JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The origins of the 26.2 with Donna sound simple enough. Donna Deegan is a runner and a breast cancer survivor and she wanted to find a way to help end the disease.
But the road to a national breast cancer marathon is paved with more than pink paint and good intentions. The 6th annual 26.2 with Donna will be run on Sunday.
"I have to say that when I first came up with this idea, the first piece of advice I got was, 'don't do it, because you're never going to get all the cities to play with together,'" Donna said. "Because it wasn't only the City of Jacksonville, it was the City of Jacksonville Beach, the City of Neptune Beach, the City of Atlantic Beach. And I had no idea that was going to be a big deal at all. Well, it was a big deal."
And it took two full years of planning, pleading and permits to navigate that big deal, but she managed to get everything one needs for thousands of people to safely and legally run together through the streets and beaches of Jacksonville.
Shannon: "Did you ever think to yourself, 'What if I throw a marathon and no one comes?'"
Donna: "No. I really didn't. Honestly I didn't. It ever occurred to me. This is one of those things in life you just sort of see this vision in living color. You know what it's going to look like. I saw the thousands of people. I saw the people lining the streets. I saw the big expo. I saw everything. It never once occurred to me that it would not go."
Her vision was spot-on. On February 17, 2008, with expectations of maybe 5,000 runners, 8,500 showed up.
Shannon: "What was that feeling like?"
Donna: "Pretty darn fantastic. Now you have to understand that as we were in the final planning stages for the marathon, that's when I was diagnosed for the third time with breast cancer. So I had to go through lung surgery three months before the marathon. And I was on chemotherapy. So, really honestly the big thing on my mind was, 'Can I make it through 26 miles?' Honestly, Shannon, when I stepped out on the start line and saw there was 8,000 people there with me, I feel like I ran that whole 26 miles never touching a foot on the ground. That's how incredible it was."
Eighty-five hundred showed up for the second marathon, too. And then 9,000 in year three. Ninety-five hundred in year four.
And last year, year five, registration topped 10,000 runners.
"My goal has always been, look we can't be New York City, nor do we want to be. We can't be Boston. We can't be Chicago. We're Jacksonville Beach. We're Jacksonville. We have to try a little harder to get people here. Once they're here, I mean, what a beautiful place, right? We have the river. We have the beach. What's not to like?"
The 26.2 with Donna is now one of the major national events in the Jacksonville area, on par with The Players, The Gator Bowl and Florida-Georgia weekend.
The marathon attracts runners from all 50 states and more than 20 countries.
Last year, it was responsible for dumping $4 million into the local economy.
"This is my hometown. I love the people. I love the place. I would love nothing more than to have people come here and see what a great place to live and raise a family. What a great place to visit."
But the most important statistic is that it has raised more than $3 dollars for breast cancer care and research.
And the race will continue and grow until breast cancer is finished.
"The more people we get here the quicker we end the disease. And that's the way I look at it."