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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

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Editor's Pick

Feb 01, 2017

The Incredible Story of Mira Rai—Adventurer of the Year 2017

Mira Rai was born in eastern Nepal, where she joined the Maoist Army at the age of 14, before stumbling upon trail running by chance.

WRITTEN BY

Richard Bull

With natural talent and a little bit of luck, she’s become a national icon for Nepal, captured hearts worldwide and was just named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year 2017.

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Boudhanath, Kathmandu. Mira becomes a runner, with donated equipment, and starts training in Kathmandu (July 20, 2014). Photo: Richard Bull

It had been just a year since Mira Rai, discovered trail running, quite by chance, after meeting two morning runners one day and agreeing to meet them again on a Saturday morning to do a training run. The run turned out to be the start point for a local 50km trail race, part of the Himalayan Outdoor Festival.

Mira completed the course. With more than 3000m of climbing, rain and a hail-storm that washed away course markings and left her cotton t-shirt soaked, she finished in nine hours. She won first prize by default as the only female participant, as is so often the case, and took $100 and a pair of Salomon shoes home with her. My first contact with her was when she wanted the spelling on her certificate changed from “Meera” to “M.i.r.a.”

Later, after the results were published on the event website, I saw the photo of Mira taken at the prize giving. It’s a study in delight. Two rows of white teeth are exposed and you can see the strain in the face muscles needed to produce such a wide smile. A firm handshake with the prize giver out of frame, a medal, t-shirt and certificate in hand. It was the moment captured in that photo that made me wonder, “Just who is this woman?” That was the beginning of the story of ‘Mira Rai – the Ultra Runner’—a story that has captured imaginations and inspired people around the world.

Mira running under the gaze of the world’s 8th highest mountain, Manaslu, at the Manaslu Trail Race, 162km in 7 stages. Photo: Richard Bull

Mira’s Origins

Mira’s family home is in Bhojpur in east Nepal, far from Kathmandu. We’re travelling with a French TV cameraman who is making a short film about Mira. After a 40 minute flight, buffeted by the thermals from the unending hilliness below, it’s still a day’s drive on the roughest of tracks to reach her home

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It is about as simple as homes get, built from bamboo, straw, mud and stones with a solar panel perched on the thatched roof. Mira loves this place.

She animatedly shows me around the land, jumping from rock to rock, where she used to cut grass with her friends, the trees and cliffs she used to climb, the spring way down the hill where she hauled containers of water from, and the school yet further down which took half an hour to reach with a child’s legs. She refers to the hill up from her house as “my mountain”. She’s at ease with everybody there. She has the confident air of “girl done good”—someone who’s returned from afar having made their fortune, which, in the context of these three or four houses on a hillside, she is well on her way to doing.

While Mira is happy to visit home, her “beautiful place”, it’s clear that life here is tough agricultural toil with no other opportunities. “It was a life people consider hard, but now I think it was really good training!” she says with a shrug. When the family’s land was not enough to provide food, Mira would walk with her mother on a pre-dawn till post-dusk journey to buy as much rice as they could carry on their backs to sell in a small market some hours from home. As we drive along, we see a mother and two daughters walking on the dust road with heavy sacks on their backs. Mira says, “This was like me and my mum when I was small!”

The Maoist Army

At around 14, in the last years of Nepal’s ten-year civil war, recruiters came to her village, and seeing this as a ‘chance’, she went with them.  She told her mother she’d be back in a couple of days, but was only in contact seven months later, and returned only two years later.

“I’d always wanted to leave my village and do something with my life. The Maoists said they would give me opportunities, and that women and men were treated equally.”

Sport was important in the Maoist army. While photos of Mira posing with a substantial machine gun have been printed in the media, she saw no fighting, but rather did a lot of cooking, cleaning and sports, including karate, volleyball and running.

After a peace accord was signed, the Maoist army was due to be merged with the state army, but Mira was disqualified from this process and drifted home. It was only years later, after completing her school leavers’ certificate and an agriculture course, that she came to a point of decision to go to Malaysia to work in a factory. Her former karate instructor believed this was not the right thing to do, and invited her to stay with his family in Kathmandu and have one last try at finding success in competitive running. It was as her money was all but finished, and she was about to give up on Kathmandu to return home, that she stumbled across the trail race.

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Mira Rai at the Dolomites Skyrace in Italy, a half marathon of all up followed by all down in the famous mountain region of Italy. Photo: Pegaso Media

A running friend and I met Mira a week later in a greasy-walled tea-shop near the national stadium. Desperate for more female participation in this sport, we wanted to know, would she be interested in doing more trail running?

