Marathoner learned to run to honor her late husband on their 40th anniversary

CHICAGO --  Around 40,000 people ran the Chicago Marathon Sunday, and while each runner had their own reasons for completing the grueling 26.2 mile race, for one Chicago woman the 40th running of the race was particularly meaningful.

It’s often said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For Donna Leonard, the first step was the beginning of an uncommon journey, as she began training for her first marathon at 61 years old.

“I began running quietly, nobody knew," Leonard said. "I started running in the hallway, then I graduated to running out on the riverwalk, and I surprised my family.”

She decided to run the marathon to honor her husband, John Leonard. The two met in 1976 at a party in Marina City, the formal name for the iconic “corncob” condos on the Chicago River.

After she met the man referred to as "the mayor" of Marina City, Donna said she knew right then and there that she would marry the charismatic character from the South Side.

“First of all, he was handsome. Second of all, he was very, highly intelligent.  Had a sense of humor - a killer sense of humor,” she remembers.

The two were married at Holy Name Cathedral on Oct. 8, 1977, and for the next three decades they built a life, raising a daughter and making memories right there at Marina City.

But in April of 2009, John was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

"It was devastating," Donna remembers. "Cancer is a devastating disease. It doesn’t discriminate.”

By July of the next year, the doctors discovered his cancer had metastasized into his liver. Donna said John was home for 17 days, anddied a month later.

"It was like somebody punched me right in the stomach," Donna said. "I said, I never thought – never did I anticipate that I’d live my life without you.  His reaction: ‘you’re going to be fine. Don’t worry about it.’”

Seven years later, she was making dinner in her Marina City condo with the TV on in the background when she heard a familiar date mentioned: Oct. 8, 2017. The 40th anniversary of the marathon would be run on the exact date of her 40th wedding anniversary.

"It just hit me. I grabbed the cell phone and texted my daughter and said, you wouldn’t believe when the 40th running of the marathon is," Donna said. “I said I don’t want to sit home on my 40th wedding anniversary, and cry my heart out. I want to be able to do something positive – and I’m going to run for charity.”

Donna ran for the American Cancer Society – and for John.  She says she wanted to share her story to raise awareness about cancer, and remind people that  you can do anything you put your mind to.