Each year National Geographic honors 10 extraordinary people as part of our annual Adventurers of the Year awards. We look for people from all over the world who have realized big dreams in exploration, conservation, cultural restoration, adventure sports, and humanitarianism. And each year we ask our audience to vote for one who inspires them most.
While all of this year’s honorees are inspiring—from the cultural renaissance ignited by the Hōkūle‘a celestial circumnavigators, to the unwavering dedication of the Grand Canyon thru-hikers, to the audacious discovery of the world’s deepest underwater cave—one who soared to the top of the voting tally: Nepali trail runner Mira Rai.
Growing up in a rural village in eastern Nepal’s Bhojpur Mountains, Rai, 29, had dreams that went far beyond the conventional expectations for Nepali women.
“As a girl, I would constantly be told to know my place, suppress my voice, and act in a certain manner,” she says. “For me, breaking free from these traditions itself was a big dream.”
The eldest daughter of five children, she was expected to fetch water, tend crops and livestock, and help out at home. By age 12, she had stopped regularly attending school to haul heavy bags of rice up and down steep trails—often barefoot—to trade at the market. It was hard work but also great training for a future trail runner.
Maoist rebels came through her village when she was 14, and Rai decided to join them to make money and seek a different life. After two years she returned home never having fought a battle, but while training with the rebels, she excelled in running and karate. But she wondered what she could do with these skils since Nepal doesn’t have a tradition of competing in professional sports—especially women.
Two years ago she finally got her big break, by chance. Rai was running outside Kathmandu when two male trail runners invited to enter her first trail race, the Kathmandu West Valley Rim 50K. She had no special gear or training for such a distance—31 miles. She was also the only woman in the competition. Against all odds, she beat everyone, even the men. It was the farthest she had ever run. From there a community of supporters came together to give Rai a chance to compete in international trail running competitions.
Today the running world recognizes her as a high-elevation trail racing phenom. And she is on a mission to help both women and men of Nepal through sports. As part of that mission, while recovering from knee surgery last October, she organized a race in her home village.
Rai says her work to empower others has just begun. “We have realized that Nepal has tremendous potential to develop competitive athletes, for which we’re organizing a series of trail races in Kathmandu,” Rai says. “These are short races aimed for both beginners and experienced runners.”
Wasfia Nazreen, the first Bangladeshi person to climb the seven summits and a past Adventurer of the Year, knows first-hand the impact Rai has had on the young women of Nepal. “For someone who has left school so early and missed the learning we take for granted, Mira has been able to turn back time and set a rare example by being the change herself,” she says. “It’s hard to find good role models for young women in our region, especially one coming from the same rural village background as most of the young generation. Mira is paving paths not just in terms of being able to speak nationally on gender equality as a woman who has found international success, but by also getting young people into trail running through the new Kathmandu Trail Race Series. The grit and joy she embodies throughout all her hardships and victories, is an inspiration to all of us!”
Rai, however, remains humble. “I have been able to do the things I did because so many people believed in me and took chances, and I want to give back so others can have a chance just the way I did,” says Rai. “We have a saying in Nepal, ‘Khana pugyos, dina pugos,’ which means, ‘Let there be enough to eat, let there be enough to give.’ ”