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Breaking With Tradition, This Trail Runner Is Finding Her Way

High-elevation racing phenom Mira Rai is on a mission to help the women of Nepal through sports.   Get to know all 10 honorees, then vote every day for the People's Choice until December 16, 2016. The winner will be announced in January 2017.

Two years ago, Nepali runner Mira Rai went for a jog in Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park, just outside of Kathmandu. As she darted along the hilly trails, she happened to meet a few other runners and casually jogged with them for a while, chatting and laughing. They told her to come back a few days later, for what she assumed was a training run. When she did so, she realized that a race—the Kathmandu West Valley Rim 50K—was about to fire off.

Rai had never competed in a trail race. She came from a village high in the mountains of Bhojpur, where her family eked out a living tending livestock. During her childhood, she chased after goats, collected firewood, shouldered 40-plus-pound sacks of rice, and slogged up and down the mountains to fetch water. She dreamed of a better life, but few opportunities arise in such remote areas, particularly for a girl.

“Generally there are no opportunities,” says Rai, who left school at age 12. “None. Access to education is limited for girls. Women don’t have that much time to study.”

So when Maoist rebels came through her village when she was 14, Rai joined them and spent two years training in the jungles of Nepal. Eventually she returned home but was too restless to settle down. She traveled to Kathmandu to room with her karate guru from training camp, run in a few track races, and look for work, but she had little luck. Just as her hope and money were about to run out, she found herself at the starting line of her first big trail race.

Unlike the other runners, Rai didn’t have any food, water, or fancy athletic gear. Over the course of those 31 miles, hailstones and rain pelted down and muddied the trails. It was farther than she had ever run, and she had never been so exhausted. But Rai, the only female competitor, completed the race.

“The trail course she entered was a bastard, and finishing as she did showed she had something special,” says Richard Bull, the British co-founder of Kathmandu-based Trail Running Nepal, an organization that stages races and supports Nepali runners. Eventually, Bull helped Rai secure lodging, food, visas, and opportunities to race. The next year, she outpaced all expectations, particularly for a young woman—now 27—from a place where women typically don’t do sports. In 2015, after reaching the podium at international races in Australia and Europe, Rai snagged a remarkable prize: second place in the Skyrunning World Championships.

So many people believed in me and took chances—and I want to give back so others can have a chance.
Mira RaiAdventurer of the Year

In 2016, Rai aimed to continue racing but a ruptured ACL forced her to undergo surgery. Instead of running herself, she decided to encourage others. So she organized the first ever running race in her home village. She secured 90 pairs of running shoes for children who don’t have shoes and raised money through generous donors in the running community, a pasta sale at a race in Italy, and screenings of a movie about her journey, Mira, which was a finalist in the Banff Mountain Film Festival this year.

More than a hundred people showed up in mid-October to take part in the festivities and run a short race around the dry, arid hills of Bhojpur. Rai watched the colorful chaos of all the runners, ages 15 to 35, huffing up slopes and grinning on the descents, their new race bibs fluttering in the mountain air. A bubbly, perennially upbeat person, she lit up seeing the joy on their faces.

“In a way, the biggest thing Mira has done is shown what is possible,” says Niraj Karki, a friend and two-time national rock climbing champion in Nepal. “Even coming from the worst of situations, the best can happen when effort, pure determination, and people come together to create a chance. And it is this chance that she wants to spread.”

Adventure: What inspired the idea to stage a trail running race in your home village?

Rai: I’ve received messages from girls all over Nepal who say they want to be like me and run like me. Instead of having nothing to look forward to, they have something to at least reach for, they say, even if they don’t have the opportunities. I have been able to do the things I did because so many people believed in me and took chances—and I want to give back so others can have a chance just the way I did. We have a saying in Nepal, “Khana pugyos, dina pugos,” which means, “Let there be enough to eat, let there be enough to give.”

And what do you hope to accomplish with the race? Inspire people to run?

Yes, definitely inspire people to run, and see if we can find runners that we can support. It is very difficult for athletes in Nepal to get any kind of sponsorship. Not only that, but there is no support in the sport so athletes can train and get better and take part in races. The grassroots trail-running community here has done so much, and I am lucky—I learned to train and have seen many races outside of Nepal. I want to give some of this back to others and support not just the sport but also women in the sport.

You have spoken out against the lack of opportunities for women in Nepal. What are conditions really like for women there?

Generally, life in the villages like mine in Nepal is dictated by farming seasons. Women in particular are fully occupied with managing the household, cleaning, and cooking as well as collecting fodder for animals, fetching water, fetching wood for the fire, and often traveling quite far to do this. In short, women have to do more than men. Women accept life is hard and can’t see beyond this life as they are working from dawn until dusk. My mum is home all the time and only goes out, even just to the bazaar, very rarely.

Why do you think sport is important for Nepali women?

Health, obviously, but mostly women in Nepal are restricted, to an extent where they don’t have a life outside of household chores. Not only do they not have the element of sport or games, but really of self-expression or the confidence to do anything. For me, sport gave me confidence and let me believe in myself, and this is important to changing society. Sport isn’t just a break from daily life but a break from stereotypes, and that is really a big adventure.

This interview has been translated from Nepali.

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