Seeds of Triathlon

When I was a kid, my parents would whisk the whole family off for summer vacations to their ancestral homeland—India. The culture shock of going from Northern California –McDonald’s, Datsun pickups, stoplights and lane lines to India—land of home-cooked meals, Fiats, and no discernable traffic laws boggled my mind.

Every two years my parents packed us up and we headed on the whirl-wind trip through Japan, Thailand and onto New Delhi. From New Delhi, we usually took a 13 hour drive by taxi to my grandparent’s house. We alternated between one set of grandparents and the other every couple of weeks. We went to the Bazaar by a bicycle-pulled rickshaw. The Rickshaw ‘driver’ (I don’t’ know why he was called a driver, as he was usually pulling 6 people—not driving) was often a skinny guy with tiny ankles straining to pull us up a hill toward the bazaar. We, as the landed gentry sat back and spoke haughtily about how much we spent on this-or-that, while gazing downward at all the proletariat walking or running to a job or home. But I was often intrigued and pittied the man who had to pull me, my brother, my mom, my dad, and usually at least one grandparent close to 5 miles. Somehow the idea that manual work was for—well, others—became ingrained in my psyche as a young girl. Physical labor was for those who couldn’t afford to NOT do physical labor.

As I got older, we went less and less. High school commitments kept my busy most summers. Then summer jobs thwarted my parent’s plans for “one more family vacation.” Finally, college beckoned and with it, the idea of traveling overseas, when I could be making money at home, seemed stupid.

Finally, my last trip to India was in the summer of 1993. Two of my grandparents had died. It was before my last year in college and I wanted to have some fun before I made the final push to get the elusive Bachelor of Science degree. Plus my boyfriend was going to Germany for the summer, so I’d probably be bored sitting around all summer.

But I had changed. The idea that doing something physical meant that you were ‘lower than’ no longer struck a cord with me. I tried to go for short runs in the oppressive heat only to have my Aunts and Uncles yell at me that I would surely die after a few steps (seriously—they thought I would keel over). I wanted to ride a bike to the bazaar for some shopping—but everyone said, “but people will think you are poor. Come, we can go in our new air conditioned Mercedes.” I asked about swimming opportunities in the canals nearby, but it was totally unheard of for a young lady to show anything other than her arms and face outside. So I languished. I had servants bring me breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea and snacks. They folded my laundry, drew me baths, and cooked my meals. And I sat. and I ate. And yet, I wanted to be outside DOING something.

I guess it was during that last trip in 1993 that the seeds of future triathlons were planted. Everyone telling me “NO” started a fire in me that burns to this day.

Why am I writing all this? My only remaining grandparent is my maternal grandmother. She is extremely old fashioned. She doesn’t’ think girls should ride bikes because it isn’t ladylike. In any case, she has heard through the family grapevine that I started running. “Running? Really? But Karen will get darker? What does ‘hubby’ say about this?”

When she heard I swam in the lake she was concerned about my attracting “undue” attention from men and how could I swim without being fully clothed and what did my husband think about me going around half naked in water?

But the funniest thing—the thing I can’t stop laughing about—is when she was told that her oldest granddaughter (me) rode 45 miles on her bike a few weeks ago. Her response, “Why the @&$# did she do that? Did her husband lose his job? Did they wreck their car?” It never occurred to her that I enjoyed riding my bike. That all those years of “NO” have created a personality that says “YES I CAN, DAMMIT!”

Yesterday, I rode 60 miles on my bike in 3:44. It was my longest ride ever.

I can’t wait to call my grandma this evening and tell her.


  1. Hey! found your blog via google alerts. Love the story.

  2. What a culture shock, eh?

    Japanese women are not usually known for exercising much either and my mom always asks me why I'm doing it. It's dangerous, unladylike, you're getting too dark, too skinny, blah, blah, etc.

    Nice job on your long ride!

  3. This is one of my favorite blog posts ever! I laughed at the fact that you would only ride your bike that far if you were broke. Nice job with your long ride.


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