card and hitting submit.  I was going to heal up and BQ at this race, simple as that.  Haha, I wish!  Well, Space Coast came around and even though I hadn't really been able to train, I still gave it a shot.  4 hours and 11 minutes later, I limped through the finish line and my body and mind were SPENT!  At that point, knowing I had just weeks until my next marathon, I made a difficult but necessary decision to go ahead and let go of my goal to BQ (for now) and just have a fun, stress free time during training and of course throughout the race.  BEST.DECISION.EVER!  This was hands down, the least stressful, most enjoyable marathon experience I have had since MCM in 2010!

I will get into a little more about my race experience but first, let me start off with a little information about the race itself.  26.2 With Donna is a non-profit organization that offers several events in the Northeast Florida area throughout the year, with the marathon weekend drawing their largest crowds.  Since it's inaugural race in 2008, 26.2 With Donna has donated over $4 million towards its vision to finish breast cancer.  Funds go to the Mayo Clinic for top breast cancer research and to The Donna Foundation to provide financial assistance to those with breast cancer.  So going into it, I knew it was for a good cause and it would be very touching experience, but little did I know how amazing and inspirational it would truly be!

I have talked a lot about my injury and training in previous posts, as well as the goals I had in mind for this race.  So as the weekend approached, I made the commitment to myself to just relax, have fun and soak it all in.  Saturday came around and it was time to leave for the expo.  The website and several people I have spoken to have claimed it to be one of the best expos in the industry.  Having been to a huge expo experience like Marine Corps as well as a local, inaugural one like the Celebration Marathon, I would have to admit the Donna Expo fell somewhere in between.  Access and parking to the expo were great, especially since parking was free.  There were several great vendors there with tons of freebies as well as great products to purchase, but unfortunately but 2pm Saturday afternoon, over a handful of vendors had already left for the day.  I know it was a long weekend for them, but it was a little disappointing, as well as rather disrespectful (IMO) to not stay until the end.  But luckily there was still plenty to see and do and packet pick up was seamless.  There was a very friendly gentleman at the entrance directing us to where we needed to go.  We first got our bib then our shirt and bag.  There were even extra bags so my husband got one.  This came in big handy since we had our two young sons with us and they wanted EVERY freebie at the expo.  My sons scored cowbells, signs to make, pens, coloring books, sunglasses, coozies, etc., so they were so excited!  With everything we needed and them some for race day, we headed out to our hotel.

I chose the Sawgrass Marriott because it was a host hotel and from what I understood, to be a stones throw away from the race start.  Pulling up to the hotel, we immediately knew we had chosen great accommodations and that they were ready and excited for Donna participants.  The valets had Donna jackets on, there was a massive banner hanging in the lobby and there was no mistaking they had rolled out the, ahem, pink carpet for the Race To Finish Breast Cancer.  We settled into our room, left to grab a bite to eat, then came back so I could everything I needed for the next morning.  The weather report kept fluctuating so I kept going back and forth on what to wear.  I decided the night before to go with shorts and even took my "Flat Christina" photo of them before going to bed.

The alarm went off at 6:07 (which is actually over an hour later than I usually get to get up, so woohoo for extra sleep).  And when I checked the temp, it had dropped even more.  38 degrees for race start, so back into my suitcase went my shorts and out came the pants.  Outfit was on and everything I needed to get going was in my nifty new draw string bag.  I kissed my babies on their sleeping foreheads, high fived and kissed my husband who had awoken, and off I went.  Well not before he took a quick pre-race pic of me.

It turns out the hotel was not quite as close to the start as we had thought.  It was about a mile and a half a way.  I chalked it up to a good little warm up, plus I met some really nice ladies who had came in from Texas to run the half.  It is always nice to meet new runner friends, it kinda helps take the edge off with some mindless chatter getting to know each other.  When we finally got to the pre-race area, it seemed a little disorganized and lackluster.  There were the several quintessential port-a-potties lined up as well as some vendors and VIP tents.  But it took me several minutes and finally having to ask someone where to find bag, which was actually located in a different area from all the pre-race tents and activities.  A little strange, but I found it nonetheless and the process of checking my bag was super simple, so no big worries.  I did however, cut it a little close and had to dash over to the restroom.  And since EVERYONE has to use the restroom before these things, the lines were insane.  And of course took forever.  I was still in line when the national anthem was being sang and I feared I would miss the start of the race.  As soon as I did my business, they were announcing it was go time.

