I signed up for 26.2 with Donna because of my mother. She had run the full marathon once and the half once, and was coming back for a third year. I didn't qualify for Boston, my usual spring marathon, so I decided to go down to Jacksonville Beach, Florida in February for an early spring marathon.

My mother first signed up for this race because it has Galloway (run/walk) pace groups. She trains with (and recently became a group leader for) a Galloway training group in Atlanta. During this year's race, she got to run with Jeff Galloway for a while, and talked to him at the post-race party. (She also won her age group!)

With about 6,000 runners in the full and half marathon, this isn't a big city marathon like New York or Boston, but it has a lot of amenities. When I landed in Jacksonville, I was greeted by friendly volunteers at a 26.2 with Donna table in the airport. The expo, held in a train station turned convention center, was big, with a nice variety of vendors. In addition to the usual running-related vendors, there were many booths related to the event's focus, breast cancer.

All of the race proceeds and donations go to breast cancer research and care. I saw many cancer survivors among the spectators, volunteers, and runners - as well as many people running in memory of a friend or family member. When you are not having a good race and just want to curl up on the side of the road at mile 18, getting a cheer from someone wearing a bright pink "SURVIVOR" shirt is just the thing to get you to stop feeling sorry for yourself and keep moving forward.

On the day before the marathon, there is a 5K starting and finishing near the expo, which my aunt and uncle ran. The rest of my group was able to find a bench along the river to watch the race from.

The marathon and half used a new starting location this year, and runners were encouraged to drive to the start. In the only glitch I noticed all weekend, snarled traffic caused a 30-minute delayed start. 

It was chilly throughout the race, starting at around 36 degrees, but the sun was shining. The most challenging part of the course (aside from it being 26.2 miles long) is an approximately 2-mile stretch on the beach. The sand was hard packed and the surface felt fine for running, but we were running straight into a headwind. At least it was scenic! After we turned off the beach, we wound through some neighborhoods where lots of people were out to cheer, despite the cold.

The race support was outstanding. There was a water stop about every mile, and most stops also had Gatorade. There were GUs at multiple locations, and numerous portajohns. The only stretch where there weren't many spectators was in the last couple miles as we crossed a long bridge (the second most difficult part of the course) to the finish at the Mayo Clinic.

The finish line amenities were the best I've ever seen. In addition to the usual water, snacks, and heat blanket, there were massages, hot soup, cold beer (well, Budweiser) and soda, champagne tastings, kids activities, and plenty of places to sit down (including more portajohns, of course). 

Although I did not have a good race, I'm looking forward to returning and having a better day. If you're looking for a winter marathon or half and a break from the gray skies of February in central Pennsylvania, I recommend 26.2 with Donna.

Click below for a short slideshow of photos from the event. Not shown: the most men in pink tutus I've ever seen in a race. Keith Straw could get lost in the crowd here!