Running up Lantau Peak from sea level in less than 50 minutes is a tall order, but to the diminutive Mira Rai, it’s all relative. “Hong Kong is very modern, but the mountains are not very high,” says the 23-year-old Nepali, who was in the city last month to compete in the Vertical Kilometre race to the summit.
Rai claimed victory in the women’s category in a time of 48 minutes, 32 seconds. Two days later, she defended her MSIG Lantau 50 ultramarathon title, won two months earlier. This time she was defeated only by the world champion in the class, Stevie Kremer.
Rai’s sporting achievements have been sudden and impressive. She took part in her first ultramarathon in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, just last March, after being encouraged by a friend. She finished first and went on to win a second race in April. In September, she left Nepal for the first time to compete in two races in Italy. Against a global line-up of top long-distance runners, she was crowned champion in both events. Rai is now on track to become her country’s first professional female elite athlete in the fast-growing sport.
It’s been a meteoric rise for Rai, but equally remarkable is the path she took to get where she is today. It was a trajectory that began when she ran off to become a child soldier in Nepal’s Maoist rebel army.
Rai wields an assault rifle as a 15-year-old Maoist rebel in Nepal.
The second of five siblings from a poor village near the town of Bhojpur, eastern Nepal, Rai pined to free herself from the yoke of subsistence farming. “In the rainy season we could grow crops, but if the weather was not good it was hard to grow anything. It was a very difficult life,” she says through a translator.
So at the age of 14, when she heard of a possibility to change her circumstances, Rai packed her bag and told her parents she was going camping for a few weeks. Instead, she spent the next two years living in a bamboo fortress with up to 600 rebel recruits.
“I wasn’t aware of the politics when I joined. At school, the student union used to organise activities like camping and sports, which I was interested in joining. I didn’t know it was really a Maoist campaign,” she says. “My family situation was not good and I was just looking for an opportunity to do something else with my life.”