The eve of inspiration

Sport, for many, is an outlet for different desires and challenges

Probably the most frequent question I get pertains to inspiration: “What inspired you to do this?" “This" could allude to a number of different things. In graduate school, it was often incredulous undergraduates, from whom I had fun learning the caveats of true American work ethic, querying me on my 128-credit course load at Purdue University, which I ran through in three years. In the workplace, it is often related to me working my way up towards an Ultraman finish, nine months before completing my PhD in record time. I am sure many of my relatives wanted to know what inspired me to marry a Punjabi boy, who was not just from a place 3,500km away from home, but did not know how to tie a veshti (dhoti) properly.

A lot of the fine print is often ignored and being as shallow as I am, I often let it slide. For example, the record I set during my PhD was in a small college in New Zealand. My only motivation then was to achieve the biggest challenge I could set for myself in the modest situation I found myself in, to set myself apart for work prospects. Working towards an Ultraman took several years of beating around the sport, furiously scratching my head about how to afford it all, honestly, out of my own pay cheques. There was no glory in hardship. My relatives would take time to understand that it had taken me a long time to find someone (he’s from Ropar) whose expectations from life matched my own. Besides, a veshti is hard to iron.

All through life, the question of inspiration is posed or answered, in many ways, over and over again. Sport, for many, is an outlet for different desires and challenges. One of my old friends picked up running to quit smoking, get in shape and be a better father. Another did it to deal with his daughter’s battle with leukaemia. Another picked up running to beat the boredom of being a stay-at-home mom. Another decided that being a triathlete was a lot more interesting than being a counsellor; she had so many problems of her own that needed introspection on her runs. Another picked it up to beat addiction, to alcohol and drugs—he fuelled his desires more productively that way. It also gave them a way to get their children involved in something competitive outside school. I personally took to sport to lose some weight, fit into some skinny jeans and impress a boy. That I would go this far with it was quite unimaginable, even to me.

My inspiration changed over time though. After several half marathons, multiple-century, or 160km-plus bike rides in 12 hours, and long swims, I decided to take on a gnarly marathon—where the course was hilly and mostly off-road. I don’t remember the name or the time but I do remember swimming the very next day, thinking that was fun. My second attempt at the 42.2km was a week after my first Ironman. The next day after that was less fun; I was in a wheelchair with a grumpy flight attendant wheeling me to my plane home to Bengaluru.

In the years that followed, sport gave me a way to beat the incredible reverse culture shock of fitting back in Bengaluru. I had been used to a city that dreamt big and housed rebels—now most of them smoked pot, lived with their parents well after they should have been doing, and respected their elders and their opportunities less and less.

I was not inspired by the disparities we lived with but running inspired me to get through my day without too much grief. It gave me, as it did my friend with the daughter who was a fighter, a way to cope. Going back to get a PhD, my inspiration was simply to beat my own clock. Thankfully, I’ve never been someone who felt better by beating someone else—it was a concept as absurd as “Let’s go clubbing", to which one liberal friend of mine retorted: “What does that mean? Does it include baby seals (expletive deleted)?"

When I went to the Indian Institute of Technology, Ropar, I ran every day, being inspired by the work ethic of the neighbourhood I was living in—farmers who toiled long hours; women who were brilliant in their resolve (I met the first woman swimming coach in Punjab, she was tough and no, she did not ask me to get married) and who took no shit from men; and the optimism of semi-rural India, which had more drugstores than hospitals.

Inspiration, not unlike optimism, comes and goes. Luckily, it’s not topsoil—there is an infinite supply available in life, if you take the time to introspect and find it. Even if it is on a 30-minute run, at a 12-minute pace, in your old sneakers, with your next-door neighbour who is 52 years old.

Anu Vaidyanathan is a long-course triathlete, the first Indian to compete in the Ironman and the first Asian to complete Ultraman Canada.

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