'I'm no less than a boy': Female runner hopes to challenge gender norms in Nepal after achievement in historic race

'I'm no less than a boy': Female runner hopes to challenge gender norms in Nepal after achievement in historic race
PHOTO: Instagram/Sunmaya Budha

As Sunmaya Budha crossed the finish line in second place at last month's Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc's Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC) race, fans cheered and shared in the joy of her moment.

It might have been 100 kilometres from the start line, but it was symbolically a million miles from where she began her life, in a society that seemed not to care if she lived or died because she was a girl.

The CCC, which starts in Courmayeur and ends in Chamonix, attracts scores of fans and the top ultra runners in the world. Budha's time of 11 hours and 45 minutes is the second fastest in history, slower only than Aug 25's race winner.


Budha's immense talent as a runner has been a ticket out of a poverty-stricken life, marred by patriarchal norms, in Jumla, western Nepal. She escaped an arranged marriage by secretly attending a running academy.

"What would I have done if I wasn't running, if I wasn't discovered by the right people and the team?" she said. "Most of my friends get married at 16, some even at 14. Many have children now."

"My parents gave birth to seven girls to try and have one boy, because girls are burdens for the poor families in my culture. I was on the verge of death due to malnutrition when I was a baby, and perhaps it wouldn't have made any difference to my family if I was alive or dead.

"My mum says she looked into my eyes when I was sick and felt a strong determination to keep me alive. So she took me to a different location and used all her knowledge of natural medicine and prayers until I showed signs of surviving."

In 2016, Budha met Mira Rai at a race. Rai was blazing trails in Nepal as a successful runner and won the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award in 2017. She was using her platform to give other talented women a chance, and saw the potential in Budha.

Since then, Budha has gone on to compete at races across the world, from China to Oman. It got her noticed by the Asia-Pacific Adventure North Face Adventure Team in Hong Kong, led by Ryan Blair. He reached out and she became part of the team.

"Running is the gift I have, that I am confident of developing more and I am grateful to all the opportunities I have got and especially those I am getting now [in Hong Kong]," she said.

Budha's feat in France was all the more impressive given she arrived undercooked for the CCC because of an Achilles injury.

The pain started about six weeks before she was set to fly to Europe, and soon became unbearable, preventing her from running at all. But Blair and Budha's sponsors arranged for her to travel back to Kathmandu for treatment.

"I had been following the record timings of the previous athletes and wished to try my best to challenge the podium and even get near the record time this year," Budha said.

"With the injury, I became so scared and desperate when there was a possibility that if my injury doesn't get better, I might have to cancel my competition."

Two weeks of physiotherapy in Kathmandu improved the injury, but it had not healed totally, and even when Budha flew to France she had not yet had chance to test the Achilles on a longer run.

"The episode of injury made me grounded. I no longer thought about the podium or breaking the record, but just focused on giving my best in the race. My teammates and Ryan [Blair] also asked me to relax and that there was no pressure to win, just do my best," Budha said.

Budha and the North Face Team were in France two weeks before the race start, and used the time to view the course and formulate a strategy.

They decided she would go slow for the first half, as the "real race" starts in the second half with three big mountain climbs.

The plan worked. Budha thought she was somewhere around 10th to 15th place as she neared halfway, but at the 53km checkpoint, she found out she was in third place.

The adrenaline took over, and she became utterly focused - she did even not notice any issue with her Achilles.

"To hear that I am at the top three with second [place] just near, was a huge morale boost for me, and I suddenly got this energy and drive to chase the leader in front. But I did have a little concern about getting injured too, and I was careful as I pushed as hard as possible," Budha said.

At the last checkpoint, Budha was 21 minutes behind the leader – the 100km world champion L'hirondel Blandine.

"Frankly, I wasn't thinking much," Budha said. "Blandine was fast, and the descent was too technical. I had the last eight kilometres to go and I wanted to make it to the finish line strong. I had to be careful, to maintain my pace and at least hold on to the second rank, if not first."

Budha ate into Blandine's lead and finally finished just five minutes behind the winner in 11:45 – an hour faster than the 2021 winner.

"I could think and ask myself, could I have pushed myself more to close the last four to five minute gap? But I think, for this year, this performance was all I could pull off. Ranking second gives me motivation for preparing for the future races. I know I can still do better if I stay healthy," Budha said.

Budha collected €900 (S$1,200) in prize money for coming second - more than the average monthly salary in Nepal, which is around US$630.

In Jumla, where Budha's mother nursed her back to health, the money will go even further.

"I am immensely grateful to [my mother] for my life. I want to make her proud," Budha added. "I want to make them believe that I was no less than a boy and I will be capable someday of taking care of the family much better than a boy."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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