He was born in 1998, in a small village in Jumla, one of the poorest districts in Nepal, in which most families live on subsistence agriculture. It is a deeply conservative environment, in which women often have no choice but to marry and have children. Any other life project is off the menu.
But Sunmaya Budha realized very young that she was different from other girls. For one thing, she was never convinced by the fate they were preparing her for. On the other, he ran like nobody else and he liked nothing so much. “I won every race at my school. All distances, always, “he said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
At age 15, he represented the Jumla district in a major school athletics event. As she did not have suitable footwear, she ran barefoot. That didn’t stop her from coming second, and only because he stopped before reaching the goal, thinking that he had already crossed the line. That milestone ended up deciding her to dedicate her life to running mountain races.
To fulfill his dream, he needed a coach, and it was not easy to find one willing to train a girl in that environment. In time he learned of one: Hari Rokaya, an electrician by profession and three-time winner of the Everest marathon, which had created in 2007 a boarding school for runners in the town of Jumla. Rokaya encouraged girls to run and groomed them, so he was the right person.
At 17, when he finished school, her parents understood that the time had come to find her a husband and to prepare an arranged marriage like those that are still used in the area. Budha knew that she couldn’t tell them that she wanted to give up those plans to dedicate herself to running, so she begged them to let her study first. They reluctantly agreed to let her go to Jumla to study to be a teacher.
But what she did as soon as she got to town was go see Rokaya to ask him to train her. He accepted, and from that moment he began to train all day without stopping. At first he tried to study at the same time, but realized that it was impossible. The training left her too exhausted, so she quickly dropped out of school.
“I knew that education was very important, but I wanted to do something bigger by dedicating myself to sports”, said. “Even though I lied to my parents, I justified my decision by doing what really interested me.”
The early days were very hard. His parents sent him some money, but it was not enough to cover his most basic needs. “Some days I was too tired to cook, so I would sleep, then wake up, have a snack and go back to training. So my days passed. I didn’t know what a proper diet was then. I used to have trouble sleeping because I was too tired and too hungry ”, Budha told SCMP.
But in every race he competed, he won or at least made the podium. After she came out third in a very important one, her parents found out that she was a mountain runner on the radio. They could not believe it. Furious, they stopped sending him money and demanded that he return home. But she refused.
It was shortly after that that an event occurred that turned his life upside down: met Mira Rai, one of the best mountain runners in the world and a national heroine in Nepal. Rai adopted her as a “little sister”, and began to help her advance in her career. It was she who took her to her first international competition, a 130-kilometer, multi-day ultramarathon called the Manaslu Trail Race. She was one of the few competitors with the privilege of participating without paying the USD 1,000 registration fee. Budha won the women’s division and was fourth overall.
That was a window that opened many doors for him. She then competed in Hong Kong, where she came second in a one-kilometer vertical race, from sea level to Lantau Peak, and in a 50-kilometer high race, in which she was surpassed by the current world champion in running mountain, Caroline Chaverot. For being the highest ranked Asian athlete, Budha won the Asian Skyrunning Championship and won her first prize money: 580 US dollars.
Budha is loved and respected in Nepal, and she fulfilled her dream of running. But he still lives in Jumla and continues to train with Rokaya. Discipline doesn’t pay too much money, and it is difficult for a shy young woman who speaks little English to get sponsors. Nonetheless, now it is she who helps her family with some money. Her parents keep trying to get her to drop everything to get married and have children. But now they are proud of her.
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