Almost exactly a year ago, pictures of Milind Soman emerging from the water hit our screens, igniting an old flame that had been kindled when Alisha Chinai made her music video, Made in India, in 1995. The 50-year-old model and actor had just completed a 3.8 km swim while participating in the Ironman Triathlon in Zurich, Switzerland. But long before his success led to a flurry of fitness enthusiasts training for “the world’s toughest race”, an Indian woman quietly made her debut as the country’s first Ironman in Canada in 2006. “I don’t read the news, I haven’t seen Soman’s pictures. But Ironman challenges you so much, with or without celebrity endorsement, I don’t know if it can be a fad,” says Anu Vaidyanathan, who is also the first Asian to complete Ultraman Canada in 2009. After spending years away from public attention, the long-course triathlete has finally written Anywhere But Home (HarperCollins), a memoir about how a studious Iyer girl fell in love with running and took off to conquer the world in three far-from-easy steps — the triathlon.
Vaidyanathan, 36, was a chubby teenager whose singular focus on academics led her to the US in 1998. She went to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, to study computer science but when she transferred to Purdue, a private university in Indiana, she lost her scholarship. “When you go to an engineering school, you tend to gain at least 15 pounds (6.8 kg). The programme was very stressful, and I was working because I’d lost my full ride to Knox when I moved to Purdue. There were on-campus jobs where you could work up to 20 hours, but mealtimes were restricted to what was just across the street, which was usually McDonald’s,” says Vaidyanathan, who started putting on weight and decided to go running after a friend suggested it.
After Purdue, she headed to North Carolina State University for her Master’s degree and later, to the PhD programme in electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “I was really unhappy in that programme for a number of reasons and I found running, swimming, and cycling to be great stress-busters. It gave me some time to myself,” she says. She was dating a runner who first mentioned triathlons to her. But her academic situation wasn’t getting better. At 23, she decided to quit her PhD and return to Bangalore.
If you want to know how safe a city is, go running or cycling. As Vidyanathan would set off on her daily route, running through Bangalore, she found herself followed by strange men, catcalled and leered at, and nearly run over. “In India, the challenges for a sportswoman are structural, especially finding a place to run, to swim,” says Vaidyanathan, who snuck into private residential building pools to train. “Running is a poor man’s sport, you only need a pair of shoes and the road, but it is difficult for a woman to access public spaces in India. While more women are running now, the sport has always been about access and privilege. But with runners’ groups, more women can come together and reclaim public spaces and train,” she says, who set up PatNMarks, a company that offers services in the area of intellectual property rights. On a work trip to New Zealand, Vaidyanathan found herself running half-marathons (21.09 km) and when she returned to India, she participated in the Hyderabad Half Marathon in 2005. A year later, she contemplated competing in the Ironman triathlons.
A triathlon involves running, swimming and cycling in immediate succession over various distances. The Ironman triathlon —a 3.86 km swim, 180.25 km bicycle ride and a 42.20 km marathon — is one of the most gruelling one-day sporting events in the world. “Training for my first Ironman was a personal test, a pursuit of excellence, both physical and mental,” says Vaidyanathan, who recalls how competitors from all over the world were surprised to see a traditional-looking Indian girl run alongside them. She completed it in 12 hours, 42 minutes of racing and 18 minutes of transitioning. “I’m very lucky and privileged that my family has been so supportive of my passion. In India, a woman’s life is mostly predetermined. So it’s been very disorienting to figure out what I’ve wanted to do with my life,” she says.
What began as a low-stress initiative to get a little “me time” and live healthier grew into a mission — she competed in Ironman Brazil and Ironman New Zealand in 2007, half-Ironman in Australia, New Zealand, and the US. In 2009, Vaidyanathan entered herself in Ultraman Canada, that comprised a 10-km swim, 420-km bike ride and 84.4-km run, and was the first Asian to complete it.
Today, Vaidyanathan is taking an extended break from triathlons; she’s busy running her company and bringing up her infant son. “My work now involves a lot of travelling and I wasn’t able to run till recently. But I’m getting back to it. The thing about chasing your identity is a life-long thing, it doesn’t end with failure or success,” she says.