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Mira Rai, It’s Hard To Explain

Words: Julia Dunne

Images: James Cannon

This article originally appeared in Good Sport Issue 02.

At age 26, the details of Mira Rai’s life are striking: a Nepalese girl from a humble mountain village, Rai left a Maoist guerrilla training camp with the dream of becoming a runner. From lugging heavy sacks of rice along the rural mountain passages of Nepal to hitting the Lycra-clad races of the Skyrunning World Championships, her story is easy to sensationalise. But there are gaps, and they are compelling.

Trail racing demands a practised and attentive body. It takes a particular sensitivity to find sure footing on the uneven terrain of mountain trails, and while Ultra Marathon races take place on trails anywhere from 50km to over 160km, Skyrunning moves this art to new heights with events staged at altitudes above 2000m. There is a lot more at play here than
just endurance.

In March this year (2016), photographer and filmmaker Lloyd Belcher released the “visual biography” Mira: The Story of a Spirited Nepali
Village Girl. The film follows Rai in her first year of competitive racing and paints a beautiful picture of a young woman who left her family
and a life of subsistence farming to search for a place for herself. In her early teens, Rai moved away from her family to join a Maoist training camp, willingly. Run by the Communist Party of Nepal, the camps recruited thousands of children between 1996 and 2006 to train in the militia. For Rai, it was a chance to help contribute financially to her family, and to eat.

Belcher’s film unravels Rai’s story and ends at the beginning of her running career. Frustrated and on the cusp of defeat, Rai takes a run on
the outskirts of town only to run into a group of officers doing the same. After a few hours together, they invite her to join them the
following day, but what she thought would be light training turns out to be a race: a 50km world-class race.

And so Rai ran. She ran with the metred energy of someone who has known endurance and a determination that is not far from desperation.
Rai ran through rain and hail, in soggy shoes and with no supplies to win the race and beat all of her male competitors. The rest is history: Rai had barely put her feet (now in sponsored trainers) onto the world stage, and already the “spirited Nepali village girl” was a contender for the Skyrunning World Championships. It’s quite the origin story. But the origin of what? Of whom? So here we are, on Skype: me in Australia, Mira in England and our translator, Shashank, in Nepal.

I wanted to talk to you about how you started running. Did you run when you were a little kid?

Not exactly. I didn’t run, per se, when I was a kid. I walked a lot and I used to run some distance with friends. We would compete in doing chores; we would compete to see who would finish a certain chore the fastest. That kind of stuff.

A chore?

A chore in the sense of chopping firewood; household tasks. It was competitive in that regard as well. It was not running for running’s sake, but just walking uphill, downhill, running at times. Running in that sense.

When did you first start running for running’s sake? That is, not running to get something done or running for a job?

When I joined the Maoist camp I was introduced to running, but it was only track running …It was relatively short. I used to run for 5km at the longest. It was then that I was introduced to the sport of running, but it was only two years ago that I ran a 50km race in Kathmandu.

In the film it said that you came back from the training camp with a dream to run. Did you want to run in competitions?

When I was in the camp I was introduced to opportunities that I didn’t have before, and I realised that I was good at running. In Kathmandu I tried to race on tracks, but I was not very successful. I struggled to run, and it was only through an opportunity that I realised I was good for mountain running. I stayed with my guru. I didn’t have any money to continue to live in Kathmandu. It was through the support of my guru, my mentor; he encouraged me to not give up and keep on trying. And when I was just practising running I met a few soldiers who also happened to be running in the national park, and that’s how I got started. When I was invited to come back to the park I thought they wanted to train, but it was actually a race. And while I was running I realised that I was more suited to this kind of running.

To mountain running?

Yes, the mountains. It must be amazing to run through the mountains in these races. I never thought that I would be doing this. It was just a chance … a chance … a chance that luckily fell to me.

Did you ever get scared?

It was very difficult, but I was not scared. I was yearning for an opportunity to do something. Looking for an opportunity; first it was provided by my Karate guru, and later I was supported and helped by Richard Bull from Trail Running Nepal.

When you say “yearning for an opportunity”, do you remember how old you were when you first started yearning? Was it before you went to the camps?

Even when I was very young and doing household chores I’d think that maybe there is something more to what I’m doing just now. And as far as I remember I have always wanted to do more than what I was assigned to do, more than what I could do in that place. So when the Maoists came it was an opportunity for me to go beyond my village, to see some things beyond my village.

