My Guide

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!

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Once A Runner

“From the crucible of such inner turmoil come the various metals, soft or brittle, flawed or pure, precious or common, that determine the good runners, the great runners, and perhaps the former runners; for those who can not deal with successfully (or evade successfully). The consequences of their singular objective will simply fade away from it all and go on to less arduous pursuits. There has probably never been one yet who has done so, however, without leaving a part of himself there in the quiet, tiled solace of the early afternoon locker room, knotting his loathsome smelling laces for yet another, jesus god, ten miler with the boys. Once a runner…”

It was a usual December evening. The darkness fell early and a light crisp breeze sent shudders down the spines. I remember following the ritual, the same old ritual i’d been following for the last eight years; warming up, stretching, doing a couple of strides, looking down on my stop-watch marveling the vastness of one, tiny second and the eternities it seems to hold, inhaling a lungful of pollen-rich winter air of Islamabad and bursting out. It was a great run. I remember feeling the high. Everything felt wonderful except my shin – i had returned with a stress fracture!

It took four months to heal. And as much as it seems, four months is a real long time especially when you can’t stop yourself from staring morosely at your neatly hung track suit and nike shoes in a dusty corner each day, convinced running is no more your thing. And when i was finally back on the track, though I could still plod miles after miles, the furnace was ice-cold, i knew, maybe the runner’s spirit was lost somewhere along the way. I’d look at my room’s walls and the training routines glued to them and wonder if that really were the same flesh and bones who could undertake such animalism once.

But in the near-past, things have worked out one after the other in quite an unusual manner, making me think if some miracle is underway.

Firstly, I found my long-lost registration form for membership of Islamabad Sports Complex. Training on the international track has been kind-of an old dream. Never knew it would realize all of a sudden some day!

Plus, i learnt mid-foot running which obviously made me faster, taking lesser toll on my body which implies lesser injuries as well. Before that i thought only a duck could run like that. Now it feels natural.

Thirdly, I came across former Pakistani Beijing Olympics Athletics Team Coach who happened to do his evening-walks on the same loop i chose for my daily runs and told me he saw in me what it took to be a pro. He even offered me his coaching services!

Maybe Paulo Coelho was right about when-you-want-something-from-all-your-heart-the-whole-world-conspires-to-help-you-achieve-it thing. In the past few months, I too have been feeling like giving it a final shot, just needed a single little push and the fate gave me three massive ones. Looking forward to a new beginning as i leave for my home tomorrow. That marks a perfect start. Doesn’t it?

It’s only when you’ve stopped doing something that you realize how hard it is to start again, so you force yourself into not wanting it. But it’s always there and until you finish it, it will always be!”

The Last Warrior

Not until i had actually plunged into that untouched valley, did I know there could exist such a divine beauty in the heart of the metropolitan. It’s quite hard to imagine an outback bordered by commercial city area on one side and a state-of-the-art university on the other. In my hunt to run and explore beautiful places around, i had almost given up on the idea of treading a hinterland ever. But last week just after Asar, as i casually walked towards one of the lost gates of the university which was more like a tall, rusty scrap of cast iron and opened to nobody-knew-where, i suddenly found myself face to face with that baffling phenomenon; you know, a-herd-of-cows-grazing-in-a-pasture-right-in-the-middle-of-an-urban-world phenomenon!

I ran through the huge meadow, mud-houses and grazing cattle and climbed up a hill overlooking the buzzing city. The contrast was painfully stark. Just across the road, the icons of the civilized world stood tall. The meadow on my back was perhaps the last retreat of the handful warriors who were yet not ready to give in to urbanization – and if you get a chance to run through the scarcely inhabited settlement, you’ll know why. Urban life-style maybe too catchy for some, there still are people who just can’t resist the charms of primitive living. Standing there for a moment, i felt just like Jaguar-Paw when he stood facing the sea looking at conquistador ships anchored off the coast and Spanish people moving ashore. He had to decide whether he wanted to embrace the unknown, dazzling civilization ahead or retreat to his woods. Without a sign of remorse, he had quietly turned back. The setting sun that day, saw me doing the same.

My Long Run

A rare picture of Kashmir Highway under-construction.
A rare picture of Kashmir Highway under-construction.

I have just begun. The road outside the campus gate is so steep, I can imagine it still running through those ancient mountains now been flattened to make room for the city skyline. Though it’s not prudent to do a long run against the clock, that’s the only option I’m left with when in a rush to get somewhere before it’s dark. Once I get past those initial steep miles, the run is predominantly steady-state. So you don’t have to do much except glide along on the windy highway. While gliding past the honking cars, traffic jams, slums and naked children with running noses, my mind slowly drifts off to a semiconscious neutral state and some of the most amazing things happen in there: weird ideas and secret jokes once shared between my old school-fellows which never got old enough through the ebb and flow of life descend my numbing mind in a strange harmony in an almost mystic fashion. A subtle smile creeps across my face. I look at the bewildered faces of the pedestrians passing by who see me running almost daily and yet can’t resist their impulse to find some furious, man-eating abomination chasing me every time I rush past them: they will never be able to make themselves comfortable with a lone guy running madly on the highway, I think, amused.

The white fluffs of clouds dance playfully as the sky puts up a lovely show of colors. What a perfect adieu, I think while running placidly through the dusty orange glow of the setting sun. Soon the dusk will fall and the darkness will gradually envelop me. And I have always loved that for it always conceals my agony so comfortingly that I no longer need to pull up a nice face for anyone. The darkness is burgeoning swiftly. It’s late, I think and pick up the pace, and a sudden feeling of utter loneliness presses at my heart like an abandoned child waking up to realize that he may not make it back home ever. Racing the crawling cars and rickshaws and dodging the cyclists, off I kick through the final miles until the destination arrives. I look down at my watch. The sticky thing wrapped around my wrist, now dripping with sweat, tells me I have been all my myself for more than an hour.

The suffering is immense but then that’s what being human is all about, I recall her saying and smile wearily. I might never run out of reasons to run.