After 68 miles and millions of footsteps, the Ultra Pirineu trail race, a rugged Skyrunning Series circuit through Spain’s Pyrenees mountains, came down to four brief minutes.
The Skyrunning Series is an attempt at professionalizing the determinedly dirtbag, proudly lone wolf sport of trail running, with high-altitude races on five continents and a hefty prize purse. Ultra Pirineu is the final event of the Skyrunning Series, and the de facto coronation of the year’s best mountain trail runners.
By the halfway point, the women’s field was narrowed to a tense two-runner contest between upstart Nepali Mira Rai, and Sweden’s Emelie Forsberg, who’s been in the top ranks of trail running for more than five years and is generally considered one of the best in the world in her sport.
The two women put on a harrowing, gritty demonstration of endurance, Rai relentlessly chasing, sometimes drawing even; Forsberg pressing on, hour after hour, calm but cognizant she could never falter. After nine grinding climbs and almost 14 hours of inexorable movement, Rai crossed under the finish arch four minutes behind Forsberg.
But for Rai, a newbie to the sport, the second-place finish was a victory of sorts, showing she could compete with the best of the best in a major competition. She had come a tremendous way just to get to the start line and her future is bright. Just 18 months ago, Rai didn’t even know running on trails was a sport. To get this far, she had to take on both the extreme demands of competition and the intransigent limitations of Nepal’s male-dominated, caste-based society. Barely stopping to breathe, she set her sights on the very pinnacle of the sport, and very nearly achieved it on her first try.
Rai has not only taken the trail running community by storm, she’s become Nepal’s first female sports star and a major celebrity in her country. Her head-spinning ascent over impossibly long odds goes beyond sports; it’s the story of a pioneer, a precipitate of change, a social trailblazer.
Rai was born 26 years ago in a three-house village perched on a mountain ridge in eastern Nepal. There was no running water or electricity. As a girl and a member of the Rai ethnic group, she came into this world with limited options and a number of parameters.
“After a girl is born, the separation starts,” she told me through an interpreter in a recent interview. “Boys are sent to school. Girls are brought up to be sent to someone else's home for marriage, so they’re not worth the investment. Boys are in school studying; girls go to the forest collecting fodder for the animals. Women are for household things; the big things in life are for men. You’re already discarded as a woman, and then if you’re from a lower caste as well, there are simply no opportunities for anything else.”
The caste system in Nepal is divided into somewhat puzzling categories—Wearers of the Holy Thread, Non-Enslavable Alcohol Drinkers, Enslavable Alcohol Drinkers, Impure But Touchable, and Untouchable—with Rai in the Non-Enslavable Alcohol Drinker group, which seems to hold some promise on the face of it. While it could have been worse, Rai’s proscribed station in life included no allowances for anything beyond housework, marriage, children, and subsistence farming.
Her three-family village, for reasons of practicality, was more egalitarian than a larger community might have been, one of Rai’s first brushes with luck.
“My parents were live-and-let-live which gave me some opportunities,” she said. She preferred farther-flung tasks over housework, so by age 8 she was getting water from the river—a long uphill slog carrying heavy buckets on the way back—and accompanying her mother on the two-day trek to the nearest market.
“I failed class eight [the equivalent of eighth grade], dropped out of school, and worked for two years trading rice,” she said. “I was pretty small then, and could only carry 28 kilograms [62 pounds]. The days were long, leaving at 4 a.m. to walk to the [trailhead], and returning home at 7 p.m. It was a life people consider hard, but now I think it was really good training!”
More than most village girls, Rai grew strong, self-reliant, confident, and even ever so slightly worldly. When rebels came to her village during the country’s 10-year civil war, the 14-year-old joined the Maoist army, more for their promise of three meals a day and their fitness regimen than for their ideology. She spent two battle-free years learning how to clean and fire a rifle, and practicing karate, calisthenics, and running. When the army disbanded, she moved to the big city, Kathmandu, and continued to run on a track, without success. What little running is done in Nepal is accomplished by circling a track or on city streets. Corrupt sports officials, who pocket money intended for athletes’ training and travel, complete the recipe for the country’s failure to develop interest or proficiency in distance running. The vast network of ridiculously scenic trails? Those are for trekking tourists, and for locals to get from point A to point B. Prior to March 2014, Rai had never heard of trail running.