I had to practically sprint to get as close to the front as I could but just could not catch up to my pace group before they made my "coral" stop.  The starting area was so narrow and since I hadn't gotten up to where I needed to be, I had no idea that the crowd I had been herded into was planning on doing mostly walking.  So once it was go time, I spent most of the first quarter to half mile elbowing through crowds of walkers and light joggers.  I finally broke away from that pack and found myself with the 4:15 group.  I figured the 3:45 couldn't be that much further and that was my very hopeful goal for the race.  So I sped up a little to see if I could eventually catch them within the next few miles.  Shortly after passing the 4:15 pacer, I found the 4 hour pacing, so I was moving along well.  By mile 3, however, I had yet to find them but soon realized I was going way to fast.  My TomTom indicated I was averaging around 7:25 minute miles and even though I felt amazing, I knew I couldn't sustain.  I pulled back a little and hoped to soon find the pacer to settle in with them.  Like I said I felt great, so I just kept rolling.  The course support through those first several miles was amazing.  People lined the streets with signs, cowbells, cheers, high fives and and friendly smiles.  I also noticed several runners wearing "SURVIVOR" or "I'M RUNNING FOR..." bibs and it made me realize just how many people breast cancer effects and how awesome these runners are out here showing their support or even more so how much many of them have overcome!

Around mile 6, I saw that the 3:45 and the 3:30 were practically neck and neck.  I had yet to feel any need to slow my pace down, so I caught the 3:30 and thought, hey this was my original goal, let's freaking go for it!  I pulled out my headphones, introduced myself to the pacer and the lone runner keeping up with her and for the next few miles we were cruising along great!  The scenery was beautiful, people where lining up along the streets to cheer us on, the temperature had warmed up just enough with a great breeze and I was no longer running, I was coasting!

By mile 10, I was averaging around 7:45 minute miles, chatting up a storm with the pacer like we were on a leisurely stroll and I thought to myself, "don't jinx it, you have a ways to go, but keep it up and you are going to do this Christina, you are going to BQ!"  That is, of course when things took a little turn.  The pacer informed me before that before the half marathon mark, there would be a different pacer to carry us through the finish.  No biggie right?  Well the catch was, there would be a lapse in a pacer, for some odd reason.  She didn't offer an explanation as to why, or when and where I would find said pacer but assured me to keep doing what I was doing and I would be fine.

I bid farewell to the pacer before the turn around and just kept plugging along.  The sun was fully up and the weather was shaping up to be absolutely beautiful.  I managed to take my jacket off and toss it, but did so just a little too soon, because I soon caught quite a headwind!  Luckily, around the same time, I was able to catch some beautiful glimpses of the ocean and of course continued to hear the great cheers from the amazing crowd.

Around mile 14, they had us going through some neighborhoods for a few miles.  There was nothing incredibly exciting about these neighborhoods and though multiple families had come out to cheer us own, these next several miles became very daunting for me.  I had slowed some but managed to keep a good pace in hopes to eventually find this alleged pacer.  But by the time I hit the 17 mile mark and was finally heading out of this unimpressive portion of the course, I was starting to hit that proverbial wall.

By mile 18, the course really got exciting again.  We were heading through the downtown areas once more and there was that great crowd support I was missing.  Unfortunately my pace and body where starting to deteriorate then.  I had committed to myself before starting the race that I wanted to have fun no matter what.  If at any point I questioned why I even do these, if I hated myself for doing this or if it even became painful, I promised myself I would slow down or even walk.  After mile 18, my calf was cramping terribly and I was starting to get frustrated, so I had to honor my commitment and slow down and even walk at water stations.  But I managed to pick right back up, put a smile back on my face and push through.

I will finish my recap of the race in just a minute....

Meanwhile, back at the hotel...

My husband was getting our sons ready to come see me finish.  They were coloring signs, eating donuts and having a good ole time.  I was following me on the RaceJoy app, so he had a pretty good idea when I should be finishing up.  So he headed out with our 3 and 4 year old sons to catch the shuttle at the starting line.  Little did he know (like I had to learn earlier that morning) how much further the starting line was than we had anticipated.  And if you have ever tried to get preschool kids to cooperate and move when you are crunched for time, then you know how stressful it can be.  Fortunately, they managed to catch the shuttle and get down to the finish line area with what the app indicated, 4 minutes to spare!  Once down at the post race area, there was no clear direction where he needed to go.  He asked several people but no one seemed to be able to help.  Eventually they just kept walking (poor him and our kiddos) and soon found it and was ready to see me finish!  And luckily for them, unfortunate for me, I had slowed down enough that they had even a few more minutes to spare.

Ok, now back to the race itself.  By mile 20, I was back into a good stride, all be it much slower than I had started.  Normally this is when things really start to go bad for me.  But this time, despite my insanely tight calf, I felt good, slow, but good.  I knew I only had 10k to go and I should do that just fine.  I wouldn't PR my 10k, I wasn't going to make my Boston time, but I could do a 10k.  So I turned my music up a little louder and pushed on through.

Shortly after mile 22 is where the bridge came in to play.  For the past 20+ miles, the course had been so nice and flat.  Now all of a sudden I am looking up at this bridge with people running on it and I'm realizing I would soon be joining them.  The ramp to the bridge was a pretty steep and once we made it up the ramp, we just kept going up and up.  I just kept reminding myself that I was so close and that what comes up must come down.  But this is where I REALLY started slowing down.  As much as I was slowing down though, I refused to stop.  I just kept fighting through the calf pain, the cramps, the fact that I was hot, my feet were pounding, oh you know basically all the effects of running a marathon.   It's supposed to be hard and uncomfortable, but not insurmountable.

