In January, Mira Rai was voted National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year. And she’s just 29.
It’s not a life she imagined for herself.
Like many rural Nepalis, Rai grew up poor. She quit school when she was just 12 years old to help support her family. She would carry heavy bags of rice across miles of rugged trails to the local market. In the mountains all around her, a Maoist rebellion had been raging for years. Armed rebels were fighting to overthrow the Nepali monarchy and establish a people’s republic. So when the Maoists came to her village in 2002 looking for recruits, Rai joined up. She was 14.
The day Rai showed up for that 50-kilometer (about 31 miles) mountain trail race outside Kathmandu, she had no idea what she was getting into.
“I went there thinking it was a training run,” explains Rai. “I didn’t know it was a race. I just had a T-shirt and pants on. Other runners had backpacks and food and I went with nothing, but I just ran and ran.”
Hours later, Rai became the first and only woman to cross the finish line. “I just continued to run and then, I didn’t know, but I won!”
A month later she entered the 180-kilometer Mustang Trail Race in Nepal — that's nearly 112 miles — and won again. Then she took first place in races in Hong Kong, Italy and France. A year later, she had an endorsement deal with Salomon and became the subject of an award-winning documentary simply titled “Mira.” Now, this former child soldier from rural Nepal is one of the top long-distance, high-elevation mountain runners in the world.
"I want to transfer the chance I got to my little sisters in Nepal. I want to help them learn what I learned and reach where I am today," she says. "I want them to have as big a name as mine someday.”