When Mira Rai was nominated for National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year last November, the story quickly went viral in Nepal. Celebrities, politicians, journalists and just about any Nepali with a Facebook or Twitter account urged people to vote for her. That sudden burst of attention came as a surprise to Rai, who only started trail running in 2014. It also won her the award.
“It was the first time I was recognized for my work by so many fellow Nepalis,” says Rai, 27, who is one of just a handful of female trail runners in the country. “The stream of congratulatory messages and wishes just wouldn’t stop.”
Nepal is home to eight of the 14 peaks above 26,246 feet (8,000m) in the world, including Mt. Everest, and has produced several record-smashing mountaineers. Running, on the other hand, is not something the country is known for, even less as a sport for women.
Rai first started competing three years ago, when she “accidentally” took part in a 31-mile (50km) race around the rim of Kathmandu Valley. She says she thought it was just a training run and didn’t realize it was a race until she turned up at the starting line and saw all the other competitors warming up. Until then, the furthest she had run was around 13 miles (21km).
The steep track looming ahead of the racers may have been daunting for some, but Rai says it brought back memories of her childhood. Born in the hills of Bhojpur district in eastern Nepal, where roads barely existed, Rai used to walk and run everywhere. Whether it was walking for hours back and forth to school or running to buy food supplies in the nearest market, she saw it as a normal part of her life growing up.
“I knew that the 50km would be tough to cover, but I also knew how important it was for me to beat the challenge,” she says. She was the only female runner taking part that day, and despite no preparation (she was dressed in casual trousers without proper running shoes), she finished in good time. Since then, she has taken part in and won several international races in Australia, Europe and Asia. In 2015, she took second place in the Skyrunning World Championships, which has runners competing on difficult trails above 6,562 feet (2,000m).
Rai says much of her attitude to sport and competing comes from growing up a girl in a rural community and wanting to be treated equally to boys. She was raised in a farming household where girls learned about gender discrimination the hard way. She was 12 when she left school because her parents couldn’t afford to keep all of their children in classes. While her brothers put on their uniforms and ran to school, Rai had to stay home and help her mother with the chores.
“I always knew I wanted to break free from these traditions that curbed women’s freedom,” she says. “I didn’t want a life that my mother, aunts and other women in the village had.”
Which is why, when she first saw female combatants from Nepal’s Maoist rebel group wearing their military uniforms and holding weapons, she was transfixed. It was the early 2000s, when Nepal’s decade-long civil war was at its peak and rebels regularly came to her village singing revolutionary songs and giving fiery speeches.
A few years later, aged just 14, Rai decided to run away from home and join their cause. Although she was too young to fight, she did receive rigorous physical training, which included running, climbing and walking for miles. They also played sports together, like volleyball.
Rai had always been fast and capable, but what she enjoyed most was not having to conform to gender roles in the Maoist jungle camps. Unlike in her house and village, where she felt safe but discriminated against, she says Maoist jungle camps liberated her from traditional gender roles.
“All the men and women did everything together, whether it was taking part in training exercises or learning to build a house in the woods,” says Rai. “For the first time, I felt being a girl didn’t stop me from doing anything that men could do.”
When the civil war ended in 2006, she was disqualified from receiving the financial compensation and career support that many ex-Maoist rebels got because she was a minor when she was recruited. Broke and with no obvious job prospects, she still didn’t want to return home. Instead, she started to pursue her new passion for sports, especially karate and running in the capital city, Kathmandu.
Rai says she is humbled by the young generation of girls trying to break social and cultural barriers after seeing her achievements. “These days, so many young girls from my village and beyond say they want to be runners like me, which is so encouraging,” she says.
In 2016, Nepal became one of the few countries where the head of state, speaker of the house and supreme court chief justice are all female. Rai also finds inspiration in that achievement, which seemed impossible just a few years ago.
“More girls attend schools now, more women are working outside their homes,” she says. “But the attitude of questioning women’s abilities, their choice to live their lives as they want, is still prevalent.”
She is already using her fame to encourage more girls to run by promoting local races and hopes to one day set up some trail running clubs. Last year, she took Suna Maya Budha and Purna Laxmi Neupane, two aspiring Nepali female runners who she mentors, to a competition in Hong Kong. They won second and fourth place, respectively.
“I want to give back what I have learned, so Nepal has a new generation of well-trained and confident female athletes creating ripples at an international level,” she says.