For years, Nepalese child soldier turned ultra-runner Mira Rai trained alone every morning, but now she leads other young women through the hills, hoping sport can help them break the cycle of poverty and discrimination.
Rai, born in a farmer’s house in eastern Nepal, became a trail running prodigy in 2014 after her racing debut in a steep 50km (31 mile) run in the capital Kathmandu.
Within a year, she finished first in the 80km (50 mile) Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc in Chamonix and was the second woman in the Skyrunner World Series, securing sponsorships including from the manufacturer French sports Salomon.
She went on to win races around the world, including the 120km (74-mile) Ben Nevis Ultra in Scotland in 2017, when she was named National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year for standing up for women in the world. sport.
The same year, she launched the Mira Rai initiative to train young women like her from underprivileged backgrounds.
“I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have the chance to find support,” she says. “This sport can change the lives of others as it has done 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 running across hills to fetch water or go to school. .
Rather, they are expected to marry early, raise children, and keep the house fires going while the men work.
According to the Himalayan Nation’s 2016 Demographic and Health Survey, around 50% of Nepalese women between the ages of 25 and 49 are married before their 18th birthday, often due to poverty. Only about a quarter of Nepalese women participate in the labor force.
“It’s not easy to play sports as a woman. But girls need to be empowered,” she said. “Otherwise their potential is easily wasted and they will live a life of anonymity.”
One of her early interns, Sunmaya Budha, was heading for a teenage wedding until she persuaded her parents to delay the ceremony.
She started running in secret before being chosen to train with Rai, and in December she beat her trainer to second place in a 110 km (68 mile) race in the UTMB World Series event in Thailand.
“My victory is also his,” said Budha, who remains single at 23. “She opened doors for us.”
Rai was just 14 when she left her home in eastern Nepal to join Maoist rebels fighting to overthrow Nepal’s rulers, hoping she could do something for her family.
“My family struggled for even one meal…I always wanted to do something to get my parents out of this,” Rai said.
As a child soldier, she learned to shoot firearms and disarm her opponents, but also did a lot of running drills.
“They also gave opportunities to girls… So I was able to learn a lot there,” she said.
But when the decade-long rebellion ended in 2006, former child soldiers such as Rai were disqualified from joining the national army.
With little money or career prospects, she was ready to leave to work in a Malaysian electronics factory, but her karate instructor urged her to stay.
Unable to afford the 15-cent bus fare to the nearest stadium, she began with test drives on the capital’s congested roads, on one of which she was spotted and invited to participate in a race.
Dressed in a cheap t-shirt and $3 shoes, she ran for hours before feeling dizzy and stopping to stock up on juice and noodles.
“Since I was little, I’ve been running in the hills in my village, so it wasn’t completely new to me,” she said.
Rai won that first contest and a pair of running shoes, which kick-started his trail running career.
Now 33, injuries and the pandemic have curtailed her competitive activities and she is more focused on coaching others.
The initiative, funded by the Hong Kong chapter of community group Asia Trail Girls, selects young girls with potential from across Nepal for a nine-month program in Kathmandu.
As well as sportswear and running shoes, they receive lessons in English, public speaking and social media management – with optional tour guide training.
“I share what I know with girls who want to get into trail running,” Rai said. “I want them to be independent, even if in the future they don’t become runners.”
Among his current prospects is Anita Rai, 22, a farmer’s daughter from Solukhumbu, the district that includes Mount Everest.
“I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t selected for this,” she said.
“We run all the time in my village, but I didn’t know it could also be a sport.”