The Sabres were notorious in the college for running a daunting pace in rigid flight-formation at 6 am each morning (except Sundays), and the rule for the freshers was too simple to be misunderstood – lead us and if you stop, you’ll be run over by us.
I still remember my first cross-country vividly. Merely an eighth grader then, i told my guide that i would literally die if i ran any farther. A strong runner himself, guiding me through the long, snaky track of my first cross-country, he informed me quietly that nobody had ever died running. He was right. I made it. Alive.
The sophomores were appointed as guides over freshmen in their first year as pre-cadets, and though they retired from this responsibility after a year, i continued to look up to my guide for many years to come. There were many reasons for that. Most important of them all being, unlike most seniors, he would not treat me like a bloody junior. Naturally, when you are away from home and parents and a life that’s normal, at an age as tender as twelve, there is a vacuum inside of you so unfathomably great that it draws you into anyone who is least bit nice to you. This explains why i could not imagine running a cross-country without him. Besides, he had always made the ordeal look so easy. I don’t know if he always ran like that but ever since i started to run with him, he ran at a stride manageable for me to match – strong yet magically peaceful. Running with him always meant finishing at a decent place and saving your lungs some suffering.
The years kept rolling by and we gained enough seniority to be allowed to run independently from the flight formation. So we often broke off in the start and ran ahead. And so did all the elites of the college. Though our paces had gained greater strength over the years, somehow we still fell short of what was needed to be the top-notch elite. Over these years, i noticed one thing though: running with Azeem had grown increasingly easier – almost effortless. I never told him that though, out of his reverence and besides, there was some kind of comfort in running by his side, so i let the things the way they were running on the track.
One morning, when i spotted him running in his usual, favorite place – the geometric center of the broken pack, i hastened towards him, matched his stride and fell into the blissful meditative peace that he always carried about himself. That morning, my legs felt like freshly greased hinges, though – too fluid, too runny. A couple of wannabes blasted past us. I felt my adrenaline surging so i asked Azeem if he could pick up the pace a bit. He struggled but didn’t sustain it. Assuming that he did not want to run any faster, I asked if he would like to increase the length of his stride at least. He looked at me, gave me a subtle nod, opened up his legs and soon he was flying. What else could i want! I opened up mine and before long, we were overtaking the elite of the elite. I almost felt like a raven gliding – effortlessly navigating a step behind him through the throng, overwhelmed by the joy of our newly discovered speed.
The track had a rigid hierarchy firmly established by years of cross-countries which had taken place on it and though upsets kept happening, they were often very small and everybody generally finished where they had been over the years. Now imagine you manage to destroy that revered hierarchy and are being gaped at by boys in total awe. It was euphoric. It didn’t last long, though. Azeem slowed down to a slog, all of a sudden. When I looked at him questioningly, my worst fear materialized: he was grimacing in pain. The only thing he said to me was: keep that pace.
When I broke off from him, it almost felt like i was betraying the camaraderie of several years. But disobeying him was out of the question. I told myself he had wanted me to do this. So i gained my focus back and ran really hard. That day, for the first time in my life i caught up with Zargham – the most furious runner of the college. Though he sprinted away in the final stretch anyway, having reeled him in from such a lead was some feat!
Azeem had seen the duel from behind and was really happy about it. He said he always knew i had it in me. I asked him angrily why he had slowed down, and that i couldn’t fathom he too had limits. He laughed and said, all flesh and bones had.
That day on, he never ran with me.
But you hear that, Azeem? I call you my guide still!