Alarms go off and shoes go on. 

Every morning, a group of First Coast women rise before the sun to prepare for the DONNA Marathon.

“It’s therapy,” said Pam Gerrish-Nelson. “Running is therapy.”

Gerrish-Nelson got the terrifying news 13 years ago that she had breast cancer.

“It was fight or flight,” Gerrish-Nelson said. “I said, let’s just get it done with.”

Gerrish-Nelson says conquering cancer made her stronger than ever.

“I run because I can,” Gerrish-Nelson said. “My body allows me to run. I want people to know that you can have a life and be a breast cancer survivor.”

Now, Gerrish-Nelson is the ring leader for a group of women prepping for the DONNA Marathon, convening at 4:30 every morning to defeat yet another grueling run.

“We start marathon training in July,” said Sarah Olson, a runner in the early-morning group. “And then ‘bam,’ it’s going to be DONNA. I have goosebumps just talking about it.”

Although the race is brutal, Gerrish-Nelson says it’s worth every second and every step.

“Every time I cross that finish line, I cry,” Gerrish-Nelson said. “You just get through many challenges through your life when you’re running.”

Best of all, Gerrish-Nelson said she has a strong group of ladies who support each other through their runs and their lives.

“Waking up knowing you’re going to be with your buddies and have a great start to the day is just priceless,” Olson said.

Gerrish-Nelson is one of about 25% of marathon runners who have or had breast cancer.

She said after the many marathons she’s completed, she does have a goal for a great time but mostly loves helping runners along the way who are completing their first marathon.