Hong Kong trail race catapults Nepali girls into sport’s elite, as number of female runners in their homeland continues to grow

Pair who finished in top four in 50km contest, their first outside Nepal, are part of a stable of girls with natural ability for whom running offers an escape from poverty and discrimination

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 January, 2017, 5:38pm

Gender equality is a problem in Nepal, and the situation is especially dire in mountain communities, where a woman is often confined to a “menstrual hut” during her period as she is considered unclean. In rural Nepal, over 80 per cent of women suffer from domestic violence and around half are illiterate. Unsurprisingly, career opportunities are almost non-existent, with the overwhelming majority of women in rural Nepal employed as low-skilled labour, but an unexpected career path has arrived recently – trail running.

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Girls in the Nepali countryside are certainly cast-iron tough, but running is not what a girl is supposed to be doing in Nepal. This perception, however, was shattered by Mira Rai, now a professional runner for the Salomon team whose rise to stardom was documented in award-winning documentary Mira by Hong Kong filmmaker Lloyd Belcher.

The constantly smiling Rai, who radiates confidence and charisma, has become a heroine to her countrymen and a role model to her countrywomen. “The girls in Nepal they now say, wow, I want to be like sister Mira,” she says, in awkward English, giggling delightedly.

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Sunmaya Budha and Purna Laxmi Neupane, two shy teenage girls from the hills of central Nepal, have been inspired by Rai. Last December, at the Asian Skyrunning Championships held on Lantau Island, the duo served notice of their potential.

Budha, 18, easily beat Skyrunning world champion Caroline Chaverot of Switzerland in the Vertical Kilometre race up Lantau Peak, coming second behind a Japanese runner. The next day, in the 50km event, Budha finished second behind Chaverot; Purna, 17, was fourth. Among the Asians, the Nepali girls ranked first and second – an incredible result for their first race outside Nepal.

Nepal’s excellence in trail running is due to a combination of factors: natural talent, having been born and living at high altitude, the conditioning of daily going up and down steep hills from childhood, often carrying heavy loads, and, importantly for distance runners, ingrained toughness and resilience nurtured while growing up in the hardscrabble poverty of the Nepalese hills.

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The running prowess of the Nepali men is no secret, with runners achieving great results in major international trail races. But Nepali women runners have been a recent revelation, spearheaded by Rai.

Rai is now recovering from knee surgery, but her own career does not seem to hold priority for her. Instead, she wants to leverage her existing achievements and fame to build a support structure for the aspiring girl runners of Nepal. Running professionally, however, is easier than getting Nepalese bureaucrats and sports officials to do anything concrete to help, according to Rai.

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One person has been more than willing to help. Rai’s remarkable success, as well as that of many other Nepali runners, would not have been possible without Richard Bull, an Englishman living in Kathmandu. A Cambridge graduate and a Nepali speaker, Bull is the founder of Trail Running Nepal and organiser of several races in the county. His races have become the stage where Nepali runners can showcase their talent, with free entry handed to promising young locals.

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It was Bull’s Kathmandu 50km race that started Rai’s career in 2014. She turned up to run with “a lot of attitude and a pair of cheap tracksuit bottoms” but her potential was evident. Bull then worked tirelessly to help her along the path of professional runner, but it was a long process.

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“At first she did not know anything about anything. I had to explain to her what an airport is,” says Bull.

He also engineered Budha and Purna’s breakthroughs. The two were invited to his 2015 Manaslu Trail Race, a gruelling eight-day slog around the 8,000-metre Manaslu Peak. Budha and Purna destroyed the strong foreign field (both male and female), with Budha finishing second overall, even ahead of several Nepali men.

It was obvious that the girls were exceptionally talented, but making a professional athlete requires money as well as talent. The Trail Running Nepal website has been very effective as a fundraising platform for sending Nepali athletes abroad. The foreign alumni of Bull’s Himalayan stage races, often awestruck by the talent of the Nepali participants, have been very generous. Budha and Purna’s Hong Kong trip was funded by one single large donation.

Training wise, Nepali runners have come through different paths. Some don’t train at all – Sudip Kulung Rai, a farmer who worked as a porter at Bull’s Everest Race, famously asked: “Can I run, sir?” and then went on to win. Rai started running while a teenaged soldier in the Maoist insurgency.

Budha started to run, she says, when “my guru found me”. That guru is Hari Rokaya, a humble electrician and three-time winner of the Everest Marathon, who lives in the western district of Jumla, one of the poorest and least accessible parts of Nepal, where Budha and Purna are also from.

In order to supplement the meagre income he makes as an electrician, Rokaya recently set up a mountain runners stable in Jumla called Karnali Sports Club. Like a soccer scout in the UK who goes to non-league matches, Rokaya attends school and regional athletics competitions, looking for fast kids with a hunger to win, offering them a place in his stable for a fee.

“I always won,” says Budha. “I won everything, 1,500 metres, 3,000 metres, 5,000 metres. All races. My parents were very proud of me, this is why they let me join my guru, but they made me promise that I will study as well as train.”

Life in the Jumla stable is not easy. Equipment is basic, discipline is harsh and the diet sometimes lacks sufficient protein to sustain the effort the runners put in. “I am often very hungry. Sometimes, I get so hungry in the afternoon that I have to sleep to forget about the hunger,” Budha says. She still manages to do very well academically, despite running twice a day.

It costs US$100 per month for a runner to live and train in the Jumla training house, a very considerable sum in Nepal. But the potential return is that athletic achievements can get a young man or woman into the Nepalese Armed Forces, which offers decent pay and a good pension.

Using her running to get into the military was Purna’s goal, but Budha was not so keen on soldiering. She says: “I might join the army, but only if I don’t become a teacher.”

It is hard to tell if Purna and Budha’s talents and Bull’s hard work behind the scenes will lead the girls to careers running, in the military or in other spheres, but whatever happens, the trip to Hong Kong has changed the lives of the two teenagers. The prize money they won didn’t excite them – both agreed that the best thing of all was being able to see and play in the sea.