Mira Rai admits she had never heard of National Geographic when the news arrived.

Growing up in a remote Nepal village it is unsurprising that the glossy periodical didn’t reach her, yet In January she was named National Geographic’s 2017 Adventurer of the Year

Aged 29, Mira has fast become a world renowned ultra-marathon runner (she only officially started the sport three years ago) and a role model for girls in her homeland eager to break traditionally male hegemony.

“I could not be happier,” she says of the award which has “made a very small person like me such a big celebrity”. It is the latest in a string of international recognition, race victories and endorsements the unassuming long-distance runner has scooped since 2014.

Mira’s burgeoning celebrity is a far cry from home. As rocky and precarious as the Bhojpur mountains in East Nepal where she grew up, this is her remarkable journey from school-aged rice trader and Maoist child soldier to internationally-renowned athlete.  

Struggles of daily life

In the lush terrains of Bhojpur, life is tough. Agriculture and cattle herding are the epicentre of daily life for many who must traverse imposing summits and fog-laden hilltops to earn a living.

Along with her parents and four siblings, Mira spent her early childhood walking from her village home for hours collecting water, tending to livestock and selling rice at the local market.

“Getting food and water as a child was very difficult,” she recalls. “We would walk for three hours to get water from another village and the only way to earn income as a family was to sell cattle.

“There were times when we could not even have one meal and most of the time was spent looking after the livestock… it was difficult to sustain our family.”

In the early 2000s the number of people living below the poverty line in Nepal topped 46%When poverty forces families to make difficult choices, girls are often expected to help support the family. For Mira, this meant that supporting her family’s income was prioritised over school.

“Although I went to school, the priority was the cattle rather than education,” she explains over the phone from Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. “I always wanted to study but the society is patriarchal and you don’t really get many opportunities as a woman. I always wanted to do something different.”

Child soldier

This desire to do something different and break the engrained gender divide led Mira down an unlikely and dangerous path.

By 2003 civil conflict between the Maoist Communist party of Nepal and Nepalese government forces had plagued the country for seven years.

Operating largely in rural areas, the Maoists were seeking to overthrow the country’s monarchy and establish a people’s republic. It is estimated that up to 4,500 Maoist soldiers in the conflict, which lasted until 2006, were under the age of 18.

Mira was one of them.

Human Rights Watch has documented extensively the Maoists’ use of children during the decade-long war citing school abductions and forced recruitment in villages as commonplace.

But Mira says she chose to go and was aware of the risks associated with joining the group.  

She explains: “In the hopes of getting a better standard of living and to learn more as a girl in the village I decided to join. It was very dangerous to join and you would know what would happen the next day but I didn’t care.”

Telling her parents she was going away for one week, Mira set-out for a Maoist training camp – the only girl from her village to do so. She was 14-years-old.

She was a security guard in the camp and while never involved in direct fighting, she took part in weapon and defence training, fitness sessions and would often wake at 4am to start her day.

“I never attacked anyone but I have had experiences and suffered from tear gas and there were times when the bullets went past my ears and my friends were involved in attacking,” she recalls.

“We were always given courage that nothing would happen but everyone knew that they could not know what would happen next.”

She says it was in the camp where her sporting interest took hold. Part of the training was sport-focused and involved regular football, volleyball, running and karate.

In 2006, after nearly three years, Mira and other children within the Maoists were released and ordered to leave. A peace accord between the group and government forces was signed and many Maoists were re-assigned into the national army. As she was still under-18, Mira was unable to sign-up. 

Instead she was enrolled in an education program and continued her karate training and running while hoping to find an opportunity for herself beyond her family’s rural setting. But the years went by and her dreams of a life beyond traditional labour were fading.

“I didn’t even have basic income or allowances to spend for myself,” she says. “I was about to move to Malaysia to do foreign labour work as a lot of friends had moved there.”

Blazing a trail

Then came a chance meeting at a park in the country’s capital in 2014. Running one Saturday morning with members from Nepal’s army she was told to return the next week for another session.

Little did she know that the event was in fact a 50km race. Mira took first place, as the only female to complete the course.

The race organisers, Trail Running Nepal, were impressed and have helped to fundraise for Mira, so she can participate in future races and achieve the status of a professional trail-runner.

Since then she has gone on to compete and win races in countries across Europe, including setting a new course record at the 80km race on Mount Blanc in France in 2015 (pictured below).

“I do not run to achieve anything,” she says. “I run because I like it. I like mountains and long-distance running makes me happy – I have a lot of fun when I am running.”

Today she is sponsored by running company Salomon and spends most of her time in France.

For now though, Mira’s running schedule has slowed. A leg injury last year is keeping her off the mountains and she is back in Nepal recovering.

But with her celebrity status rising – her image has adorned magazines and newspapers internationally and a documentary about her life has been screened globally and at schools across Nepal - she is hoping her new-found fame can inspire and change the fortunes for girls across her country.

“There are other Mira Rais outs there who have not had the opportunity,” she says. “I want to inspire them to get up and do something, not to be insecure, not to sit back and think that they cannot do things.”

Reflecting on her time with the Maoists, she says that while pushed into the group because of a lack of opportunity at home she drew positive elements from the experience. But she says she would never encourage any child to join an armed group.

Instead Mira Rai is hoping her running success can blaze a trail for women’s and girls’ rights in her home country.

Long-distance running is growing in popularity among Nepalese youth. Mira now promote events for girls and boys back home and in doing so is helping bring about change to traditional Nepalese society.

Mira’s rise has not only put her country on the sporting map but could also be a catalyst to create new opportunities for the country’s youth, from Katmandu to Bhojpur, which are free from conflict and the risk of war. 

“I always wanted to do it and thought it wasn’t possible, but it is,” she adds. “You can do it – take the chance.”

Image credits: Jordi Sarragossa