Stellar performances by the Nepalese in Hong Kong in recent months have cemented their domination of hilly mountain ultras: a blistering sub-11 hour record in the 2013 Oxfam Trailwalker, first place in the 2013 The North Face 100 Hong Kong and a remarkable 1–2 finish at the Vibram Hong Kong 100 Ultra Trail. But if the men are the kings of the hills, Manikala Rai is the queen. She is Nepal’s first international female ultra runner. And at 25 years of age, she has only just begun.
Manikala smiles energetically on seeing me, her warm embrace a reminder of the kindness of the Nepalese. Although it’s almost a year since we met, she hasn’t forgotten. Back then, she was a wide-eyed and innocent, demure and unsure, dependent and isolated by the language barrier. She had left Nepal for the first time to compete in the 2013 Vibram Hong Kong 100 (100km / 4,500D+) – her first-ever 100 kilometre ultra. If she finished, she would become the first Nepalese woman to achieve that feat in an international race. Manikala completed the gruelling course in 13h 31min 47s – fast enough for a fourth-place finish and a coveted place in the history books.
“It was a very big challenge for me. I never thought I could do it – not 100 kilometres – never,” she blurted.
Standing before me 11 months later, the transformation is abundantly clear. She is now a confident athlete. And before we even have a chance to sit, she’s talking in almost-fluent English about her three months in France, where she spent the days training and racing in the European Alps.
Yet she is as humble as ever. When I remark that she appears strong and fit, she giggles before modestly opening up about her apprehension over the looming The North Face 100 Hong Kong (100km / 6,300D+).
“It will not be easy, I would just like to do my best,” she says earnestly. “I hope for top five, but if I come top ten that is also good. I’m always improving.” In fact, she did significantly better: she won the women’s race, overwhelming her competitors to cross the line in a dominant 15h 37min 08s, more than an hour ahead of her closest competitor and 12th overall.
The story of Manikala’s talent unfolds like that of many of the Nepalese. Growing up, she never ran.
“I was very fat,” she states emphatically, ignoring my disbelieving interruption. Although she wasn’t sporty, she enjoyed hiking. With her village in the Solo Khumbu region of Nepal nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas at 2,000m above sea level, she walked an hour to school every day. And back.
In order to earn money while studying, she worked as a porter, which made her heart strong and her legs stronger. Then she met Phu Dhorjee Lama Sherpa, a talented Nepalese mountain runner, and was inspired. After watching women descend Everest in the high-altitude Tenzing Hilary Marathon in 2009, and spurred on by Phu Dhorjee’s encouragement, she ran the race the following year, finishing fifth among the local women. It was a hint of what was to come.
Two years later, she ran the 2012 Annapurna 50km mountain race and her potential was finally unveiled. She was the first female runner over the line in 6h 15min. Later that year, she also won Dachhiri Dawa Sherpa’s 300km stage race in Nepal, Trail des 3 vallées.
Manikala entered seven races in Europe during the past summer, winning three of them. In August it was the Trail du barlatay (50km / 2,700D+) in Switzerland, in September the Humanitrail (50km / 3,200D+), also in Switzerland, and in October the Trail du massif des brasses (28km / 1,600D+) in France.
The only kink in her performances was the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (119km /7,200D+), where she pulled the pin at 111km – an agonising eight kilometres from the finish.
“It was too difficult for me,” she admits with a grimace as she remembers the punishing ascents.
Her favourite race distance is the relatively short 50km.
“The 100 kilometre distance is also good, but it’s hard to get training in Nepal as such races are not very well organised,” Manikala says.
She doesn’t have a regular training schedule or a coach. Instead, she runs when she can and learns from her Nepalese “running brothers” – Aite Tamang, Samir Tamang and Purna Tamang among them. Her greatest challenge, believe it or not, is flat terrain.
“There are no roads in my village, so I find running on flat very difficult.”
For the irrepressible Manikala, running offers the impossible: impossible achievements and impossible travel to places she could never dream of while growing up in a modest village in Nepal.