In fact, at that time, she was out of money, about to abandon the whole Kathmandu venture and go back home. But friends suggested a new kind of race they’d heard about. Entry was free for Nepali women and participants got a T-shirt!
On March 22, 2014, she showed up at the Himalayan Outdoor Festival 50K (31 miles) trail race, organized by Trail Running Nepal, in a cotton T-shirt and track pants. Her longest run to date had been about 12 miles. Some nine hours later, enlivened by hail and torrential rain, she’d discovered trail running and won her first race. She was the only Nepali in the small women’s field, and the only female finisher.
The significance of this did not elude TRN founder Richard Bull. The chance that a Nepali woman who was willing and able to run 50 tough kilometers would be in Kathmandu (travel is too expensive) without family obligations, hear about the thinly advertised event, show up by herself for an enterprise she’d never heard of before, and be good at it, seems minuscule. Both race director and runner recognized a rare opportunity and seized it.
Bull, a Brit who lives in Kathmandu, launched a crowdfunded campaign for Rai’s living and travel expenses, soliciting sport-specific shoes and clothing. The freshly minted trail runner started training, an hour or two in the morning and two or three more in the evening, sandwiching English classes in between.
A month later, she won an eight-stage race in the Mustang region of Nepal, and five months after that, traveled to Italy—her first time leaving Nepal—where she racked up two wins in as many weeks (victories at 57K and 83K). In her first year, she won 10 races, including the internationally competitive Asia Skyrunning 50K championship, and placed second twice.
Hong Kong–based trail runner Matt Moroz described an encounter with the flyweight Nepali: “I didn’t see her again until 38km, when she flew past me on a ridiculously technical descent. It was a joy to watch. She asked, ‘5km left brother?’ I hated telling her, ‘More like 12’. She didn’t bat an eyelid, just carried on flying!!!”
Just as Kenyan distance runners must travel outside Kenya to be competitive in their sport, Rai had to travel outside Nepal. Bureaucratic corruption, though, has done more to trip her up than the trickiest of technical descents. In just one example, Bull had scrounged $500 and a stack of documents for Rai’s visa, but bureaucrats took the money, denied the visa, dawdled, then reversed their decision and issued the visa the day before the race. After a 17-hour flight to Australia and a couple hour’s sleep, Rai apologized to her Facebook fans for placing third at the Buffalo Stampede 42K—she had “leg jam.” After the race, she found that her running skirt had been on backwards.
In May, Salomon signed Rai on as a sponsored athlete, but she is humble about financial rewards even though her winnings so far ($1,500 for her second-place finish at Ultra Pirineu, as one example) are more than the average Nepali woman would earn in a lifetime: “I need money to sustain life,” she said. “But I’m not running for money.”
Though Rai is keenly competitive, she realizes her own symbolic importance as an agent of social change. “I want to bring more sisters into trail running, and give others opportunities,” she said. “I’ve always thought that women are equal to men, and I want to make it possible they have the same opportunities.”
Partly because she’s arrived in the world-shrinking age of social media, and partly because post-earthquake Nepal is hungry for an ass-kicking global hero, Rai has reached celebrity status in her country. She’s been on talk shows, depicted on billboards, blessed by dignitaries, and deluged by Facebook greetings—“You are strong women Mira sis” is one typical example.
Rai is typically Nepali in her stoic acceptance of hard truths—discrimination, corruption, poverty—and knows that she alone won’t make much of a dent in these complex problems. But somewhere along the steep rocky footpaths of her childhood, she dropped the fatalism that paralyzes many Nepalis and picked up tireless ambition. “It’s most important to inspire people,” she said. “But to inspire people, you need to win.”