How often does a girl from a remote village in Nepal win the title of National Geographic Adventurer of the Year? Not very often, but that is already changing, thanks to Mira Rai.
The Trail Blazer Rai
Trail running has emerged as the new favourite sport which entails running on mountain trails. In the US alone, the number of trail runners has doubled to around 6 million in the last decade. Trail running marathons are held across the globe and span across picturesque scenic terrains and trails of 50 km or more. Mira Rai chanced upon one such trail running marathon all by accident.
Rai lived with her family in a remote village in the hills of Bhojpur in Nepal – their only means of livelihood limited to tending livestock and farming. As a child, she chased goats, carried water, sacks of rice grain and firewood up and down the rocky mountainous terrain. With no opportunities for girls nor the time for education, Rai quit school when she was merely 12 and joined the Maoist movement. Two years later, she was forced to come back home when the Maoist rebels amalgamated with the Army.
Soon, she left for Kathmandu to train in Karate and supported her family and helped in paying for the education of her younger siblings by doing odd jobs. Time went on without bringing much luck to Rai and perhaps, nothing would have changed for her if she had not gone for a jog that fateful day, some two years ago.
Grit and Gore
While jogging at the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park in Kathmandu, she chanced upon a few trail runners and struck up a conversation with them for a while. They invited her to join them for another race scheduled in the next couple of days. True to her word, Rai showed up only to find that she had inadvertently signed up for the Kathmandu West Valley Rim 50 Km – one of the most challenging of trail running marathons in Nepal.
As she ran, without decent shoes or gear and with no food or water, little did she know that she had begun on a journey of a lifetime. Rain and hail made the trail muddy and treacherous, but she refused to quit. The only female trail runner participant, she managed to finish the race and won the admiration of many including that of Richard Bull, the co-founder of Trail Running Nepal, a Kathmandu-based organisation responsible for trail running races in the region.
A Star Is Born
A supporter for Nepali trail runners, Bull and his company helped Rai train and participate in trail running across the world. In 2015, Rai won second place in the Skyrunning World Championships. Her running career, however, was cut short by injury and subsequent surgery that prevented her from further participation. But Rai was not one to be put down by life’s challenges. She knew that there was more than one way to repay the faith people had put in her.
Sports was a distant possibility for women in her village, much less a career opportunity. She decided to change that. Rai took it upon herself to bring awareness and participation for trail running as a sport in her village. She worked with her mentors and organisers to raise enough capital to stage a trail running race in her village. She did everything she could – from selling pasta at a race in Italy to liaising with the large community of trail runners for donations. The proceeds of the screening of the documentary based on her life, Mira, was used to fund her dream of bringing the sport of trail running to remote villages like hers.
She managed to secure shoes for children who had none and finally in mid-October of 2016, she found the success she had been looking for. A hundred and more was the number of people who showed up for the race and pledged their support. A dream was fulfilled as 15 to 35 year olds ran up, down and around the short race trail with enthusiasm that would have made anybody proud.
Mira Rai put Nepal on the world map of trail running. All she wants to do is to give back a part of what she received so her fellow countrymen and women can do the same. The challenges are many – lack of sponsorship for sports, training facilities, funds, etc. But Rai is one determined woman. For her, breaking stereotypes across villages with a predominantly patriarchal mindset is no less of a success or an adventure in itself.
Women, who hardly stepped out of their homes, now have a chance to make it big in the world. Trail running tournaments are organised around villages in Nepal to scout for talent to project into the international arena. And it would not have been possible without Mira Rai.
She brings a new meaning to the Nepalese saying: “Khana Pugyos, Dina Pugyos” – let there be enough to eat, let there be enough to give.