Anu Vaidyanathan: Riding against all odds
As an 18-year-old Anu Vaidyanathan claims to have been the quintessential Tamilian Brahmin girl. But, only five times a year — Pongal, Nombu, Ganesh Chaturthi, Krishna Jayanti and Diwali. During the remaining 360 days, she was just another teenager, who "found MS Subbulakshmi and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers equally appealing, and scandalised her aunts no end, watching Sex and the City uncensored".
It's somewhere around this time, when she was studying at the undergraduate school in Purdue University in the US, that she began running. Vaidyanathan described it as a "natural way to beat the stress" that came with pursuing a tough college programme. But, one thing led to another, and nearly a decade later in 2009, she became the first Asian to complete the Ultraman Canada. The feat, which involved a punishing 10-km swim, a 420-km bike ride and an 84.4-km run, put Vaidyanathan on the road that women marathoners in India are yet to cover. But, why so?
Bengaluru-based Vaidyanathan's new memoir 'Anywhere But Home: Adventures in Endurance' (HarperCollins) that releases next month, will answer, if partly, questions plaguing the endurance sport. And how it isn't easy for women to burn the turf, despite the inclination and resolve. "I don't want to remember the difficulties I faced because, I don't like focusing on the negatives," says the 36-year-old triathlon athlete in a telephonic interview.
Of course, there were the usual suspects, she recalls, who never made it easy for her. But, that pushed Vaidyanathan harder to accomplish what she had set out for. "As athletes, we already have to contend with the lack of access to good roads, and bad air quality. With women, the problems run deeper, because we have to battle with issues like insecurity, shame, acceptance and propriety," she says. "You obviously can't dress like a Reebok model and run on the roads without drawing attention," she claims. Not like women are any safer in their pajamas, adds Vaidyanathan, who has come in the line of fire even when cycling in her 'comfort clothing'.
"Riding on the highways (Bangalore-Mysore) was never fun. As part of my training, I would leave by 3.30 each morning. Once you form a pattern, you become an easy sitting target," says Vaidyanathan. In her book she recounts one such incident: "One day in 2007, when I was out riding my bike early in the morning, I realised that two men were following me on a moped. This continued for nearly 20 minutes. They were spouting profanities… I thought it was a one- off incident, but those two men found me again within a week. Thankfully, I boarded a bus. The driver was not so friendly and cursed at me until one lady with a basket laden with fruit shouted right back at him. I was so grateful to her that I was almost in tears."
From then on, on her father's advice, she took a train to Chennai every weekend, training on the highway between Chennai and Pondicherry because the route was relatively safer. All the while, she had a job in Bengaluru, because it paid for her training. Closer to home in Bengaluru, her swimming coach advised her to get married, instead of training to participate in such a rigorous sport. That's one reason why Vaidyanathan opted to train on her own, learning from her peers and fellow athletes.
Qutting? No way
Vaidyanathan, who is also the only Indian triathlete to have qualified for the 70.3 Half-Ironman World Championship, says that despite the few-odd hiccups, she never considered giving up. "Because running is something I do for my own pleasure," she says.
As a child Vaidyanathan found sports anything, but pleasurable. "In fact, I was a very chubby geek, who only loved books. I thought any form of physical exercise was a punishment, and I would do everything I could, to stay out of marching class. The contrast here was that while I didn't like the regulated forms of exercises, I had a very active childhood, riding my bike from home to school — a distance of 7km — every day," she says.
Of late, the athlete-turned-businesswoman — Vaidyanathan is also the founder of PatNMarks, an Intellectual Property Consulting Firm — has been taking it slow, thanks to her two-year-old son. "Motherhood is keeping me busy," she says. Sports can wait, but that doesn't mean Vaidyanathan has stopped running. Only now, it's of a different kind.