spectacular talent deserves support

Mira Rai is starting to make her mark internationally. A couple of months ago she showed up at the start of her first ever 50k and did remarkably well for a girl that hadn’t run much beyond 5 and 10k races. Richard Bull, a driving force behind the development of trailrunning in Nepal, started a crowd funding initiative to support her development as a budding athlete and that of other talented female runners. He invited her to join the second edition of his Mustang Trail race (female winner), and managed to get her to follow the footsteps of Upendra Sunwar and Phu Dorjee Sherpa whom his crowd funding efforts has brought to Europe recently. Two straight wins later, after some recovery time in Nepal, she was supported to travel to Hongkong to compete  in the MSIG HK50 and was victorious again.

Mira in her first race, the 57k, +3500m Sellaronda Trail:

Her successes have been amply documented on trailrunningnepal.org so what is there to add? Not much I thought, until I was copied in some behind the scene reporting by [then time] 4deserts (and thus Hongkong-based) Matt Moroz about Mira’s performance. It’s a long quote, but no summary could do justice to what Matt is describing here:

I’m still buzzing about what happened yesterday. I knew Mira was strong, but she blew me away with her performance. A very quick blow-by-blow account…followed by my thoughts for December…

I myself went off quick but controlled. It was very flat to begin with. We’d all expressed to Mira to take it easy and save plenty for the final 15km of hills.

Mira joined me at 7km, I was slightly surprised but not overly concerned as I’d taken it easy and she was comfortable. She was already first woman which did scare me slightly.

After 10km she dropped off a bit and my heart sank. I thought the flat had cooked her and I just hoped she’d maintain enough to stay in the top-5 and prize money.

I didn’t see her again until 38km in, when she flew past me on a ridiculously technical descent. It was a joy to watch. She asked ‘5km left brother?’ I hated telling her, ‘No, more like 12’. She didn’t bat an eyelid, just carried on flying!!!

What I found out later is what happened along a very nice runnable section called Sir Cecil’s Ride. Mira was joined my my friend Marie, they were running together. Mira was not phased at all. Then from nowhere, local running legend JoeJoe Fan flew past these two leading girls, probably expecting to leave them for dead. JoeJoe has been an elite runner for years, and she’s incredible on the flat and trail, but especially flat with her amazing pace. What happened next gives my goosebumps…

Mira had obviously just been cruising. She’d taken the advice to pace it and although she was right up there, and on her less comfortable flat terrain, she obviously had loads in the tank. She was where she was because there was no need to be any further up there. Once JoeJoe went past, Marie told me that Mira just took off!!!!! She flew after her with amazing strength and speed and the next we know she’d taken JoeJoe, and then killed her off as soon as the hills came! Please note again, JoeJoe is unanimously feared by women runners in HK, she is absolute quality and has had amazing coaching for years from the institute of sports excellence!!!!

This is something I’m not sure any of us realised she had? It seems she can compete on the flat stuff too, and indeed she can pace it fantastically well, and listen to advice while all the time knowing her strengths.

When Mira passed me it was beautiful. The best part was she joined me and Santosh simultaneously. While it took every ounce of concentration to not wipe out of that crazy descent, with total bushwhacking challenge to boot, she held a very excited conversation with Santosh as if it was a 8km/h warm up run on a treadmill!!!!

OK, so on to December…

I honestly think that Mira can compete with Stevie. Stevie is becoming a legend but from what I have seen, Mira has that ability too! I ran with Stevie just a little in Hong Kong, and on the ascents she is good, but I don’t think she’s as strong as Mira. I believe that I will beat Stevie in both the December Lantau races, I cannot say that about Mira!!!

Wow. Stevie Kremer…trailrunningnepal aims to grow the sport of trail running in Nepal, and support exceptional Nepali athletes. This certainly gives the term exceptional some texture.

And it made me dwell a bit on the question why athletes like Mira should be supported. Sure, we all deserve equal chances in life, birth place and social class should not be unescapable molds of our future, talent should count for something, but hé, that narrows it down to a billion or two of our species, a bit non-specific. Can one say anything beyond that this particular cause  apparently appeals, for variable and personal reasons, to the charitable reflexes of some of us? Anything beyond the captive stories individuals like Mira often represent, and their warm smiles?

The most straight forward reason I can come up with (and one that is clearly beyond charity targeting an individual) is that the more exceptional talent competes in trailrunning races, the more the podium really represents performances that push the limits of what we thought we bipedal naked primates were capable of. The exceptional comes into its own only when really challenged. The bigger the pond, the bigger the challenge, the bigger the chance an ability hors catégorie reveals itself. Mira deserves to race Stevie as much as it uplifts Stevie to race Mira. All of us who enjoy the sport are going to be the better for it, and it’ll push the envelope of what our species collectively thinks possible. Not supporting athletes like Mira diminishes the potential of trailrunning as a human endeavour.

