I had such high hopes for this marathon. But enough with the foreshadowing. Grab a beer, because this will be a long post.
Pre-race dinner: The night before the race, I had a lovely dinner with Anne, T., who I met at the Honolulu Marathon last month, and her friend, B. I was especially grateful that Anne came because she was not feeling 100 percent.
Weeks ago, T. said she would run the last 6.2 miles of the Carlsbad Marathon with me. But tonight she said she couldn't because of the Chargers v. Patriots game the next day. San Diego is Chargers-crazy. "That's OK," I tell her.
Race Day: After a fitful night in a Motel 6 (and waking up at 2 a.m. to a screaming match in the room next door), E. drives me to the race start at a mall in this picturesque town north of San Diego. Thousands of runners mill around. Most of them are half-marathoners - of the 10,000 registrants in the Carlsbad Marathon, only 2,000 are marathoners.
I try to ease my way through the crowd to the 4:00 marathon pacer, who holds a small yellow flag above runners' heads. I aim to run conservatively, as my right ankle is still tender after rolling it painfully two weeks ago. Instead of an 8:35/mile pace, as I had planned lo all these months, I want to run 9:09 mile splits.
Mile 1 (8:49): Before I can reach the 4:00 pacer, the crowd surges. The race has started. I slowly weave my way through the white-shirted half-marathoners. I feel cautious but hopeful.
Mile 2 (8:18): It seems as if many of the half-marathoners are running at a faster pace than they could reasonably sustain. As I gradually accelerate, some jack-rabbit by. I ignore them, keeping my eye 800 meters ahead - on the flag held aloft by the 4:00 pacer.
Mile 3 (8:42): Running through Carlsbad Village, I ease my pace as I start to close in on the pacer. My stride is smooth and my lungs and legs feel strong. My right ankle is still stiff but not painful.
Mile 4 (8:35): "Gotcha," I say to the 4:00 pacer, as we run along the beach. Gorgeous course, by the way. Just stunning. There is nothing to our right except sand and the Pacific Ocean. And a few gulls.
Mile 5 (9:09): Right on pace, although in general, we are about 90 seconds ahead of the 4:00 goal. I chat with the pacer, T., an ultra-marathoner who ran the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run last year. About ten of us - eight men and two women - surround T. I also see E. and Nelson here, next to a two-man band playing Hawaiian songs. We wave wildly to each other. Nelson barks.
Mile 6 (9:09): We finally split off from the half-marathoners. The marathoners veer inland, while the halfies stay on the beach road. The course thins considerably, giving us breathing room. We relax. To me, this seems like the real start of the race.
Mile 7 (8:58): We run on a new four-lane road, through glass-enclosed office parks. There are very few spectators, although every once in a while in this nine-mile inland stretch, a band would serenade us.
Mile 8 (9:21): Just before Mile 8, after I take some water from a volunteer, I round a corner, and head diagonally on the course toward a trash can to throw away my empty paper cup. But before I reach the trash can, I stumble badly.
My right ankle gives way and rolls inward, just like it did two weeks ago. Searing pain. I flail my arms, reaching out blindly to stop my fall. I inadvertently grab the shirt of the runner ahead of me and we almost collapse in a heap, but manage to right ourselves at the last moment.
"Sorry!" I breathe to the runner, a skinny 50ish man. "That's OK!" he said, smiled, and took off. I hobble, trying to catch up to the 4:00 group, now about 100 meters ahead. "Shake it off," I mutter to myself. I reach the group after a few minutes. One of the runners tells me I should have taped my ankle.
"Too constricting," I say.
The pain in my ankle settles into a numbing throb. I can endure this.
We ascend a steep, winding hill, where two members of the Redeemer by the Sea Lutheran Church hand out small white cards. On them are taped small crosses, along with a "A Runner's Prayer." It begins: "O Lord Jesus, protect me and keep me safe today as I run."
"I could've used this a few minutes ago," I say, and tuck it into my back pocket.
Mile 9 (9:25): We run up a half-mile hill. The stress of running uphill makes my right ankle throb more painfully. I try to run as normally as I can, knowing that if I favor my right ankle and foot, my gait will change unnaturally and put more stress on my other ligaments. Which may cause further injury.