But it hasn’t come easily or without considerable assistance. After watching village girls bounding up and down the hills in flip-flops while taking part in an ultra in Nepal, passionate athlete Natalia Sierant returned home determined to sponsor a female runner to join one of Hong Kong’s many races. With the help of one of Nepal’s trail running pioneers and co-organiser of the Annapurna 100 races, Ramesh Bhattachan, Manikala was selected to represent Nepal’s female runners at the 2013 Vibram HK 100.
Manikala is a proof that sport has no boundaries
“She is a proof that sport has no boundaries,” says Sierant. “I saw Manikala running in the HK 100 and she just looked beautiful. She makes running look easy. You can tell that she simply loves running. She runs gently, almost effortlessly. You can say she is natural, but having the Himalayas on her doorstep sort of helps, I guess,” says Sierant.
“She is kind, humble, but also proud and independent. She loves meeting western runners and is curious about the world. She is proof that if we want something badly enough, the whole world makes our dreams come true.”
Encouraged by the potential of the Nepalese and seeing the transformations that were taking place, Sierant made further fundraising requests of friends and family to donate to “Team Nepal” – a team set up to support elite Nepalese runners, Manikala among them.
The funds enabled the team to train and travel to Hong Kong and Europe during 2013 to compete.
“Running is a big part of my life and sometimes I take it for granted: new running shoes, entry to HK 100 seem to be no issue. For Nepalese it is simply impossible to be part of the world’s running community. Their monthly wage wouldn’t even cover the cost of one pair of shoes. I believe western runners have an obligation to help these amazing, humble, determined young runners to archive their goals,” says Sierant.
Although race winnings are increasing, it’s not nearly enough. The HK$10,000 prize money at TNF 100 Hong Kong would barely cover Manikala’s costs of getting to Hong Kong.
Plus, sadly, there’s no future in it.
“After she goes back to Nepal, what does she do? How can she continue to run? In the village, at least she has some income,” says Subarna Thapa Magar, one of the founders of the Hong Kong-Nepalese Trail Running Association and part of Team Nepal. “With training and support, she can do so much more.”
Manikala acknowledges the strain.
“It is difficult to balance life in the village and running,” she admits. But for now, she couldn’t be happier. “I enjoy running very much. In France everything was so pretty and I just loved running in the hills. It’s very beautiful – more beautiful than in Nepal. In Nepal, it is a very difficult life.”
Apart from the opportunity to compete in more races overseas, she dreams about more Nepalese women having the opportunities she has enjoyed.
“There are, of course, more Nepalese female runners back in Nepal that are faster than me, but they don’t have the opportunities. I am very lucky.”
Lucky, determined and supremely talented – that rare combination needed for the latent talent of so many Nepalese to shine.
Lizzy Hawker on Nepal
In 2011 Hawker attempted to run the Great Himalayan Trail, a journey of 1,600km from the east to the west of Nepal in mountainous areas bordering Tibet. But her attempt was foiled early on when she lost a pouch of valuables, including much-needed permits and a satellite phone. She spent three nights alone in the wilderness, before she stumbled into a local village and safety. Hawker believes the Nepalese have the potential to be the best mountain runners in the world. But, as in Manikala’s case, a lack of funding and support stands in their way.
“At the moment, most of the runners who’ve got the chance to run have either had a bit of a break, like Upendra Sunuwar [who’s been Lizzy’s guide on numerous occasions] or they’ve worked in the army or the police so they have that opportunity.”
“But for most of the Nepalese people, it is simply about subsistence living in the mountains. If you’re in the situation where all your effort is going to grow the food that you need to eat and carry it down the trail to the next village, you haven’t got the leisure to use the trails for running. They must look at some of these racers and wonder what on earth we’re doing.”
Hawker reminds us that adventure is a luxury.
“It’s only once we’ve become more wealthy as a nation that people actually have leisure time and then actually the need of sport.” Yet she also believes humans still need something to strive for; to be uncomfortable, discover limits and then overcome them.
“When we forget that, I think that’s where people go wrong and get depressed at sitting at a desk for 12 hours a day. [Adventure] just seems to be a human need somehow.”
How to support the Nepalese Runners
Author note: I am pledging my writer’s fee for this article to help future female Nepalese runners visit Hong Kong – keep an eye out on the website and details on how you too can support!
By Rachel Jacqueline. This article originally appeared in our Mar/Apr 2014 issue.