As a child soldier with Nepal’s Maoists, Mira Rai learned to fire guns, disarm opponents and race down trails, little imagining her guerrilla drills would help make her one of the world’s top ultra runners.
“It is like a dream, beyond anything I ever imagined. I was just a girl from a village,” Rai said.
The daughter of a poor Nepalese farmer, Rai was only 14 when she ran away from home to fight alongside Maoist rebels seeking to overthrow the government.
She chafed at the rules she was expected to obey as a teenage girl living in a patriarchal country and the Maoist call for revolution resonated with her.
“The Maoists gave opportunities to women; they treated us equally. I saw that women could fight like men, be brave. I built up my confidence there,” Rai, 26, said.
She practiced firearms drills and competed with other cadres in running contests designed to build endurance.
“I did very well. I even used to outrun the boys,” she said.
Rai ranks among the world’s leading ultra runners after a record-breaking win in the 80km Mont Blanc race in Chamonix, France, in June last year, when she beat her nearest rival by 22 minutes.
However, when the decade-long insurgency ended in 2006, Rai, like many Maoist foot soldiers, was left with little in the way of cash or career prospects.
Desperate for work, she prepared to leave Nepal for a job in a Malaysian electronics factory before being scouted by a Kathmandu-based karate instructor, Dhurba Bikram Malla, who urged her to stay.
Rai gave up her plans and started training — initially doing practice runs on the capital’s congested roads because she could not afford the US$0.15 bus fare to the nearest stadium.
Rai made her racing debut in March 2014, running a steep 50km course along the hills overlooking the Kathmandu valley. Dressed in a cheap T-shirt and shoes that cost US$4, she ran for hours before she felt dizzy and stopped.
“I borrowed money to buy juice and noodles and started running again,” she said.
Soon, Rai crossed the finish line, winning her first race and prizes that included a new pair of running shoes.
Since then, she has notched up an impressive set of victories, bagging gold in 13 of the 20 national and international races she has taken part in, including Italy’s 83km Trail Degli Eroi.
Her victory in Chamonix vaulted her to second place among female ultra runners in the Skyrunners World Series.
“I want to inspire other women, tell them that nothing is impossible if we work hard,” she said.
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