Unfortunately, it takes extra energy to run this way, and I feel myself tiring. The 4:00 group pulls away from me again.
Mile 10 (8:39): We are on a long, lonely stretch of highway. The California sun is bright and unrelenting. The pace group is 200 meters ahead. They make it look so easy. I hate them.
"Goddamn it!" I say to myself. "Catch the f**k up!"
And I do. I ignore my protesting ankle.
Mile 11 (8:29): Yeah, baby. Pain is weakness leaving the body, right? I wave to E. and Nelson again. That damn dog is still barking.
Mile 12 (9:00): More blacktop highway. I keep my eyes on the 4:00 pacer. Nothing else matters.
Mile 13 (9:14): We are now on another office park loop. I grab a cup of water from a volunteer. He looks at me, concerned. "Are you OK?" he asks. "I'm fine," I say, smile a tiny smile, and take off.
Mile 14 (9:18): The 4:00 group is ahead again. I am running alone, with no one ahead of or behind me within 50 meters.
Mile 15 (9:17): The sun is so bright it hurts my eyes. The pacer's yellow flag is now only about 100 feet ahead. I have a couple of minutes in the bank, so I don't further stress my right ankle by surging. I bide my time and try to quell the growing pain.
Mile 16 (9:28): The marathon course meets up again with the half-marathon course on the beach. More than anything, I want to stop and rest my ankle and foot. Just for a moment. I resist because the pace group is even further away.
Mile 17 (9:38): I am not running. I am lurching, throwing the right side of my body forward instead of striding smoothly. The pain in my ankle and foot is radiating up my leg. My face is a grim mask. The pacer's flag is a tiny yellow dot in the distance.
Mile 18 (10:24): The beach is beautiful. Blue waves crash against a white-sand shore. But I ignore the million-dollar views. Thank god runners are few and far between because I am weaving slightly. I stop on a bridge and stretch my hamstrings and calves. I try to rotate my right ankle. No go.
A volunteer sees me. "You want me to call a wagon?" she asks.
"No thanks," I say. "I'm going to keep going."
Mile 19 (12:05): A big hill, at the end of which stands a crowd. I gather my strength and try to run normally again. "Looking smooth!" a man says to me. Tears well up in my eyes in gratitude. I smile and bite my lip.
About 75 meters after I leave the crowd, I slow down. There is an ominous grinding feeling in my ankle. Pain radiates not just through my ankle, foot and leg, but all the way up my thigh.
I look up. The pacer's yellow flag has disappeared.
Tears of frustration and rage sting my eyes. I wipe them away. They keep coming. I start running again, but now I can't see the course. And then there is the unrelenting pain.
So I walk. I turn my face away from the course and hold my hands over my eyes. I hear runners go by. Their labored breaths. Their tired feet hitting the tarmac. No one speaks. We are all in our own little worlds of pain.
For two minutes, I merely stand still, looking at the marshy grass to my right, and assess my options.
I can't physically run anymore. It is just too painful. I can hobble, but at a 20-minute/mile pace at best. And in doing so, I will likely further injure myself.
I nod once. Decisively.
Mile 19.65 (10:54): I head towards a policewoman, and ask for a ride back and for a medic to look at my leg and ankle. I am officially a loser. I wait with another injured runner, a half-Ironman triathlete. We smile ruefully at each other.
We get into the SAG wagons, and I'm handed off to the medic's tent at the finishing line. A volunteer places a bag of ice on my ankle. A doctor sees me and says I may have badly strained, if not sprained, my ankle. He looks at me severely when I say that I twisted my ankle recently and ran the marathon anyway.
"It's a good thing you didn't finish," he said. Then he prescribed me two to six weeks of no running and rehab exercises. And he told me to get my ankle X-rayed.
From my cot in the medic's tent, I see the 4:00 group come in a minute ahead of schedule. If only. They wave their arms in the air and cheer. I smile at them wistfully. They do not notice me.
"Someday," I say, "I'm going to redeem myself." Then I close my eyes. And rest.