For years, Nepalese child soldier turned ultra-runner Mira Rai trained alone every morning, but now she leads other young women up and down the hills, hoping the sport can help them break cycles of poverty and discrimination.
Rai, born in a farmer’s home in eastern Nepal, emerged as a trail running prodigy in 2014 after her racing debut in a steep 50km (31-mile) race in capital Kathmandu.
Within a year, she finished first at the 80km (50-mile) Mont Blanc Ultra-Trail in Chamonix, and was the second-placed woman in the Skyrunner World Series, garnering sponsorships including from French sports manufacturer 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 the National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year for championing women in sports.
The same year, she began the Mira Rai Initiative to train young women like her from impoverished backgrounds.
“I don’t know where I would be if I wasn’t lucky enough to find support,” she said. “This sport can change lives for others like it did 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 racing up and down hills to fetch water or to go to school.
They are instead expected to marry early, rear children and keep the home fires burning while the men work.
Some 50 percent of Nepalese women aged between 25 and 49 are married by their 18th birthdays, according to the Himalayan nation’s 2016 Demographic and Health Survey, many because of poverty. Only about a quarter of Nepalese women participate in the labour force.
“It is not easy to pursue sports as a woman. But girls have to be empowered,” she said. “Otherwise their potential is easily wasted and they will live a life of anonymity.”
One of her first batch of trainees, Sunmaya Budha, was heading for a teenage marriage until she persuaded her parents to delay the ceremony.
She started racing secretly before she was chosen to train with Rai, and in December she beat her coach into second place in a 110km (68-mile) UTMB World Series Event race in Thailand.
“My win is also hers,” said Budha, who remains unmarried at 23. “She opened the doors for us.”
Rai was only 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 a single meal … I always wanted to do something to rescue my parents out of that situation,” Rai said.
As a child soldier, she learned to shoot guns and disarm opponents but also did extensive running exercises.
“They would give opportunities to girls, too … 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 cash or career prospects, she was ready to leave for a job in a Malaysian electronics factory, but her karate instructor urged her to stay.
Since she could not afford the 15-cent bus fare to the nearest stadium, she started with practice runs on the capital’s congested roads, on one of which she was spotted and invited to enter a race.
Dressed in a cheap t-shirt and $3 shoes, she ran for hours before she felt dizzy and stopped to refuel with juice and noodles.
“I have been running up and down hills in my village since I was little, so it was not completely new to me,” she said.
Rai won that first contest, and a pair of running shoes, kickstarting her trail-running career.
Now 33, injuries and the pandemic have curtailed her competitive activities, and she is concentrating more on training others.
The initiative, funded by the Hong Kong chapter of community group Asia Trail Girls, selects young girls with potential from all over Nepal for a nine-month programme in Kathmandu.
As well as athletics clothes and running shoes, they are given lessons in English, public speaking and social media handling – with tourism guide training an optional extra.
“I am sharing what I know with girls who want to join trail running,” Rai said. “I want them to be independent, even if in future they don’t become runners.”
Among her current prospects is Anita Rai, 22, daughter of a farmer in Solukhumbu, the district that includes Mount Everest.
“I’m not sure what I would be doing if I didn’t get selected for this,” she said.
“We run up and down hills all the time in my village, but I didn’t know this could be a sport, too.”