Mira Rai, born in 1986 in Bhojpur, Nepal is a Nepalese athlete and the ultra-runner trail runner. She has run in many international competitions and has won numerous awards. She was the winner of 2017 Adventurer of the Year from National Geography and has participated in some of the world's most challenging trails.
Mira Rai comes from a farming family in a remote part of Eastern Nepal where her parents struggle for everyday necessities through farming. She left her school at the age of 12 to help her parents with the daily household chores. Her family simply could not afford to pay for education. She had to walk for two to three hours over steep hills and rocky terrain to collect water.
At the age of 14 she joined the Maoist party to become a soldier without asking permission from her parents. During the insurgency, she walked through the jungles to support the Maoists' mission. But during her integration into the army, she was declared unqualified. So she returned home, back to the same life she had led before having joined the Maoist party. She had to manage her siblings and support her family financially, so she came to Kathmandu and joined Karate.
She didn't know what the term ultra-run meant when she participated in one for the first time in the Himalayan Outdoor ultra-run. One fine morning when she was hiking in the Chandragiri hills, she met a group who were running on the same trail as practice. One of the participants asked her to meet, and then he suggested that she participate in the ultra-run which was soon to be organized.
In the very first competition, she won the medal without proper diets and comfortable clothes and shoes. She then participated in many international competitions and won medals one after another and broke previous records.
Her mentor, Richard Bull, has helped her participate in the international competitions but in early 2016 she got injured in a competition in the United Kingdom and was no longer able to take part in many other international competitions. So, she chose to train other village girls.
She is now organizing many running competitions in her village for young girls. Through all these competitions she came into the limelight. Many national and international media covered her struggles in life and portrayed her as a star runner.
In a patriarchal society, she has become an inspiration for many girls across the country by showing them that they can do what they set their minds to do.
Growing up in a rural village in eastern Nepal's Bhojpur Mountains, she had dreams that went far beyond the conventional expectations for a Nepali woman.
"As a girl, I would constantly be told to know my place, suppress my voice, and act in a certain manner," she says.
"For me, breaking free from these traditions itself was a big dream."
The eldest daughter of five children, she was expected to fetch water, tend crops and livestock, and help out at home. By the age of 12, she had stopped regularly attending school to haul heavy bags of rice up and down steep trails - often in her bare feet, to trade at the market. It was extremely hard work but also great training for someone who would become a world-class trail runner.
When the Maoist rebels came through her village when she was only 14, she decided to join them to make money to enable her to seek a different life. After two years she returned home never having fought a battle, but while training with the rebels, she excelled in running and karate.
But at the time she wondered what she would do with these skils since Nepal didn't have a tradition of competing in professional sports - especially for women.
But just by chance, two years ago she finally got her big break. Rai was running outside Kathmandu when two male trail runners invited her to enter her first trail race - the Kathmandu West Valley Rim 50K. She had no special equipment, shoes or training for a race of 31 miles.
Compound this by her being the only woman in the competition. But against all odds, she beat everyone - even the men. It was the farthest she had ever run. From there a community of supporters came together to give Rai a chance to compete in international trail running competitions.
Today the running world recognizes her as a high-elevation trail racing phenomena. Now she is on a mission to help both women and men of Nepal through sports. As part of that mission, while recovering from knee surgery last October, she organized a race in her home village.
Rai says her work to empower others has just begun.
"We have realized that Nepal has tremendous potential to develop competitive athletes, for which we're organizing a series of trail races in Kathmandu" Rai says. "These are short races aimed for both beginners and experienced runners."
Wasfia Nazreen, the first Bangladeshi person to climb the seven summits and a past National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, knows first-hand the impact Rai has had on the young women of Nepal.
"For someone who has left school so early and missed the learning we take for granted, Mira has been able to turn back time and set a rare example by being the change herself."
"It's hard to find good role models for young women in our region, especially one coming from the same rural village background as most of the young generation."
"Mira is paving paths not just in terms of being able to speak nationally on gender equality as a woman who has found international success, but by also getting young people into trail running through the new Kathmandu Trail Race Series."
The grit and joy she embodies throughout all her hardships and victories, is an inspiration to all of us!"
Each year National Geographic honors 10 extraordinary people as part of their annual Adventurers of the Year awards. They look for people from all over the world who have realized big dreams in exploration, conservation, cultural restoration, adventure sports, and humanitarianism - and each year they ask their audience to vote for one who inspires them most.
While all of the 2017 honorees are inspiring - from the cultural renaissance ignited by the Hōkūle'a celestial circumnavigators, to the unwavering dedication of the Grand Canyon thru-hikers, to the audacious discovery of the world's deepest underwater cave - the one who soared to the top of the voting tally: Nepali trail runner Mira Rai.
Rai, however, remains humble. "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'."
Ben Ayers, the Kathmandu-based country director for the dZi Foundation, says Rai's achievements inspire hope in Nepal, which remains mired in poverty and corruption despite the end of its civil war and adoption of a new constitution.
