An Interview with Mira Rai, star of the film Mira

Mira Rai

Photo Credit: Lloyd Belcher

I recently reviewed the inspiring documentary ‘Mira’ about the young girl from a small village in Nepal who is now setting the trail running world on fire. ( Read the review here )

The New Zealand Trail Running magazine Kiwi Trail Runner recently featured an interview with Mira Rai and have very generously allowed me to reproduce the article here:

Mira Rai – The Nepalese Trail Running Phenomenon

If you don’t already know the name Mira Rai,  I am sure you soon will. This diminutive 24 year old from Nepal has burst onto the international trail running scene seemingly from nowhere, with astonishing success.

A year ago she didn’t even know trail running was a sport. To her it was just a way to get around in an area so remote and mountainous that a journey to buy supplies from the nearest shop can easily take 3-5 hours  on foot. Since then she has won 13 of the 19 races she has entered and had a podium finish in another 4! Her victories include races in the Asian Sky Running Championships in Hong Kong and setting a new women’s record at the Mont Blanc 80km!

Raised in a mud walled house, without power or running water, in a remote village in the Bhojpur region of Eastern Nepal, she grew up as the second of 5 siblings, her parents, subsistence farmers. Life was not easy and regular meals were often dependent on the weather and the quality of the harvest. Mira dropped out of school early to help support the family, carrying sacks of rice to the market for hours over mountain trails. In retrospect this must have been good training for what was to come.

At the age of 14 in search of a better life she ran away from home and joined the rebel Maoist Army. Nepal had been battling a civil war for the previous 10 years but by 2006 the peace treaty between the Maoists and the Nepali Government had already been signed so Mira was fortunate not to see any fighting. Life wasn’t much easier though with the discipline and the daily survival and weapons training but there was regular food and the opportunity to train in sports, to build up her fitness. She learnt Karate and became a brown belt but it was running that gave her the greatest pleasure.

The camp was eventually closed down and her unit absorbed into the Nepali Army. Mira was discharged, and not wanting to return to her former life in the village, travelled to Kathmandu. With limited resources she stayed with friends, and focused on track and road running. However fate, as it so often does, was to play another hand.

One day on a training run she met another runner who told her about a mountain race that was free for Nepali women to enter and so a few days later she found herself on the start line of the ‘Himalayan Outdoor Festival 50km’. The only local woman to enter, she seemed woefully unprepared, clad in a cotton t-shirt, tracksuit pants and without food or water.…………She won the race!

A month later she won the multi stage Mustang Trail Race and it was then that people started taking notice. Well-wishers and friends raised funds for her to compete in Italy, her first ever trip overseas. Last minute Visa problems meant she arrived just before the race but it didn’t stop her winning the Sellaronda, a tough 59 km run through the Italian Dolomites.

More victories followed, bringing her to the attention of Salomon who now sponsor her race and travel expenses. Her multiple successes in Hong Kong have resulted in a soon to be released documentary on her life.

Inspired by her meteoric rise and wanting to know more, we enlisted the help of her mentor, Trail Running Nepal’s Richard Bull, and an interpreter, and managed to track down Mira during a brief return visit to Nepal to ask her a few questions about her new life as an international runner:

When did you first start running and why?

  • I actually started running while I was in the Maoist camps when I was 15. We used to have many sports and I got opportunities to join in. I was pretty capable in running then but you can say that I began from my childhood, running up and down the hills, near my village.

We had heard that you had initially focused on running track, what made you switch to trails?

  • I was still running tracks when I was introduced to trail running for the first time through the Himalayan Outdoor Festival. Since then I’ve seen my strength is on trails and, I leave track now to the experts!

Where is your favorite place to run?

  • I like running anywhere. I don’t have a particular place. But if I had to mention the trails that I have run, I liked Hong Kong and Manaslu (Nepal) trails particularly.

How do you find the trails in the mountains in Nepal different to the ones you have been running in Europe?

  • In terms of difficulty, there is not much difference in the trails of Nepal and those of Europe. But, the trails in Europe are managed and more developed and easier to run on.

What’s a typical training day like for you?

  • In Nepal, I run different distances every day. Sometimes, I run for 1-2 hours, sometimes for 5-6 hours and on occasions, even 9-10 hours. The trainings are similar abroad as well. I train both hard and easy. Usually, I run 5-6 hours a day. For ultra, most is slow fat burning running with sections of high heart rate running.

What does your family think about what you do?

  • My family has been really supportive and encouraging of my pursuit of sports. My parents are very happy with the wins that I have had. I don’t know why I began running in the first place, but when I see my family, I am very happy to have followed this path. 

How did you feel when you first went overseas to race?

  • After I won the Mustang Trail Race, I was invited to participate in an international race. Travelling overseas was a very different and exciting experience for me. I went out of my country for the first time, all on my own. Undoubtedly, there were many obstacles but it still remains one of the most memorable events. The race (Sellaronda) was very difficult; I had to cross four hilltops. But I loved the challenge.

Has it been hard getting sponsorship to run overseas?

  • Getting sponsorship is quite difficult. But I am lucky I got chances. In the beginning, Trail Running Nepal supported me and now Salomon team has been supporting my travel as well.

Have things changed now you are getting international recognition?

  • With me, my country is getting recognition too, and so are the women of our country who have had a challenging childhood and life. More people in my country now have knowledge about trail running; a sport, which is not well known in Nepal. I feel I can push myself even harder now, that I have more people supporting me. Besides this, well, not much has really changed.

How has running changed your life?

  • Running has given a purpose to my life. Also, I earned recognition for myself and my country through running.

Do you think from the time you started running to now, the running scene in Nepal has changed?

  • It hasn’t been long since I started running. The situation hasn’t changed much although I am hopeful that more people now know about trail running than before.

Given your experience with international races, how would you like the running scene in Nepal to progress from here?

  • Many people don’t see trail running as a significant sport in Nepal, although its potential is obvious here. There is no governmental or non-governmental support for trail runners in Nepal. They need to find sponsors or support groups which is very difficult. Development of running trails is important and we runners can work on that.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

  • Well, the most important thing is that you need to enjoy and secondly, focus is important. When I run, I have no idea what is going around, all I know is that I am running, and I should be running. You should run freely.

Any plans to run in New Zealand in the future?

  • I don’t have particular plans at the moment, but I would love to. I am willing to take up any opportunity that comes my way.

Following this interview, Mira Rai competed in the final race of the World Skyrunner Series, the 110 km Ultra Pirineau in the Spanish Pyrenees. Challenging the Swedish runner Emelie Forsberg for this year’s title, Mira pushed her hard over the mountainous course. In a nail biting duel, the duo were neck and neck for much of the race. At 100 kms Mira was just 90 seconds behind Emilie, who eventually claimed the win and the series title. Mira came in second just 2 minutes behind, and achieved an incredible 2nd place in the series in just her first year of competition. For her to be challenging Emelie Forsberg, the 3 time World Skyrunning Champion so closely hints at great things to come from this phenomenal young runner.

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