Was that it a scary choice, to go with the Maoists?

It was not a really scary decision. There were already a few friends who were in the army, and there was a lot of financial difficulty in my house so I thought I would be able to contribute something by joining the army. It was an opportunity for me to do something. And also to get some food to eat.

How big is your family?

We have five children including myself. I have two sisters and two brothers. I have an older brother and a younger brother. Both my sisters are younger than me.

You’ve done a lot of things that have taken you away from your home and from your family. I wonder if you wish that your sisters would have the opportunity to do these kinds of things?

I do wish that my sisters would get the same opportunity that I did. I’m helping them to study right now; I am supporting their studies, and I wish that they would get opportunities in their field, the way I did. It’s difficult in Nepal, to get opportunities, particularly for women. I wish not just my sisters but Nepalese women (I call them sisters, all of them) would get the kinds of opportunities I did to prove that they can also excel. I think when you know a little bit, you realise how difficult it can be for women. Sometimes it all just seems impossible, especially for women. It can feel like you’re not strong enough or you’re not supported, and that is hard to overcome. Have you ever felt like you’re not strong enough? There are a lot of obstacles, and whenever I face them I feel that if I just do this, if I am just able to overcome it, then for others, particularly women, it might be easier. Even if I could contribute in that small way, I think it will help women in the future. And also, there are basically different kinds of people and they might not always agree with you, but you just have to ignore them and keep on persevering. To do what you have to do.

How do you spread this message, this idea of perseverance?

We all die one day. And before we die I just feel that we have to do something, some good thing. There might be different obstacles that interfere, or act as a hurdle, to do that, but we have to do it.

Simple as that! [At this stage it seems important to note that Mira is laughing and I am laughing and we are all just laughing.]

But we all need support. Sometimes we need to give it and sometimes we need to take it.

Where do you get support?

For someone like me it is difficult to be here, in this place, if there is no support. I feel lucky in the sense that people have always been there for me, at least concerning trail running, and sometimes I feel that it can not go on like this forever. Sometimes I feel that I am taking too much support from people, undue support. I want to be more independent in what I have to do. There have always been people who have been supporting my stay overseas, and other people who have helped me stay in Kathmandu to train, and wherever I go I have been able to find some place, and mentor, and support, without which I would not be able to race.

Sometimes being very well supported can feel … heavy.

Yeah. Most of the time it’s situational; the need of getting support. But I feel that I’m not able to fulfil my own responsibilities

Shashank: To give you further context she has not been able to get a visa for Spain. So I think that is also taking a toll on her, because it’s a pretty big race and she has not been able to get the visa yet. Because now she’s been getting support she feels she needs to do even better in her races to make it count. And she is working hard for this.

Rai: I want to make the sport of ultra running big in Nepal. Nepal is rich in hills and mountains and people like me will have a natural talent, an affinity, towards the sport. But it’s not well known in Nepal, and I want to make it well known.

Trail running is a different kind of running— it’s not well known in a lot of the world! Watching some of the footage of you running reminded me of being outdoors; not running on a track but moving quickly, just responding to the space around you. It’s very … joyful.

Yeah! When I am running and when I see where I am running, especially around the hilltops, I just have this feeling of joy. Even if it’s difficult, that joy, that happiness gets me through. I just enjoy it.

Maybe this is the thing worth sharing? With women and sisters?

Yeah. It’s so difficult … but I try my best so that other people, brothers and sisters like me, who have grown up on hills, who have been working and doing chores on hills, might be able to relate with it like I do. And that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s difficult but I want to at least try to do it.

It’s very beautiful. And important. We don’t do a lot of things for joy, and we don’t celebrate or recognise our need and the need of our brothers and sisters to have joy. [There is lots more laughter.]

Shashank: She agreed with you, and I think she’s kind of “wow” with what you said.

It is something we don’t talk about enough, and you work so hard for it Mira! Thank you for speaking with me!

Ahh, wow, and thank you! Yes, I do work hard, and I feel it is very important to enjoy what you do while you work hard. And I feel very grateful and respectful for giving me the opportunity to speak with you. I call you sister!

I call you sister too. We are sisters. Very strong. Powerful. We are … one day I think we become very powerful.

I think so. I think so.

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Jake Robertson