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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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Adventure Travel

Jul 31, 2018

Kayaking’s Elite Return to India at the Malabar River Festival

During the week of July 18th to 22nd, the Malabar River Festival returned to Kerala, India with one of the biggest cash prizes in whitewater kayaking in the world.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

A $20,000 purse attracted some of the world’s best kayakers to the region for an epic week battling it out on some of India’s best whitewater.

The kayaking events at Malabar River Festival were held on the Kuttiyadi River, Chalippuzha River, and the Iruvajippuzha River, in South India on the Malabar Coast. The festival was founded and organized by Manik Taneja and Jacopo Nordera of GoodWave Adventures, the first whitewater kayaking school in South India.

Photo: Akash Sharma

“Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there”

One of the goals of the festival is to promote whitewater kayaking in the state of Kerala and encourage locals to get into the sport. One of the event organizers, Vaijayanthi Bhat, feels that the festival plays a large part in promoting the sport within the community.  “The kayak community is building up through the Malabar Festival. Quite a few people are picking up kayaking… It starts with people watching the event and getting curious.  GoodWave Adventures are teaching the locals.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

Vaijayanthi is not lying when she says the kayak community is starting to build up.  In addition to the pro category, this year’s Malabar Festival hosted an intermediate competition specifically designed for local kayakers. The intermediate competition saw a huge turnout of 22 competitors in the men’s category and 9 competitors in the women’s category. Even the professional kayakers who traveled across the world to compete at the festival were impressed with the talent shown by the local kayakers. Mike Dawson of New Zealand, and the winner of the men’s pro competition had nothing but good things to say about the local kayakers. “I have so much respect for the local kayakers. I was stoked to see huge improvements from these guys since I met them in 2015. It was cool to see them ripping up the rivers and also just trying to hang out and ask as many questions about how to improve their paddling. It was awesome to watch them racing and making it through the rounds. Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

 

“It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake”

Vaijayanthi says the festival has future goals of being named a world championship.  In order to do this, they have to attract world class kayakers to the event.  With names like Dane Jackson, Nouria Newman, Nicole Mansfield, Mike Dawson, and Gerd Serrasolses coming out for the pro competition, it already seems like they are doing a good job of working toward that goal! The pro competition was composed of four different kayaking events- boatercross, freestyle, slalom, and a superfinal race down a technical rapid. “The Finals of the extreme racing held on the Malabar Express was the favourite event for me. It was an epic rapid to race down. 90 seconds of continuous whitewater with a decent flow. It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake.” says Dawson.

Photo: Akash Sharma

The impressive amount of prize money wasn’t the only thing that lured these big name kayakers to Kerala for the festival. Many of the kayakers have stayed in South India after the event ended to explore the rivers in the region. With numerous unexplored jungle rivers, the possibilities for exploratory kayaking are seemingly endless. Dawson knows the exploratory nature of the region well.  “I’ve been to the Malabar River Fest in 2015. I loved it then, and that’s why I’ve been so keen to come back. Kerala is an amazing region for kayaking. In the rainy season there is so much water, and because the state has tons of mountains close to the sea it means that there’s a lot of exploring and sections that are around. It’s a unique kind of paddling, with the rivers taking you through some really jungly inaccessible terrain. Looking forward to coming back to Kerala and also exploring the other regions of India in the future.”

 

For more information on the festival, visit: http://www.malabarfest.com/

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