Sunmaya Budha: Running off an imminent teenage marriage in Nepal for trail running across the globe

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

Sunmaya Budha was on the verge of getting married off by her parents when she was in her early teens. Things were almost certain as her family was adamant about the marriage if she persisted in running. But, Budha did not want to get married.

She told her parents she was going to the city to get admitted into a high school. But, she did not and instead joined a running club and started training to get better as a runner. And, since then, she has never stopped.

This Saturday (August 27), after 11 hours and 45 minutes, she finished the 101-kilometre-long CCC UTMB Mont Blanc race in second place. It was only about time that Sunmaya Budha burst onto the international scene and the manner in which she did, finishing the race only five minutes behind the winner shows how much potential the young runner has.

The recent feat

(L-R) Sunmaya Budha with race winner Blandine L’hirondel and Abby Hall.

Known as one of the toughest races in the world, this was a great achievement for Budha and as soon as she crossed the finish line she was greeted by her mentors and supporters at the North Face Adventure Team who were elated for her. This was particularly special as Budha as recently as two months ago suffered from a horrible Achilles injury, but defying everyone, she came in second.

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

“We win a lot of races, but people in Nepal don’t care. Sometimes it feels like we’re not athletes. I really hope things changes soon,” Buddha says.

All the way from Karnali

Sunmaya Budha started running at a very early age. Growing up in Pere, a village in northeast Jumla in Karnali, she first ran in school events. Then, she got the chance to run in the President Running Shield, a grassroots event for runners that takes place at all local units across Nepal. 

She was only 13 and performing well in this competition, she started to catch the eye of people around. One of them was Hari Bahadur Rokaya, former Olympian, long-distance runner and three-time Everest Marathon winner, who was also a coach at 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 will happen to me and that I would be sold. But eventually, after I finished the 10th grade, I went to Jumla to run,” says Budha.

Joining Rokaya’s school, Sunmaya Budha started to train regularly. She had won a few track events by then and understood running was what she was good at. She says there was no regret in not joining high school because studying never really interested her.

“If I was good at studies, I would have studied, but I knew I belonged on the track.”

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

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

She started to regularly take part in both road races and tracks. People were watching her keenly. After she continued to do well in these races, people in the adventure scene in Nepal contacted her and told her how much potential she had. They even went to her parents to convince them to let Sunmaya Budha run freely.

Sunmaya Budha
Sunmaya Budha has taken part in competitions abroad and has come in first in some of them. Photo: Lloyd Belcher

It was in the Godavari Running Festival when Richard Bull saw what she could do and invited her to go take part in the Manaslu Trail Race. During the seven-day event, she was first every day. This was unprecedented and a lot of people were curious about who she was as she continued to impress.

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

Running abroad to record scores

After that, Sunmaya Budha took part in various competitions at home and abroad. She has been to China, Oman, Hong Kong and France finishing in the podium places in most of them. In the ones she did not, she still impressed people as she was a young runner.

These accolades were huge given how she started. She says for most of her life she ran barefoot. As a child, in most races she took part in her village, she ran without shoes. Even when she came to Kathmandu to run the 5,000-metre events at Dasharath Stadium, she ran barefoot as she did not know how to run with track shoes. And, barefoot, she even won.

“It was hard during the start. When I started running trails, I did so using shoes I bought for Rs 800 (less than USD 7). Now, thanks to everyone, I run with better shoes.”

Sunmaya Budha says every event she goes to take part in abroad has taught her something new. Yet, she says there is a long way to go. Her recent success in France is proof of her getting better and learning from races she has taken part in Nepal and other countries. She hopes the same fandom can take place in Nepal too.

“We don’t care about trail running. No one knows the potential these types of races have.”

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

“I too want to run in Nepal with a lot of fans cheering us on. That’s the dream.”

Maybe that 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 Nepali woman to have been signed up by the brand in years. North Face Team Director Ryan S Blair, after signing, said how they wanted to support Budha given her potential and ambitions.

Sunmaya Budha’s recent plaudits in France will be remembered for years to come, but a lot of people in the running field knew this was coming. 

“I was very impressed by Sunmaya. She may be a bit shy, but she is already very charismatic. I see her winning the world’s greatest races in the coming 10-15 years, with zero doubt. And I hope she can visit Chamonix and run UTMB Mont-Blanc,” UTMB’s Organising Committee member Remi Duchmein said in 2019.

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Pant is an independent journalist based in Kathmandu. He covers issues ranging from tech, music, mountains, biodiversity and environment.

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