The Mira Rai Initiative

Words by: Adam Campbell

Photos & Captions by: Robin O’Neill

This story is in memory of our dear friend Dr. Laura Kosakoski. In honour of Laura’s life and infectious, positive spirit, we will be matching the proceeds raised from sales of prints from this trip by photographer, Robin O’Neill, to make a donation to the Mira Initiative in Laura’s name. Shop the print collection here, until May 15th. 

Life starts early and rising with or before the sun is the key to running on Kathmandu’s streets. The crazy traffic that defines the business hours is almost non-existent, temperatures are much cooler and the streets much less crowded. At this time, early morning temple worshippers and runners own the streets.

Our first run with “Mira’s Girls” started at 6am. We met at a tea shack outside of a Hindi temple dedicated to Shiva where devotees were finishing their all-night vigil. We sat on a bench with the Nepalese girls, suited in trail running gear, gabbing in Nepalese a contrast to the dourer worshippers in the temple beside us. They sipped on hot sugary tea and devoured doughy treats, giggling as we waited for the last runners to arrive for the training run.

These young women are part of the Mira Rai Initiative, a non-government organization founded by world renowned ultra-runner Mira Rai of Nepal to inspire and empower future generations of local female trail runners. In its second year, five girls between the ages of 17-23, are chosen annually to receive support from the Initiative. Selected for their aptitude and drive to trail race, they receive a monthly stipend of $120 CAD to live, train, race and develop personal skills for the year of their term on the team.

In addition to helping them with training and race preparation, the program also helps develop a more holistic view of the athletes. It helps build their life skills, and enriches their personal development through training programs such as first aid courses, trekking guide certification, leadership, communication and English classes. The training programs are aimed to equip the young athletes with the skills to become economically self-sufficient and to find a possible profession in the growing adventure tourism market of Nepal. Many of them do this in conjunction with other degrees to further help their chances at building a life of independence for themselves.

Once we finish our hot breakfast, we run steeply up past the infamous Ring Road and into the green foothills and villages that surround Kathmandu. We run up above the valley smog along a mixture of jeep and dirt tracks, and small footpaths between rice paddies. The trails around the city are a mix of traditional village life, ancient temples and locals on smartphones. The girls, most of whom were raised in rural communities across Nepal, move effortlessly through the technical terrain. Their strength and agility honed from a lifetime of hard physical effort in the hills and mountains across the country, their fitness and skill comparable to that of the best trail runners in the world if given the opportunity to test themselves against the best. The second the hard miles stop, their furrowed brows are quickly replaced with giggles and laughter. They work hard, but they also just love trail running.

The youngest member of this year’s cohort, Lambutti Lama, will join us on a trip the following morning as an apprentice guide on her very first expedition. After the run, she invites us to her home. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her grandparents and sisters, while the rest of her family are working as farmers in the Tamang region of Nepal.

Lambutti, who just completed her guiding certificate is interested in becoming a full-time guide after her college degree. With her background as a runner, Manesh Tamang, a highly respected local trail running guide and event organizer has taken her under his wing as a mentee. The two of them have planned to lead us on a fastpacking trip from Kathmandu to the Langtang Valley. An ambitious, but logical route that leaves from the city and ascends into the high mountains. The planned route was going to take approximately 9-days. We would cover about 170kms ascend around 12,000m and go to a high point of 5,130m at Kanja Pass, while traveling through Shiva Puri National Park, Helambu, Laurebina Pass (4,610m), Gosaikund Sacred Lakes, the Langtang Valley and exploring surrounding peaks as day trips.

Fast-packing is a mix of trail running and hiking. You are largely self-sufficient, carrying a minimal amount of gear, including sleeping bag, clothes for multiple days in varying temperatures and altitudes. You power hike up the climbs and run the flats and descents allowing you to cover much more distance than a traditional trek. With the ease of, at times rustic, but always comfortable accommodation, Nepal is an ideally suited country for fast-packing trips.

The popularity and demand for this type of hiking presents an opportunity for guides whose fitness and interests align. Trail runners, like Lambutti and Manesh are the perfect fit.

As we ascend through the jungle that surrounds the city, Lambutti is shy and quiet, a contrast to the outgoing nature of Manesh. She was out of her comfort zone, having to communicate in English, away from her family and friends and nervous about her very first trek with foreigners. But as the days passed and the miles melted away under our shoes you could sense her comfort level and confidence increase and she emerged from her shell.

She was every bit as strong and fit as the ambitious route required. In fact, one of the challenges was holding her youthful enthusiasm back as we struggled with the accumulation of miles and altitude. We would spend our days running to a destination in the rarified air of the beautiful setting, stopping for impromptu dance parties to local rap and pop songs en route. Our evenings were spent eating incessant amounts of dal bhat, sipping lemon ginger tea, examining topo maps, discussing groups dynamics and teasing her about her secret boyfriend…as often happens on trips like this, we started as strangers and ended as close friends, bonded by an intense experience.

Girls and women in Nepal, and especially those living in rural areas, continue to face discrimination and violence due to the patriarchal culture and their lack of education and skills, psychological support, and economic opportunities can be a challenging burden to overcome. Lambutti and the select few in her group have been given a chance to build something special for themselves through the Mira Rai Initiative. Even if they don’t become world champion trail runners at races around the world (due mostly to a lack of opportunity, not skill), they have been given a huge leg up in the rat race of life.