23-year-old promising trail runner from Nepal

Sunmaya Budha after winning the Gaoligong THT Ultra. Photo courtesy: Sunmaya Budha

Sunmaya Budha was about to marry her parents when she was in her early teens. Things were almost certain as her family were adamant about marriage if she persisted in running. But, Budha did not want to get married.

She told her parents she was going to town to get into high school. But, she didn’t and instead joined a running club and started training to improve as a runner. And since then it has never stopped.

This Saturday August 27, after 11 hours and 45 minutes, she finished second in the 101 kilometer long CCC UTMB Mont Blanc race. It was time for Sunmaya Budha to burst onto the international scene and the way she did so, finishing the race just five minutes from the winner, shows just how much potential the young rider has.

The recent feat

(LR) Sunmaya Budha with race winner Blandine L’Hirondel and Abby Hall.

Known as one of the toughest races in the world, it was a great achievement for Budha and as soon as she crossed the finish line she was greeted by her mentor and supporter Mira Rai who was thrilled for her. It was particularly special as Budha, just two months ago, suffered a horrific Achilles injury, but defying everyone, she came second.

For Sunmaya Budha, that was exactly what she set out to do. Developing as a runner, she has come a long way since she started running at 15 and now at 23 she knows that if she continues to push the limits like she always has, she can be an all-time great in a sport that is not getting the recognition it deserves in a country like Nepal.

“We win a lot of races, but the Nepalese don’t care. Sometimes it feels like we’re not athletes. I really hope things will change soon,” says Buddha.

From Karnali

Sunmaya Budha started running very early. Growing up in Pere, a village in the northeast of Jumla in Karnali, she first participated in school events. Then she had the chance to participate in the President Running Shield, a popular event for runners that takes place in all local units in Nepal.

She was only 13 years old and performed well in this competition, she began to attract the attention of people around. One of them was Hari Bahadur Rokaya, a former Olympian, distance runner and three-time Everest Marathon winner, who was also a coach at the National Sports Council. He wanted Budha to join the running club.

“He had sent a letter to my parents asking them to send me to train, but my mother was afraid that something bad would happen to me and that I would be sold. But eventually, after finishing grade 10, I went to Jumla to run,” says Budha.

Joining Rokaya’s school, Sunmaya Budha began training regularly. By then she had won a few track events and understood that running was what she did best. She says she didn’t regret not going to high school, because studying never really interested her.

“If I was good at studying, I would have studied, but I knew my place was on the track.”

Through the club, she started competing in track events in Kathmandu. She also started to do well in marathons finishing third in Dharan.

“My parents were sad that I finished third because they didn’t understand what a marathon was and the level of competition I was facing.”

She began to regularly participate in road and track races. People were watching her intently. After continuing to do well in these races, Mira Rai contacted her and told her of her full potential. Rai even went to his parents to convince them to let Sunmaya Budha run free.

Sunmaya Buddha
Sunmaya Budha has participated in overseas competitions and won first place in some of them. Photo: Lloyd Belcher

It was at the Godavari Running Festival that Rai and Richard Bull saw what she could do and invited her to participate in the Manaslu Trail Race. During the seven-day event, she was first every day. It was unprecedented and many people were curious to know who she was as she continued to impress.

“A person told Richard that he wanted to sponsor me and send me to other races around the world. Since then things have changed,” says Budha.

Run overseas to save scores

After that, Sunmaya Budha participated in various competitions at home and abroad. She has traveled to China, Oman, Hong Kong and France, finishing on the podium in most of them. In the ones she didn’t do, she still impressed people because she was a young runner.

Those accolades were huge considering how she started. She says that for most of her life she ran barefoot. As a child, in most of the races she participated in in her village, she ran without shoes. Even when she came to Kathmandu to run the 5,000 meter events at Dasharath Stadium, she ran barefoot as she could not run in running shoes. And, barefoot, she even won.

“It was tough at first. When I started running on trails, I did it using shoes that I bought for Rs 800 (less than 7 USD). Now, thanks to everyone, I run in better shoes.

Sunmaya Budha says every event she attends abroad has taught her something new. Yet, she says, there is still a long way to go. Her recent success in France is proof that she has improved and learned from the races she has participated in in Nepal and other countries. She hopes that the same fandom can also take place in Nepal.

“We don’t care about trail running. Nobody knows the potential of these types of races.

And, she is right. People from all over the world come to watch these races. A Golden Trail Series event that took place in 2019 at Mardi Himal was a huge success.

“I too want to race in Nepal with lots of fans cheering us on. That’s the dream.

Perhaps this dream will soon come true for her. In July 2021, she was signed as an athlete by the North Face Adventure Team, becoming the first Nepalese woman to be signed up with the brand in years. North Face team principal Ryan S Blair after the signing said they wanted to support Budha given his potential and ambitions.

Sunmaya Budha’s recent applause in France will be remembered for years to come, but many in the racing business knew it was coming.

“I was very impressed with Sunmaya. She may be a bit shy, but she is already very charismatic. I see her winning the biggest races in the world in the next 10 to 15 years, without a doubt. And I hope she can visit Chamonix and run the UTMB Mont-Blanc,” said Rémi Duchmein, member of the UTMB organizing committee, in 2019.

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