In her shoes

Posted on July 23, 2016


A breathless, fascinating account of a woman who keeps hurling herself into gruelling tests of endurance.

As someone who goes to bed praying the morning papers will publish findings that pizza is good for weight loss, two questions popped up when I read Anywhere but Home: Adventures in Endurance, written by Anu Vaidyanathan, “the first Asian female to have competed in Ultraman Canada.” It sounds suspiciously like auditioning for a superhero movie set in Nova Scotia, but what is it really? The answer to this is easy enough, as it exists in the finite and definable realms of sport and mathematics: a 10-km swim, a 420-km bike ride, and an 84.4 km run. (Four weeks later, again in Canada, Vaidyanathan switched her allegiance to a different superhero: Ironman. This time, a 3.8 km swim, a 180-km bike ride, a 42.2 km run.) I then asked the tougher question, the answer to which lies in the diffuse dimensions of metaphysics: Why? I get why people climb the Everest. It sounds like something you’d want on your obituary note, or at least your Facebook post. But what glories can swimming, running and biking bring?

As it turns out, Vaidyanathan is searching for a “why” too. Despite the broad motivational-poster nature of the narrative (sample quote: “If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing”), Anywhere but Home is also an intimate portrait of a single woman in India – “a quintessential Tamilian Brahmin – five times a year at least, during Pongal, Nombu, Ganapathi Chaturthi, Krishna Jayanti and Deepavali” – brushing off the “when are you going to settle down?” question, training on bad roads, without much money for equipment, putting her body through unimaginable stress, all because… Because… The answer, finally, comes from Victor Frankl, the writer and Holocaust survivor. What athletes do with their goal-setting “frees them up from commerce or the meaningless pursuit of goals that depend on other people’s validation.” The other reason: “the grand challenges of survival were absent because we were children of luxury.” Hence the transformation of life into a hurdle race with a series of self-imposed challenges.

Vaidyanathan writes like a runner – breathlessly, without getting sidetracked. The pages seem to pant. The prose is observant (“watching dark grey clouds tease the distance between them and my rear-view mirror”), if sometimes too cute (a chapter is titled “An Inheritance O’Floss”). And often very funny, in the way everything circles back to running, even romance. About an early boyfriend, she writes, “I think I was in love. You would have to be, with a boy who took you on a 13-km run through the woods on a first date.” Later, she writes about dating a tall, soft-spoken German boy who did not understand why a ride was so much more exciting than a movie. “Miffed with his lack of understanding, I took off on a long run.”

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I must say I saw the German boyfriend’s point. Vaidyanathan is quite a character, someone whose idea of a memorable Thursday includes a 3.5-km swim, a two-hour run, an hour of commuting on the bike, and thirty minutes of upper-body weights. (One can only imagine what her idea of a perfect Valentine’s Day is.) The book is filled with lines like “I thought it would be a fun ride between Christchurch and Nelson [New Zealand], upwards of 400 km, in three days.” She never seems to rest. If she’s not working towards a PhD in Electrical Engineering (she was tireless in academics too; she landed one of the biggest scholarships from the PhD programme in Christchurch), she is back at her home in Bangalore, plunging into business with a start-up. Her mind is always ticking, even while running. She keeps talking to trees, mountains, waves, even the blue pouch on her waist whose zip gets stuck.

Given that Anywhere but Home is mostly the story of a solitary pursuit, it’s surprising to find so many mentions of family, friends. We become part of the people Vaidyanathan leaves behind when she goes off on her runs and bikes and swims. We meet the people she yearns to be with while living out of suitcases. We get to know her roommates and boyfriends (though we never seem to know when the relationships ended). We meet members of the running community, people who seem to think nothing of scrounging up money and flying off to exotic locations (Brazil! China!) for endurance events. And everyone is so giving. During a run, when Vaidyanathan was suffering from dehydration, massive stress from sleeplessness and worries about an unsupportive crew, “Lena held my hand for nearly two kilometres, running alongside me, reminding me to never give up.”

The last chapter deals with another sort of hand-holder, another kind of search, finding “someone crazy enough to marry me.” And we sense a calming down, especially after the birth of Vaidyanathan’s son. “Giving birth brought with it a moment of great clarity. There was magic beyond what any class in engineering, science or objective observation had taught me. However, to sustain that magic past the endorphin rush of birth would involve a great deal of humility… Overnight, I went from being someone’s daughter to being someone’s mother.” The epiphany lasted about six weeks. Soon, Vaidyanathan was back on the road, participating in a 10-km race. It wasn’t easy, but she finished the run, “just for the pleasure of having my son know that his mother embraced life’s challenges.”

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