Aformer child soldier for the Maoists, 29-year-old Mira Rai was convinced she had no future when the Nepal army rejected her during the post-war integration of rebel troops. That’s when she discovered trail running. Now she’s a household name in her homeland, and world famous among running aficionados. “I joined the Maoist army at 14,” says Rai, who won National Geographic’s 2017 Adventurer of the Year People’s Choice award. “To make it to the top without proper coaching and support is amazing!”
In 2014, Rai had left her home in Bhojpur for Kathmandu. She was training for competitive karate when some runners
she met while out hiking convinced her to enter the Himalayan Outdoor Festival Ultra—a 50 kilometre race in the West Kathmandu Valley. Despite having no training, and wearing a pair of cheap sneakers, she won. “There is not much support for sportswomen in Nepal. But I was lucky to meet people who thought I was a strong runner and helped me find opportunities,” she says. Rai also won the 200 km Mustang Trail Race later that year and racked up a slew of victories in ultras across Nepal before heading to Europe. There, she won races in Italy and France—and set a new record for the Mont Blanc 80 km Ultra in 2015, finishing in 12 hours and 32 minutes. Her biggest feat: a second-place finish in the Skyrunning World Championships.
Though any trekker can testify to the endurance of Nepalis, they are a nation of walkers, not runners. Short stature is a disadvantage in road racing. But the rock and scree of mountain trails are a different matter. Along with Rai, a host of Nepali runners are making waves on the international circuit. One, Dawa Dachhiri Sherpa—who holds the record for the 166 km Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc— may well be the most famous trail runner in France.
Rai’s manager, Kathmandubased British expatriate Richard Bull, says Rai’s success has been stunning. But her personality has helped. “There’s a rare combination of athletic talent and charisma there,” Bull says. “You don’t see too many photos of people grinning broadly into the camera six hours into a major race. Nor someone with very limited English stepping up for an interview for French national television and showing no nerves.”
At the moment, Rai is convalescing—in July last year, she had surgery to repair a torn ligament in her knee. “The anterior cruciate ligament keeps the knee in the correct position,” she says. “I broke it many years ago, but I was lucky to have it fixed by a great doctor.” This month, she travelled to Italy for further treatment. Rai now plans to compete in the 80 km Chamonix race in France on June 25. But the attention hasn’t gone to her head. While sidelined by her injury, she helped other village girls train and began organising local races to get them started. “I am just a small person who is very lucky,” she says. “I don’t know what tomorrow will bring—so I just have as much fun today as possible.”
RAI SET A NEW RECORD FOR THE MONT BLANC 80-KM ULTRA IN 2015, FINISHING IN 12 HOURS AND 32 MINUTES
MIRA RAI is a world class trail runner who stormed into the limelight in 2015