When my watched beeped to inform me I was at mile 25, I am certain tears of pure joy began streaming down my face.  I was at the top of a rather high bridge looking over the beautiful inter-coastal water way.  Crowds of people lined each side of the bridge jumping up and down and screaming you are almost there, and for once they were actually right!  As I ran past the crowd I realized they had sorority letters on their shirt and they happened to be Zeta Tau Alpha's!  I was a Zeta at East Carolina, so I was beyond excited to see my "sisters!"  Of course I gave as many of them as I could high fives, and I'm sure they thought I was insane, hehe.   After that awesome experience, the bridge started to decline, thank goodness.  That's when I turned on my "booster jets" as my son, Nolan, likes to call them, and just stared to run like the wind.

I wasn't even paying attention to my watch at this point, I just kept running.  Judging by the larger crowd and how excited they all were, I knew the finish line must be coming up.  I turned a corner, ran under an underpass and there it was, about a 100 yards in front of me.  Since I had given up on my BQ several miles back but knew I would get my sub 3:45 goal, I hadn't really paid much attention to my time for the last few miles.  But I always like to finish as strong as possible, so I kicked it into high gear and began my full out sprint to the finish.

I was keeping my eye out for my family the whole time I was dead sprinting those last few yards.  As soon as I crossed that finish line I saw them and went straight to them.  I didn't get my medal, grab a water or even turn off my watch.  I just wanted to embrace my husband and babies.  I was crying my eyes out with so much exhaustion but mostly pride.  My husband just kept telling me how awesome I did and how proud he was of me, and that's when I asked him what my official time was...3:38:27!

At that moment in time, not a single ounce of me was in the least bit disappointed that I had missed a BQ by only 3 minutes and 27 seconds.  I had a huge PR, beat my goal of a sub 3:45, and by coming that close, I proved to myself that it is possible and WILL happen.  I gave that race my all, blew my goal out of the water and took over an hour off my first marathon time.  So as far as I was concerned, I came up short in nothing!  [Of course I would be lying if I said that it eventually didn't sink in how close I came and my mind travels to certain times I could have pushed just a little harder and I would have made it happen.  But I will use all that as motivation to push harder the next time.]

I finally went to grab my medal then Hunter snapped several pictures of me with the boys.  They were so excited for me and I was beyond elated to see their sweet smiling faces.  We started our walk to the after party and we had to walk along a narrow path of grass and trees that ran parallel to where I'm assuming runners where coming through.  We were not really certain where to go but figured if we just kept following the crowd, we would find it (kind of the theme for my husband's day).  We got to the race after party and it was very well organized with a lot of neat things going on from music to food to plenty of areas to sit and relax.  We needed to get back to the hotel to be out of our room and still had a drive a head of us home, so after picking up my bag, we headed over to the shuttles.

There were plenty of shuttles, so fortunately there was no wait and we got right on one.  The ride wasn't too long, but the walk back from the start was even farther than I remembered that morning.  By this point my legs where so wobbly and I was holding a 40+ pound 3 year old (who said HE was tired, lol), so it seemed like eternity before we made it back to our hotel.  But we finally made it, showered, check out and it the road soon there after.  I was certainly on a runners high for the next several days!

All in all it was an amazing race and one I would highly recommend to any one from first timers to people looking to PR.  Here are just a few quick pros and cons that I will leave you with in case you are now considering the 26.2 With Donna in 2017...

  • It's for a great cause and the experience is incredibly inspiring and motivating.
  • Entry cost is pretty average, definitely not Disney-expensive.  You can even run for free through their fundraising entry (see their site for details).
  • They had great communication leading up to the event with plenty of helpful information.
  • The race expo had free parking and was easy to get to.
  • Packet pick up was well organized.
  • Our guest hotel was awesome sauce!
  • Great course support for the majority of the race.
  • Excellent course that was mostly flat throughout.
  • Kicking after party with great music and plenty of food!
  • The expo wasn't as crazy awesome as I had anticipated.
  • Getting to and from the start line before and after the race was a little frustrating.
  • The starting line area was lackluster, way too narrow and not very organized.
  • Very disappointed in the pace group situation.
  • The middle miles through the neighborhoods were a little bland as far as scenery and lack of crowd support.
  • After the finish, no one rushed up with my medal, by the time I got to the medal, the unimpressed, seemingly bored young ladies handing them out were not really helpful nor friendly when figuring out which medal was mine. (There was a half and relay too)
  • Getting over to the after party with my family was a little confusing.
  • If you're into obnoxiously big, ornate medals, you would be let down by the smaller finish medal.
The pros by far outweigh any of the cons and I would most certainly run this one again as well as recommend it to anyone and everyone.  Next year's race is on 2/17/2017, and I'm already marking my calendar!

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