Book excerpt: Anywhere But Home4 min read . Updated: 05 Jul 2016, 08:55 PM IST
In an excerpt from her book, Anu Vaidyanathan, the only Asian woman to have competed in the Ultraman triathlon, recounts her time in China, where she raced in two Ironmans in the span of six weeks
I started working on a few more ideas for research papers and experiments in the lab, but I felt my bike performance in New Zealand could have been a lot better. Five-and-a-half weeks after a satisfying race at Ironman New Zealand, I found myself on a flight to Haikou, China. The idea of doing two Ironman races six weeks apart seemed like a fun adventure in testing my abilities, both physical and mental. So I found very affordable tickets and decided that a new laptop could wait.
China was nothing like India, but the people in the rural parts appeared to share similar circumstances. Haikou had plenty of green rice fields and wonderful people. I got to hitch a ride on a moped with a lady farmer. She was transporting some sacks of rice to a vendor. As she ferried me and her sacks past a local protest by farm labourers, I thought I was in heaven. Strangely, at the race check-in, I could see no Chinese women. The Asian women I ran into were mostly Americans or ex-pats from Hong Kong and the Far East. I wondered what that meant. Race morning dawned before I knew it and I was not stressed. I was stressed about not being stressed, but that was not too stressful. I checked my bike bottles in and literally ran to the ocean. The swim was a two-loop event and even though I thought of several reasons to stop swimming, I never did. I just kept swimming and before I knew it, the swim was over in about an hour and twenty-seven minutes, seven minutes slower than my time at Ironman New Zealand. Great. I thought to myself, I knew I should have been more stressed! This is not a picnic, Vaidyanathan. Look alive. Once on my bike, I felt great after getting past the first 15 km or so, and felt in perfect harmony with the pace. No pain, no complaints, and no loss of focus. The bike course wound through some villages and I would not have swapped this part of the course for all the money in the world. The crowd was very supportive, the kids cheering us on were beautiful, and every time we smiled, they would cheer enthusiastically. I was flying according to the speedometer. The temperature kept rising steadily, and the second lap was a little more challenging than the first because I had to stop to get Gatorade and water at every aid station. The volunteers were similar to the volunteers in Bangalore during my first-ever half-marathon. They had no idea what they were doing. I did not realize it when I was riding, but the temperature had climbed to 30 degrees Celsius by the midway point. I wasn’t happy stopping to get my fluids because it was eating up precious time, but I had no choice in the matter. I finished the ride in 6 hours and 40 minutes, twenty minutes faster than at Ironman New Zealand, and got off my bike feeling dizzy, but happy. The heat had settled at 35 degrees Celsius and 80-90 per cent humidity, and pretty soon I was radiating heat. The asphalt road seemed to be steaming, and a wall of heat cloaked me on the run. One of the competitors took a fifteen-minute swim on the beach during the run, to cool off .
I ran the whole course believing I was in the third place in my age group. Turned out I was fourth, but I had run twenty-seven minutes faster than the woman who placed third. I had no issues with that. I had worked on my bike and swim consistently for about six months and I had to keep that in perspective – the run would always be my strongest event. I ran the last 5 km in twenty-seven minutes and I knew that if I had not barfed twice during the run, I could have done it much faster. I tried multiplying seventeen and seventeen in my mind, but I did not succeed. I played Scrabble instead and rearranged big words into smaller words. The word ‘EARTH’ was my favourite because it had ‘HEAR’, ‘HEAT’, ‘HEART’, ‘RATE’ and ‘EAT’ in it. I stayed in China for two days after the race, ending my trip with a 2,300-step speed-walk around the Great Wall. I knew then that The Art of War was not to be taken lightly. Back on the flight to Christchurch, I was fired up to keep competing because I knew I had performed really well under difficult weather conditions, and soon after completing Ironman New Zealand. I reset my expectations on time and took in the fact that I was enjoying myself immensely. I was balancing difficult goals, felt excited and inspired, and that made it all worth it.
I would return to China the following year, looking forward to a decent race in Haikou. There were still no women from China, even in the second edition. And luck had other people to favour with a new swim course, on Nandu River, making plans of its own. I ended up hitting my head on a crew boat owing to a strong current, and racing with a concussion for over twelve hours before getting too dizzy to continue and being pulled out by a doctor. I thought that was rather funny, and what was even funnier were the visitors from English speaking countries complaining about travel and racing conditions in the Third World. I thought about the Chinese farmer I had hitched a ride with the previous year. Both she and I listened to the beat of only one drummer, in our own heads. She didn’t have to speak English for me to realize how much more empowered she was than these silly travellers with their bike bags, complaining about botulism.