Last March, some friends told Mira Rai about a race held on the trails outside Kathmandu. They said Nepali women could enter for free. Rai, a 23-year old local who loved all sports and had been practicing karate and running on a track, showed up in a t-shirt and track pants, without food or water, for what turned out to be a rugged 50K. Her longest run to that point was 20K. She finished in nine hours, five minutes and, being the only woman in the race, won the women’s division.
Like most Nepalese, Rai thought of running on a trail as a necessity—a means of transportation—but not a sport. Sports are undertaken at the main stadium in Kathmandu, and sparingly, because women are needed for domestic duties and manual labor. Particularly village girls, like Rai.
Rai was born in a mud house with no electricity or running water in remote western Nepal, where her parents and four siblings still live. “I failed class 8, dropped out of school and worked for two years trading rice,” she wrote through an interpreter. “I was pretty small then, and could only carry 28kg [60 pounds]. The days were long, leaving at 4 a.m. to walk to the road head, and returning home with rice at 7 p.m. It was a life that people consider hard, but now I think it was really good training!”
A few talented women, like Rai, are cherry-picked by the army and police to train for track running—5K, 10K and marathon. As a teenager, Rai joined the Maoist army for a few years simply because they practiced sports to stay in shape as part of boot camp. Running on trails, which came as second nature to a village girl like Rai, was strongly discouraged by her military coaches, as it was thought to make her slow.
But trail running, she realized last March, could lead to exciting opportunities outside of her small village. So she started training. And winning.
In just over a year, she’s placed first in twelve of the fifteen trail races she’s entered, including the 80K Marathon du Mont Blanc and the Asia 50K Skyrunning Championship. Recently sponsored by Salomon, she’s about to embark on the European Skyrunning series, starting with an 80K in Chamonix. She’s even become the subject of a documentary film. Despite her success, however, she remains relatively unknown in her country, where trail running is still on the fringes, and pro female athletes are an anomaly not necessarily worthy of celebration.
We had the chance to catch up with Rai via Skype. Richard Bull of Trail Running Nepal, provided the internet connection and a translator in Kathmandu for our chat with Nepal’s first professional female trail runner.
OUTSIDE: Your first race in March 2014, was 50K, very hilly, bad weather, that took more than nine hours—why did you try it? Did you think about quitting?
RAI: I got an opportunity and I didn’t want to pass that up. I thought it would only take four or five hours. After about six hours, I was thirsty and dizzy and it was hailing, so I took respite in a tea house. I ate some food, and felt stronger, and I saw that there were others behind me, so I thought, I can still finish the race.
On the subject of tough races, I understand that because of visa problems, you arrived the day before Australia's Buffalo Stampede after a 17-hour flight, got locked out of your hotel room the morning of, and arrived to the start five minutes prior to race time. How did you remain calm and positive?
Even though it was too late, I was glad and happy to be with world-class runners all around. I was mentally preparing, even before getting off the plane, to run really hard, but my legs weren’t carrying me. I had leg jam. I was still sleepy and got dressed in the dark: After the race, I discovered I’d worn my running skirt backwards.
“It’s most important to inspire people, but to inspire people, you need to win.”
You’ve been able to travel outside Nepal—what do you remember most?
I really enjoy it, but in a race I spend no time looking at scenery, only in front. I wish I could stop but that is a no-no. I’m super happy I got to go to these beautiful and historic places where no one in my family has gone before, even though I am a girl.
What do you mean by “even though I’m a girl?”
Girls in Nepal are told to stay home, fetch the wood, look after the animals and the cooking. The “big things” are for men. Changing mentality is difficult. People have a habit of ignoring the truth—they know that’s not true, but still believe it. My parents were live-and-let-live which gave me opportunities.
Why do you think so few Nepali girls do trail running?
Not a lot of people in Nepal know this sport, and we don’t have a running culture. The biggest marathon in Nepal only has about 200 runners. There are a small number of female runners in the army or police. Apart from that, girls don’t have opportunities.
What sort of training do you do?
I wake up and do stretching and run, sometimes an hour or two, before breakfast, and then two hours in the afternoon. Sometimes I use the heart rate monitor to do 20 or 30X1 minute at 160-165 bpm. Some hard, some easy. On long days, I run three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. And I study English at the language center six hours a day.
Are other women inspired by you?
Not just girls, but boys also know about me because I’ve been able to win things. Not many girls are trail running though.
You’ve had a chance to see how trail running and athletics works in other countries—how is it different from Nepal?
The organization and management of athletes is completely different. In Nepal, the people at the stadium put money in their pocket. [Richard Bull explained: Athletics in Kathmandu is based at the main stadium. Corruption among sports officials is well known. For example, athletes have been stranded at the airport because officials’ children used the plane tickets.]
What is most important to you—to make money? To inspire others? To travel and have fun? To win races?
They’re all connected. It’s most important to inspire people, but to inspire people, you need to win. If I run lots of races, I get to travel and have fun, but I have to win to inspire people.
I understand you really admire Rory Bosio and her relaxed attitude...
So important! Relax, no hard work, just have fun. Rory’s laughing is a really good way to relax and not think about other things. Apart from food breaks and checkpoints, I try not to think about anything other than keeping moving. When I feel it’s difficult, then energy is low so I eat a gel or something.
What is most difficult about trail running?
This stumped her as she clearly had not thought of any part of the endeavor as difficult. She laughed.
For example, many people would think running the 83K Trail Degli Eroi trail race in Italy was difficult. The long distance, the hills, fatigue…
I really enjoyed that race. People were cheering for me. It was not difficult. At every checkpoint, there was food and really good juice.
Maybe the most difficult thing is getting dressed?
Yes, I’m usually relaxed when running and I don’t get too tired, but I’m quite forgetful. And I have difficulty organizing everything.