NRI Pulse


Anu Vaidyanathan: India’s First Ironman Rides Past Stereotypes

Anu Vaidyanathan is India’s first athlete to compete in the Ironman triathlons and the first Asian to compete in the Ultraman triathlons. She recently completed RAGBRAI, a seven day ride of 468 miles, starting at the western border of Iowa and ending in the eastern border at the Mississippi River.

Vaidyanathan holds a PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Christ Church in Cantebury in a record of 26 months, a Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering from and Purdue University and a Master’s in Computer Engineering from North Carolina State University. She started PatNMarks, an Intellectual Property Consulting Firm and has also taught at the Indian Institute of Technology, Ropar.

Here, she talks to SUPRIYA D. G. about the challenges she’s had to face preparing for the triathlons and juggling her roles as mother, entrepreneur and triathlete.

You just finished the Ragbrai. How did you train for it?
Frankly, we have had a very busy work schedule since our baby came and I have hardly had time to brush my teeth on most days. We are pretty selfish about our time with our child too so, training definitely was not a big focus. I trained on a largely reduced volume, often going to the gym well past 7pm. I did whatever I could, whenever I found the time. It’s a cycling event so I did a lot of work on the bike and in the gym consistently.

Iron Man, Ultra Man…do these superhero titles sit heavily on your shoulders? What does it mean for your personally to have your endurance and skill tested in this manner?
I don’t think of myself as a superhero – never have, never will. I find being a mom the most heroic thing I will probably ever do. This is a tough task, if one gets it right, gets along with their kids and shares a few laughs. I hope I succeed on that one! Besides sport is not something to weigh you down – it should be uplifting, fun and positive. Not “heavy” or “negative” or “weighing anyone down” – that is not how I view it. I have been an athlete for over a decade now so it is a part of my identity – It is a part of who I am, for a long time to come.

University education is meant to prepare you for the competitive world outside. How does the competitiveness in extreme sport compare with the competitiveness at the University?
University education is highly overrated beyond the obvious hamster wheel of commerce everyone has to spin on to survive. My education on the field is way more valuable to me. “People would always like to think an education translates to real-world lessons however I would say that other than winning popularity contests (because of having the right degrees, which are sadly a big part of professional life), education prepares you for nothing. Reading(books or anything to broaden one’s knowledge) and writing on the other hand are really all the tools one needs. Endurance sport and university did not have much in common for me except the work-ethic I brought to both – which came largely from my parents. Education was my meal-ticket, coming from a home with self-made people.

For most women, struggling with work and career, their motherhood is something that cannot be openly acknowledged. Yet, you are very candid about your motherhood and the time you need to care for your child. Would you say that this privilege of choice comes because of your achievements?
I would say the privilege of choice exists for everyone, very few are probably able to assert it. I own my own show so maybe I have a degree of freedom in speaking my mind but I think my privileges come from my family and friends, who enable me to a degree.

That being said, your point is well taken. Corporate life, with all its obvious benefits, does seem quite stifling – more so for women and even more so for mothers. There may be one or two corporations who give mothers a lot of support but every woman does not work for those one or two corporations. Its tough.

RAGBRAI is the Registrar’s Annual Great Bicycle Race Across Iowa. It is a seven day ride of 468 miles, starting at the western border of Iowa and ending in the eastern border at the Mississippi River with routes changing every time in this longest, oldest and largest race. A random computer lottery selects the 8,500 week long riders and the 1,500 daily riders.
 The Ultraman World Championships covers a total distance of 320 miles (515 km), on the Big Island of Hawii. Each participant completes a 6.2 mile (10km) open ocean swim, a 261.4 mile (421km) cross country bike ride and a 52.4 mile (84km) ultra marathon run.

Do you have a support system that enables your hectic life?
I have a lot of emotional support from my parents, my in-laws and my husband. Nothing I do would be possible without their faith in me and their interest in my success. That being said, we live pretty independently – we do our own dishes most of the days, do laundry, put things away, take care of our kid – we don’t live a life of huge dependence on maids or cooks. That being said, no, I did not have anyone to take care of our baby while training for a long time – I finished my day and then waited for my husband to help with the baby when I needed to train and vice-versa.

Do you worry about jeopardizing your life and limb, especially now that you have started a family? What keeps you going?
I think our kids pick up what we put out – if we breed fear, there is no hope so no, this never occurred to me. Luckily, I am not participating in Mixed Martial Art so, I plan to continue doing what I am doing to the best of my ability for as long as I can.  I am definitely always careful while training – That did not change much after motherhood – I remain careful now too.

I do want to say here that men have a much easier time when it comes to parenting, at least for the first year or so. I know exactly what you are asking with this question because I do see a lot of women developing a lot of fears, be it post-partum or just later in life. The thing to keep in mind is that it is more detrimental to be afraid, if you are a woman. There is just a lot of responsibility on us to begin with so, there is no room for fear. All of us have our share of fears but mine are not related to life or limb with respect to sport! I would be an unhappy partner, daughter, mother if I was not true to my own identity and if I stopped doing what makes me happy. That is not part of the bargain.

Do you have to workout everyday to stay in shape to compete/participate? Has pregnancy and motherhood changed that too much?
Of course time has shrunk to bare minimum but I consider perfection less important than effort. I had a fit pregnancy but some small barriers post-partum – I think working out has always been a focus of my life so even if it has reduced, it will never go away.

Your professional life involves something more intellectual and cognitive. Do you have to separate this from your involvement in sport or do you find a connection between the two?
The only similarity between my sport and my career outside sport running PatNMarks is the ethic I bring to the table. Being a sportswoman has taught me to be a straight shooter, cut the bullshit and focus on the work. Of course Corporate India/world is a lot more crooked than the sports field – that way, there are fewer similarities, in fact almost none!

Would you like to tell us about your current/pet projects?
We will have an announcement to make soon on a book I am writing, which is due to release early next year – it is about my journey in endurance sport. Other pet projects are the same as last year – try to keep some plants alive, try to keep my kitchen clean and my head straight!

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