KATHMANDU (AFP) – For years Nepali child soldier turned ultra-runner Mira Rai trained alone every morning, but now she leads other young women up and down the hills, hoping the sport can help them break cycles of poverty and discrimination.
Rai, born in a farmer’s home in Nepal, emerged as a trail running prodigy in 2014 after her racing debut in a steep 50-kilometre race in Kathmandu. Within a year she finished first at the 80-kilometre Mont Blanc Ultra in Chamonix, and was the second-placed woman in the Skyrunners World Series, garnering sponsorships including French sports manufacturer Salomon.
She went on to win races around the world, including the 120-kilometre Ben Nevis Ultra in Scotland in 2017, when she was named the National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year for championing women in sports. The same year, she began the Mira Rai Initiative to train young women like her from impoverished backgrounds.
“I don’t know where I would be if I wasn’t lucky enough to find support,” she said. “This sport can change lives for others like it did for me. That’s why I have to help.”
In deeply patriarchal Nepal, running is an unlikely career choice for girls, especially in rural communities – even though they grow up racing up and down hills to fetch water or to go to school. Some 50 per cent of Nepali women aged between 25 and 49 are married by their 18th birthday, according the Himalayan nation’s 2016 Demographic Health Survey. Only about a quarter of Nepali women participate in the labour force.
“It is not easy to pursue sports as a woman. But girls have to be empowered,” she said.
“Otherwise their potential is easily wasted and they will live a life of anonymity.” One of her first batch of trainees, Sunmaya Budha, was heading for a teenage marriage until she persuaded her parents to delay the ceremony.
She started racing secretly before she was chosen to train with Rai, and in December she beat her coach into second place in a 110-kilometre UTMB World Series Event race in Thailand. “My win is also hers,” said Budha, who remains unmarried at 23. “She opened the doors for us.”
Rai was only 14 when she left her home in eastern Nepal to join rebels fighting to overthrow Nepal’s rulers, hoping she could do something for her family. “My family struggled for even a single meal… I always wanted to do something to rescue my parents out of that situation,” Rai said.
As a child soldier, she learnt to shoot guns and disarm opponents – but also did extensive running exercises. “They would give opportunities to girls too… So I was able to learn a lot there,” she said. But when the decade-long insurgency ended in 2006, former child soldiers such as Rai were disqualified from joining the national army.
With little cash or career prospects, she was ready to leave for a job in a Malaysian electronics factory, but her karate instructor urged her to stay. She could not afford the 15-cent bus fare to the nearest stadium, so started with practice runs on the capital’s congested roads, on one of which she was spotted and invited to enter a race. Dressed in a cheap t-shirt and USD3 shoes, she ran for hours before she felt dizzy and stopped to refuel with juice and noodles.
“I have been running up and down hills in my village since I was little, so it was not completely new to me,” she said. Rai won that first contest, and a pair of running shoes, kick-starting her trail-running career.
Now 33, injuries and the pandemic have curtailed her competitive activities, and she is concentrating more on training others. The initiative selects young girls with potential from all over Nepal for a nine-month programme in Kathmandu.
As well as athletics clothes and running shoes, they are given lessons in English, public speaking, and social media handling – with tourism guide training an optional extra. “I am sharing what I know with girls who want to join trail running,” Rai said. “I want them to be independent, even if in future they don’t become runners.”
Among her current prospects is Anita Rai, 22, daughter of a farmer in Solukhumbu, the district that includes Mount Everest. “I’m not sure what I would be doing if I didn’t get selected for this,” she said.
“We run up and down hills all the time in my village, but I didn’t know this could be a sport too.”