"Mira embodies the aspirations of an entire generation of young Nepalis. Her transition from child soldier to world-class athlete has very much paralleled Nepal's coming of age after the civil war."
According to Rai "running is no issue, but breaking gender stereotypes is. For the society we live in, it is difficult for women and men alike because doing anything out of convention means a lot of struggle - especially for women, who are expected to help out with chores at home from childhood and then get married and raise a family, it becomes a struggle, not merely a challenge. You get called a rebel, and for an adventure sport that involves risks, nobody encourages you.
"You'll end up breaking your bones!" they would say.
"Though the mindset seems to be changing, it is still at a snail's pace and has a long way to go before women in Nepal's society are seen as equivalents to men. This is the sad reality."
As for her daily life in the Maoist army Rai says:
"When I enlisted in the Maoist army, I was happy to get 250 rupees (about $2 U.S.) which I used to buy basic necessities, like a toothbrush and soap. Then I started the training - which included running, physical exercise, hand-to-hand combat, and weaponry with cadets my age. While we were collectively training for a mission, it definitely helped me grow personally because it made me more confident and self-reliant. Under the cover of darkness, we would have to march long hours every day to reach other camps, looking out for each other. I don't even recall the names of the places we had to traverse, as these were very remote jungles while some were far off villages. We were taught survival skills and acquired many skills I couldn’t have imagined learning back home. For two years, I was a part of the rebel army, which was equal parts challenging in terms of training and rewarding in terms of self-growth. It certainly boosted my adventurous spirit."
"It was a matter of chance and luck that I became a runner. Back in my village we had to walk hours on end up and down grueling terrain - often barefoot, with heavy weight on our backs. This definitely contributed. I started running, I got professional training that taught me techniques, and I gradually became more determined, motivated, and persistent to chase my dreams. Proper diet and regular training are crucial; however, I’ve learned that taking rest, having confidence, yoga, and mental well-being in addition to having good support from a mentors like Richard Bull and coach Dhruba Bikram Malla are just as important as it is to be in shape.
I feel that if I had finished more school instead of quitting school when I was 14, I would have been able to communicate with more confidence and have a better insight into world affairs. In many cases when I first started racing abroad, I couldn't even be a part of conversations because of my poor English skills. I used to just sit there and listen, but I didn't feel uncomfortable being there as everybody was very supportive. However, with media and sponsors, it would've definitely been more helpful had I obtained more education back home. Even today when I try to read newspapers, I fail to understand quite a few words. I am taking English classes these days, and it's certainly helping to improve my English.
Returning to her village now that she has been to Hong Kong, Italy, England and other international destinations she sees the dificulties faced by others wishing to expand their horizons.
"I return once a year during the Dashain - the largest festival of the year. The people there are living the same sort of lives as I saw when I was a kid. We used to have kerosene lanterns, but now there are bulbs that run on solar power. The village had no access by road back in my day, now there are dirt tracks that connect to big towns. Mud houses - same. There's phone connection, but it doesn't work all that well. When I go back, I meet a lot of youngsters that ask me how they can live differently. They definitely seem motivated, but sadly their folks do not agree with such ambitions. While the physical infrastructure in my village has improved, the mindset has not. I remain hopeful that the future generation will break the mold."
"I have always dreamed of running in the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc in France. It is a challenging, 100-mile race for elite runners from all over the world. I would love to see where I stand in this race."
"While recovering from ACL surgery, I have a little free time on hand. I have been providing guidance to men and women alike in running and encouraging them to pursue a career as professional athletes. Every so often, I visit schools and childrens homes to share my knowledge about running - particularly training, diet, and more importantly, an active lifestyle."
"We have realized that Nepal has tremendous potential to develop competitive athletes, soh we're organizing a series of trail races in Kathmandu. These are short races aimed for both beginners and experienced runners. I also organized a small race back in my hometown of Sano Dumma last October to introduce the sport to the young crowd and give them a platform to get interested and noticed in running. In the coming days, I plan to organize races that aim to identify and promote promising runners."
"I am also lobbying with the Nepalese government to provide a conducive environment to develop trail running as a mainstream sport and groom existing runners to perform better in national and international races."
National Geographic Video
||3 Peaks Race
||Barro Sky Night
||Mont-Blanc 80 km
||1st (new record)
||Buffalo Stampede Skyrunning
||3rd (42 km 4:52)
||Himalayan Outdoor Festival 50 km
||MSIG HK50 Sai Kung - Asia Skyrunning Championship
||King of the Hills
||The North Face Kathmandu Ultra
||MSIG Lantau 50 - HK 50 Series
||HK MSIG Vertical Kilometer
||Manaslu Trail Race
||MSIG HK 50 km
||1st (5:30:32 5th overall)
||Trail Degli Eroi (83 km)
||Sellaronda Trail Race (57 km)
||Mustang Trail Race
||Himalayan Outdoor Festival 50 km
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