I remember Mira’s confusion—we were telling her that she had accidentally discovered that “hilly up-down running,” as she would later call it, was actually a sport elsewhere in the world, and one of the most rapidly growing ones.   

Despite 68% of Nepal being either Himalayan mountains or its foothills, competitive running in Nepal is generally done on flat terrain, on roads or track, which was why she was in Kathmandu, to try her hand at competitive running. When someone’s stated goal is clear and simple, it’s easier to offer help. At the time, we had no real idea what to do with her, but agreed to fund her stay in Kathmandu, and decided that we could figure the rest out later. We couldn’t have imagined that her name would soon be known in the trail running community worldwide.

Mira’s always said, “I will try,” to any suggestion and then worked hard. Opportunities were hacked together with the help of friends and strangers. Used running equipment was found, a training plan was written, English classes set up, and a cheap bicycle bought to navigate the city. Her running improved through training, but there were no races to work towards.

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And Then There Were Races

Mira is a diminutive 152 cm and 50 kg—a perfect size for endurance running. She walks on her toes; her heels touch the ground only when she stops. Her ponytail bounces rhythmically as she runs, she whoops, arms flailing around running down hill, not too unlike a child at play, expressing her enjoyment of running and being out in nature. On training runs in Kathmandu, dressed in tight lycra leggings, she’d encourage women to try running for health and “feeling fresh”. There was more to her as a runner, than just running.  

In the summer, an Italian woman, Tite Togni, had offered to host a Nepali runner called Upendra in Italy for a month, to give him the chance to compete in several top level races. She extended the offer to Mira, “Why not?” she said, “she deserves it,” and a crowdfunding effort paid for the flight and visa.

By the end of August, Mira had arrived in Europe, and within two days attended as a spectator, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), one of the biggest trail running events in Europe. Several photos showed Mira looking wide eyed and out of place, but rapidly absorbing what this sport that she had stumbled onto was all about.

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W Running through Norwegian mist, and falling on a new kind of surface, snow, Mira glugs down water at a checkpoint. Photo: Fabio Menino

Tite took Mira home to Italy, and got her training. Mira won a 57 km race and broke the record. “Relax enjoy running!” she said when asked if it was hard. A second win followed in an 83 km race. It seemed like everything she touched turned into a victory. When she returned to Nepal, her confidence had grown, and this unique character, Mira, had blossomed.

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Physical and emotional tiredness after the Tromso sky race. Photo: Fabio Menino

Next, Hong Kong, where over four months she won three competitive races, and came second to a former world champion in another. With her propensity to laugh frequently and at anything at all, she warmed people to her quickly and easily, making a positive impression on pretty much everyone. In her races, Hong Kong was rooting for her. Her final win in Hong Kong gave Mira the title of Asia SkyRunning Champion, 11 months after her first race, and the equipment brand Salomon took her under their wing.

Mira’s first big European race was in July 2015—the Mont Blanc 80 km, a famous course around the stunningly beautiful Chamonix valley. Sixteen months after chancing upon trail running, she won the race, one of Europe’s most prestigious, beating the course record in front of crowds, sponsors and the assembled press. Resting after the race she called me on the phone. In a tiny voice muffled by the bedclothes of a plush chalet in Chamonix, she reflected, “Why has this happened? Why me? I don’t understand.” Her voice switched between tones of amazement and confusion, appealing for some explanation about how her life had changed so rapidly.

Back home, Mira’s finish-line picture in her blue running outfit holding Nepal’s flag aloft, made the front pages, the first female athlete to do so in Nepal’s history. “She’s done something good for the country,” said a newspaper seller looking at the photo. This positive news stood out starkly from the limitless flow of tragic news about the earthquake, and made Mira a celebrity, a symbol of what Nepal can achieve given the chance.

While talent and attitude count for so much, it can be wasted without an opportunity. Had Mira gone to Malaysia to work in a factory, the world would have missed out on watching her story unfold, a story that is still unfolding. Mira once compared opportunities to a leaf on a flowing river, “You have to grab it quick, or it’s gone forever,” and when she learns of a new opportunity, she says everytime without fail, “I will try hard.”

Feature image: The Dolomites Vertical Kilometre, where participants race up a 1km vertical climb. Photo: Martina Valmasso

This story was a part of the Opening Feature of The Outdoor Journal Summer 2016 edition.

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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