Fearless on the ECR

The East Coast Road was a triathlete’s dream, a hundred miles of uninterrupted riding to Puducherry on Saturdays


The Pancha Rathas in Mamallapuram. Photo: Anu Vaidyanathan
The Pancha Rathas in Mamallapuram. Photo: Anu Vaidyanathan

The first stop on my book tour was at Mamallapuram. It was ironic that I had returned to the East Coast Road (ECR), nearly a decade after I used to train there, almost every morning on weekends. For a 20-something, Chennai, as opposed to Bengaluru, was a great place to be. It was much more industrious—one could find a cup of steaming coffee at 4am, at a roadside eatery, served by a man in white banian (singlet) and chequered lungi (called veshti in Tamil). The ECR was a triathlete’s dream, a hundred miles of uninterrupted riding to Puducherry (Pondicherry for the uninformed) on Saturdays. Sundays were a little different because people loved racing their motorcycles there and often there would be an odd film shoot.

Returning to my old training grounds, I was struck by the unfamiliarity of it all for the first 30-odd kilometres. A lot of construction had encroached on to the highway. After that patch, however, the road was more recognizable—grey tar surrounded by sand and thorny bushes in some patches, the obligatory billboards, almost all populated by men with moustaches selling everything from mouth freshener to music. The saving grace on the trip was my cab driver, an avid cyclist (he even showed me his calves) who was very excited when I told him about triathlon and who went on to narrate his own solo cycling trip from Mamallapuram to Mysuru. 

I did not have a bike but I took his story to be a cosmic sign that I was on the right road. The next morning, at 6.30, I hurriedly called a cab and headed out towards the tourist sites in Mamallapuram. Sometimes, it feels safer and more uninhibited to be in the company of tourists. The roads were narrow so I decided to start my run at the Shore Temple. After a mile, I found myself at the Pancha Rathas site. I was starting to get heckled by the tourist guides in the area so I turned around and ran back to the temple. I felt I could do a little more, so I did two more loops on the same road. It was easy to predict the turns the second and third time around, and this helped me dodge traffic, tour guides and the odd cow. When I was done, I took a few minutes to dip my feet into the Bay of Bengal, while admiring the fishing boats leaving the shore. 

Admittedly, I feel out of place when I try to run or ride in new places, even if I can speak the local language. My earlier adventures on the ECR were made easier by the company of people who knew that I would be training there at a particular time of the day. I had no such safety net on this visit. Instead of letting that stop me from running, I felt it was better to rely on common sense, construct a loop that was not intimidating in distance or too far from people in the area and finish my intended run to whatever degree I could. The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.”

Almost always, setting fear aside works in my favour. Almost always.

Anu Vaidyanathan is a lost sole and author of Anywhere But Home. In a bimonthly series, she recounts her experiences of being on the run in not so well-known places. She tweets at @anuvaidyanathan

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