Friday, July 29, 2011

The Last Fish

The big salmon swims wearily back and forth in a pool no bigger than a pickup truck bed, curving a body long as my arm to make the turnarounds. He is all alone, and it is the end of the line. He has come back home, to the place where he started, finishing a journey that started here in this creek, a journey that first delivered him to a lake and eventually to a restless home in the Pacific; and now, years later, it has finally returned him to this little pocket of water, a place beyond which he cannot go. He swirls, probing the walls of his bleak prison, his last home.

My son Rory and I stand looking down enthralled. We’ve been searching for this salmon a while now. Driving up this valley north of Seward, Alaska on an August afternoon, we stopped to watch the spawning run in this stream, aptly named Salmon Creek. The road departed a short ways from the creek. We bushwhacked our way through blowdowns and stands of devil’s club to the creek and then worked our way up the stream—unconventional taper for the marathon I’d come so far north to run. We stomped around rather casually at first—until I realized we were in the presence of a bear food bonanza. We have become a bit more watchful now. As the stream grew smaller, Rory, who likes to get to the bottom of things, suggested that we continue upstream until we found the last fish, the very uppermost salmon.

And we have found him.

We are quite sure of that, although we are strangers to this country. Beyond this little pocket of water the creek, little more than a branch you can jump across anyway, climbs a series of step rocks coated by a mere film of water. The big sockeye can’t climb those steps, not at the present flow rate.

Twice below here we thought we’d found the last pool of fish. Each pool, already shallow, was headed by a gravelly shoal covered by a flowing skim of water so shallow a cat could wade it. But we watched in amazement as some of the determined fish, obeying an instinct hard to fathom, pushed on. Even with their bodies forced half out of the water, they managed to slide themselves across the gravel, plowing forward in furious, splashing bursts of effort. A few made it to the pool below this last one.

Only this fish has made it to here. His last hurdle was a barely submerged gravel bar topped by a dam of brush washed in and packed tight, barring the way. Somehow he made it; he is the strongest, the most able salmon of the lot. By reaching this most distant point he has proved himself the one most fit for survival, I reckon. Stranded alone now, he may be defeated by that very strength. Unless a mate eventually reaches this pool he will leave no offspring; the genes of the strongest fish will perish. The principle of survival of the fittest applies only to the population as a whole, not to an individual. It is as if he has won the race—and then been disqualified after the fact by virtue of his own superiority. There is room for hope. Maybe a worthy mate for the big fish will yet arrive. If so, then their offspring will be strong swimmers.

Road racing is primordial, I think, a lot like the sockeye run on Salmon Creek. At its most primitive level, it is about genes. That is to say, mating or mate selection. I suppose you could even say sex—a chance for every racer to display his genes, or her genes, a device for establishing an order, a grade, a ranking. You can scan down the list. The list doesn’t lie: the fast ones are on top, the slow ones are on the bottom and the ones in the middle are in the middle. The ranking is one of speed, of course. But in the hard-eyed view of selfish genes, it may also be seen as a ranking of mate suitability, still relevant today.

At the dawn of humankind, a race was an unnecessary and artificial device. The man who could run fast was the one who could get food, who could survive to mate and pass on his genes, who could offer a female the best chance of surviving and passing on her genes. He was the one who got the woman, for the simple reason that he was the one alive, and had a chance of staying that way. Finding a mate who can run down an antelope is no longer necessary to a woman’s survival. But her ancient genes don’t know that.

Other qualities have become more important to success in today’s world than running speed—intelligence, for example. You could argue that the sport’s importance has so diminished as to be scarcely relevant in this modern day. Nonetheless, we still hold races. And why? Because we want to. But why do we want to? Well, that was explained earlier—it connects us to our primeval origin.

Of course women race, too. Because their genes count, too. The sockeye run on Salmon Creek, after all, didn’t just include males. The females were there enduring the same hazards as the males, going as far as they could go. So women slug it out on the race courses, too. I’m glad they do. In the ultramarathons sometimes they beat the best men, their endurance being relatively better for the longer distances.

Now I find myself too old to chase money, glory, or women—the usual rewards of athletic excellence. Maybe even young I failed to measure up to those big three, although, at the very least I could have been a scholarship runner, getting some money—if not many women or much glory. Now, the big three fail to be a big factor.

Except for, well, maybe glory. During those days of 1999, when I made my first trip to Alaska, I held the idea that it would be glorious to run the Boston Marathon, to qualify for it, a race of so many legends. Glory on a geezer, like lipstick on a pig, fails its purpose. It only looks ridiculous. But no matter, I would be proud of that, I thought.

My chance for pride came without warning. Running through the drizzle of an August Sunday morning in an Anchorage marathon, I unexpectedly qualified for the Boston Marathon, leaving a cushion of 44 seconds. The race was called Humpy’s after a local alehouse whose name, in turn, honored the humpback salmon.

My life entered a new phase that day. A multi-year race odyssey exploded—one which eventually took in not one but four trips to Boston; one which finally spanned a spectrum of race distances from 800 meters up to 100-mile ultramarathons and 140.6-mile Ironman triathlons; one which included races staged in strange and wonderful places where I otherwise never would have gone; one which led to the writing of a personal column in the newspaper and in Running Journal; One which lead to this blog; one which has now led to the writing of two literary books (second one is in press) about running adventure.

One which led to the story you are now reading. Altogether, several years of stories. Each story is true. I recall Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg saying that he only tries to write what is there. That has been my policy, as well, write what is there, stick to the truth.

But I don’t write all the truth. Usually there is more of it there than I can write, or need to write. Most material, I throw away. Even if it is intensely important to me, if I judge it dull to read, it has to go. It’s my call, and sometimes my judgment itself has been dulled by the fire I’ve run through. I recall Hemingway saying something like you have to know ten times as much as you write. He knew.

I stand looking backwards, a practice, as a runner, I’ve always avoided. I won’t deny I’m proud of the stories I’ve written. I believe a few might stand up in a literary magazine—which is a bit immodest of me.

Stories continue to unfold. Some I’ll write. But other projects are calling. I’m still heading upstream—we all are—having not yet reached that perfect last place. Fall, the best season, will come around again. It always does. But I wish you an October sky every month and a shady lane in the country where fallen leaves skitter along the pavement when you breeze by and a creek burbles beside the road with water’s old promise of fish and bread, of food and life, of hope, abiding hope. Maybe I’ll see you there.