The Old Man and the Track Star
The loss that became the win
It was the last meet of the year. All I could think of was beating Gil. Throughout the year, he was the unattainable speedster. Senior year was my last chance at redeeming myself as one of the best high school quarter milers in the city. How can I be the best if Gil was still one of the best. He was the unattainable, unreachable mountain. My predicament reminded me of that story we read in English class. I never understood it then but I can see the comparison all too well now.
The story involves something I know nothing about-fishing. Everyday this fisherman would head out to land the unattainable fish, the unattainable prize. Every time he goes out, he fails miserably-empty boat, empty heart, almost an empty soul. Every time I raced Gil, I would feel the same. Aside from missing the gold medal, I would feel soulless and empty. Perhaps I could beat the odds and beat my self induced nemesis. Perhaps I shall finally catch my prize.
The finals are chosen from the winner of the 8 heats. I fortunately won my heat. The winner will take a lane from one of the eight lane track. I ready myself for the finals, like the old man getting his bait, tackle rod and reel. This time he feels a bit different. This time he feels confident. I stretched out loosening my arms and legs. I look up and down the track. I see Gil in land 7. I drew lane three. In my mind I remember how fast he shoots out of the block making it almost impossible to catch. That old man must have felt that impossible feeling, yet always trying, feeling that this will be the day.
“Quarter mile finals, gather up,” said the starter. We all huddled together to hear the instructions. “One false start and you’re out,” said the starter, almost like a parental warning. The sea crashes against the boat. The fisher rows further out, knowing, believing that his catch will happen. That he will be victorious this day. “Take your seats off and get to your lanes,” said the starter as he marched off the track. I looked at Gist as I shake my arms, wondering whether this will be the day.
“Runners, to your marks,” shouted the starter. I marked off my spot and crouch into the running position, rubbing my hand against my shorts. The fisher readies his bait and tosses his line over the boat. He lets the line go as he hears the click click click of the reel. He gave enough bait to lure what he hopes to be his giant whale. Ahab has nothing on him.
“Set,” was the second command. This was the most anxious time of any race. Here is where you steady yourself and remain very still. At the same time, you are poised to explode off the block to gain every edge. Any mistake and the race is over. Explode…get off … pump those arms…move… he’ll be right in front of you. The fisher feels a nibble. The line jolts a bit, almost teasing. He lets out some slack hoping that the fish will not leave the bait and move on. He sits, anxiously hoping that the fish will more than nibble but rather grab the bait and of course the hook, making his fate the fishers gain. He sits very still. He waits without moving a muscle. He waits.
“BANG!”, the gun went off and we were off. Coach Daley always said that the first 50 yards is the race. You reach top speed in the first 50 yards. Anything after that is the runner’s ability to maintain that top speed. That’s why runners work out to strengthen the upper body. I think nothing of Daley but rather I see Gil. He’s off as I was but I noticed something different. He was not shooting out distancing from me. We were off at the same distance as we reach the first turn and about to hit that first straight away. He took the bait. The fisherman jumped at the line and start reeling in his catch. He felt that this time was different. The fish was struggling but not as rigorous as before when he got away every single time. This time he was pulling the catch closer and closer to the boat. This time he drew his catch to the point where he could see the eyes.
At the straight away I lengthened my stride and straightened my back. I see myself gaining on Gil. My heart is pounding feeling my body drawing closer to my four year nemesis. He appeared to have be standing still as I inch closer with every step, with every pump of my arm. My hands are flat as I start to lean forward from the waist. It’s an almost unconscious move that my body started as I begin the far turn. It was at this point where I finally caught up to Gil. It was at this time where Gil’s team mate are jumping and screaming off the track urging him on, warning him of my approach. The fisher brings the now exhausted catch onto the boat. This was the largest catch he has ever had. The sword fish measured larger than the man or the boat combined. With strength he never knew he had he take his catch and tie it to the side of his boat. He gasped, huffed and breathed deeply to gather strength he never knew he had. Once he secured his long elusive enemy, he turns the boat and head to shore. He thinks of the stories he would tell his friends. He thinks of how he could describe the pain and the euphoria. He begins his long trek back when he felt the first of many jolts. Sharks were gathering at the side of his catch. It was not one but many gathering trying to rob the fisher of his win.
Gil’s teammates gather at the sides of the track, jumping and screaming urging Gil to victory. I begin the turn not only catching Gil but leaning into the turn and hence the lead.My legs are like a speeding horse’s trot, high and extensive thrusting forward, pulling the body faster and further into the lead. Gil’s teammates try to distract me, cheering almost in my ear as I am about to complete the turn, now in the lead. The fisherman starts to row faster. He strains with every pull of the oars, willing the boat to move faster. A shark takes a bite out of the catch. The fisher sees blood trailing the boat as more sharks gather around the boat, taking another chuck out of the catch. The fisher stop the boat and with his oar swings at the the sharks, at first startling the sharks later causing them to swim away. That seems to have worked, he thought to himself. He begins again to row feeling sharp pains coursing his left arm, neck and back. He continues to row, hoping to get further away from the sharks. He then hears a loud thud.
I complete the turn heading into the straight away, pumping to the finish knowing that Gil may never catch me this time. The teammates almost simultaneously stop cheering. I smile to myself as my mind’s eye could only imagine where Gil was trailing me for the first time. Then like a gush of wind a runner whisks past me, looking confidently from left to right as if he were daring anyone to pass him. It was Alexander. A great white shark came barreling into the fisher’s boat almost taking a chunk out of the head of his catch. Despair hits the fisher as he for the first time realizes that he may not make it back to shore with his catch. He may not reach shore alive. This time he was not going to be deterred with a fight. He swing his boat around hoping to hit this great white shark head on. As his new nemesis heads on in a game of chicken, the fisher serves at the last minute in the hopes of fooling the enemy. The fisher feels the boat tug downward as the great white shark gets hold of the body taking a third chunk of the catch. If one were watching the fisher, the sea drifts and his tears were not easily discernible.
I forgot about Alexander. I was so concerned of Gil that I did not see Alexander. His strong stride were too much to overcome. I tried to jolt forward, but to no avail. I did beat Gil but I never won the race. Alexander took first, I took second. Gil actually took fourth. The old man did get to shore but at the cost of his great catch. He arrived on the shore with the bare remains of the skeleton of his catch. He tired. He wept. He told the tale of his greatest battle, which turned out to be his greatest loss and ironically his greatest win.
I knew exactly how that felt.