Written by Will Lloyd.
Originally from Solukhumbu, Pokhara-based Anita Rai is one of Nepal’s strongest up-and-coming trail runners. Her most recent success was a first place finish at the challenging Guerrilla Ultra, a 52 km race in Rukum. And just a month or so before that, she finished second at the Fishtail 50 km, a monster of a race with 5500m / 15000 ft of climbing.
I spoke to Anita recently by the side of Pokhara’s Phewa Lake to learn more about her story and her hopes for the future.
A graduate of the Mira Rai Initiative, she started running in school. In 2019, an athletics coach put on a flat 4 km race which she won ‘without training’. Subsequently, she competed in further road and track races before happening upon a 7 km race organised by Pokhara Trail Race Series. She came second, again ’without training’ and was hooked on the trails after this event. Though she had no formal training, she was already prepared by high-altitude farm work in her home village in Solukhumbu.
Anita also won on the roads, but was decidedly hooked on mountains after her first trail race. As her stamina increased she took on longer events, shortly thereafter finishing first in a 15 km race by the same company.
But she doesn’t just run for the podium. Reflecting on her preference for trails, Anita describes the transforming effect of mountain running on her mental wellbeing. Before she began trail running, she suffered with low moods and poor motivation in daily life. But the trails gave her a ‘new mind’.
Her preference is for long-distance mountain races with a mixture of up, down and flat. She loves the variety in mountain running: ‘sometimes it’s rocky, sometimes there are steps, sometimes it’s slippery. Road is just flat. So I prefer the mountains.’
After her initial successes, Anita sought to improve her performance on the trails. Browsing online, she learned about Mira Rai and her training initiative for young female runners in Kathmandu, known as ‘Exchange and Empower’. After being accepted into the program, she spent nine months in Kathmandu running as well as learning English, taking computer classes and practicing yoga and meditation.
Lockdown restrictions meant that the group ran in confinement for some of this period, darting up and down the steps in their apartment building and chasing each other around the small monsoon-wrecked garden. Nonetheless, her running improved under the group’s rigorous training routine and once the rules eased there was opportunity for further adventure. The Initiative team made a trip to Mira Rai’s home village of Sanodumma in Bhojpur for training and also visited Jumla in the remote far West for a week of coaching from the legendary running guru Hari Rokaya.
With the Initiative’s support she began to race longer distances, including the 55 km Mundum Trail Race in Bhojpur and Mira Rai’s own Bhojpur Trail Race.
She capped off her time at the Initiative in September 2022 with the 60 km Sindupalchowk Trail Race, her longest event yet. She finished in second place in 8 hours and 37 minutes, just seconds behind her Mira Rai Initiative teammate Padam Kumari Sunuwar.
She reflects that the competition with the other athletes in the Initiative helped her to improve. Now that she trains mostly alone in Pokhara, she finds the work harder without this spur of competition. As well as the trails, she sometimes trains on the track, though without a coach she is unsure about her pacing.
She now works part-time jobs, supplementing her income with prize money from trail races. She says that her family are not always supportive of her running: ‘if I win they like my running, if I don’t, they don’t. In Nepal it’s like that. If you bring in money then everyone loves you.’
Even with her many successes, Anita expresses dissatisfaction with the difficulty of earning money from trail running in Nepal. She feels that many races have insufficient or zero prize money for winners, which she feels discourages participation. Even more frustrating, in some events the women’s prize money is substantially less than the male despite their running the same distance. She cites lack of government support and lack of facilities for runners in Nepal as major obstacles and says the situation is better for trail runners in other countries.
Partly because of this lack of opportunity in Nepal, Anita dreams of competing abroad. Her long-term goal is to race at the UTMB World Series finals in Chamonix, France.
While her favoured distance is 50 km, she plans to build up in distance: ‘having done 60 km, next I will do 100 km, get the experience, and then try 100 miles.’
Whatever the future holds for Anita, she has already made her mark with a set of exemplary performances. Whether she reaches her goals or not, she intends to persevere: ‘win or lose, you have to accept’, she likes to say.
And the budding athlete’s love of the sport is obvious. She describes her joy at running uphill in the heat of the Pokhara trails and the relief at meeting a cool breeze and seeing fabulous views from the top. ‘I work so hard running uphill and it’s a great feeling when I reach the top’, she says. ‘I go uphill and downhill and again up and down.’ She laughs. ‘Life is also like that.’