Sure, this move doesn’t really answer the question, it deflects it to the not necessarily less arbitrary question of why sport? why trailrunning? But I feel there is inherent merit in treasuring the exceptional whatever the skill. Allow me a short digression: Our species is making quite a mess of it, seems on collision course with the biosphere, and doesn’t have a clue how to wiggle its way out of that yet. Dire times I would say, and who knows what qualities we need to hone to have a future. Anything hors catégorie seems worth treasuring and protecting to me, because it doesn’t look like the way forward is to be found within the box.

To compensate for too much pompous verbosity, have a short break:

Another very much non-charitable reason to support spectacular talent like Mira is that she’s a girl. Arguably nothing new, given that Mira made it to Europe because of financial support of trailrunning Nepal’s one and only Girls Running Fund initiative. But also this angle may profit from rethinking the basic question why girls. From the above exposition about why it is important to support exceptional talent you may have sensed that I am uncomfortable (to use an understatement) with charity as a motive. To make myself clear, that is not arguing against the impulse itself as a trigger for getting oneself involved, share, support, and in general do something for someone else in need of a hand. That is part of our emotional and social make-up, and for good reasons. What makes me uncomfortable is the burden it normally comes with for the target of that impulse. The gift economy is ruled by strings that can be as hard to bear as a contractual debt. Even with proper reflection, dependency, unequal power relations, a patronage kinda relationship, and other shit are difficult to avoid. Good intentions are no guarantee at all for good outcomes and often come with their disasters build in right from the beginning. My way out of this (again: unavoidable, it comes with our make-up as social primates) conundrum, is similar to the conceptual switch of perspective I tried to make above: de-emphasize the individual level and focus on what the systemic impacts are/could be on us all, and the rest of the universe – I like the broader picture as you will have noticed.

So, yes, what the girls running fund promo tells you is very true: running can be a catalyst for many things, and within the Nepali context, very importantly that includes increasing self-esteem and confidence. But, it is also important to look at what it would mean for the rest of the country, hell, the world, if girls having self-esteem end confidence would be the new ‘normal’. It is actually deeply shameful that one has to continue arguing for the importance of promoting girl power. But, as I’ve stated in an earlier post: Elephants in the room have an uncanny ability to be overlooked when it matters (which is all the time, that’s why they’re called elephants) and thus resist change. Maybe because  everyone knows about them, has known about them for quite a while, and is bored of hearing about what is in plain sight all the time? Anyways, any reason to give someone the floor who has the ability to point out elephants eloquently enough to get my attention, and hopefully yours too, is good enough. So here’s David Rothkopf again, an excerpt of his piece in Foreign Policy that I reblogged earlier:

The systematic, persistent acceptance of women’s second-class status is history’s greatest shame. And for all our self-congratulations about how far we have come, we live in a world where even in the most advanced countries, deep injustices against women remain. These injustices, of course, have other costs beyond the purely human ones. Nothing would help societies grow more than educating and empowering women economically. Democracy is a sham until the planet’s majority population actually achieves equitable representation in deliberative bodies and executive positions of government. And the absence of women in positions of power is also, of course, a guarantee that women’s interests will continue to be minimized, ignored, or repressed.

We’re talking about nothing less than an epoch-long war on a people here, an effort to hold back the economic — and social — progress of the majority of humanity.

Yes, we would be so  much better off, and, to make the connection to my first reason, have so much more chances of finding a way out of the mess we’re heading into, with a fair balance of power between the sexes. So, from my perspective, talented girls receiving some extra support should claim that as their birth right.

Now, as we’ve saved the world, let’s return to the small and desperately poor, badly governed mountain state of Nepal. The gift economy of international aid has wrecked havock with the spirit of many of its inhabitants. Whatever one may think of the contemporary socio-economic role and effects of competitive sports (opium for the masses, a bulwark of money laundering, illegal gambling, and legalized robber baron capitalism – want more options?…) it can certainly be an arena for positive role models, an anchor for pride in one’s country and its possibilities, for hope and inspiration that transfers to the rest of people’s lives. However, for a particular sport’s discipline to acquire such status  it needs international success. Big success. The stories of the importance of running in and for countries like Kenya and Ethiopia are well-known. Let me share a short video about another nation in this league for which its running achievements matter to its citizens:

Nepalese trailrunning is far, far removed from this situation. Before Nepal has a chance of becoming widely known and recognized for its mountain running talent the pool of individuals that compete for the possibility to compete on the world stage needs to grow, not a bit but by several factors. And that requires a training and youth sports infrastructure that is totally absent in Nepal. But, as in Kenya, Ethiopia and Jamaica, it all has to start somewhere and it always starts with a couple of individuals who are hors catégorie and make it on the world stage. And these individuals all need(ed) a little bit of outside help to get there and be able to show their qualities.

So in summary, yes, there is nothing wrong with supporting exceptionally gifted female trailrunners like Mira to sort of properly train and be able to off and on compete overseas. But she deserves it for more reasons than being an incredibly likable, humble, and intelligent woman – all of which she is by the way. She deserves it also because it might result somewhere down the line in Nepalese trailrunning becoming an arena of nationally uplifting role models and pride, and because, ultimately, somewhere in the objectives of a fair gender balance and treasuring exceptional human abilities may lie our escape from doom.





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