Sunmaya Budha is the 24-year old trail runner from Jumla, Nepal who stormed into the trail running limelight with her strong runner-up performance behind Blandine L’Hirondel at the 2022 CCC by UTMB (Courmayeur – Champex Au Lac – Chamonix) 100-kilometer event. L’Hirondel won the race in 11:40 with Budha crossing the line only five minutes behind her – both athletes well under the previous course record of 11:57 by Miao Yao.
For Budha this wasn’t her first time racing outside of Asia, but this time she was better prepared in terms of training and nutrition, along with great race with support from The North Face Adventure Team. Before her break out performance at CCC she also has wins at the 2021 Thailand by UTMB 100-kilometer, and the 2019 Oman by UTMB 50-kilometer to her name among various other great results. We however might have never seen her race in any event had she not overcome a challenging upbringing in a culture where according to Budha more value is often placed on boys. She was sickly and eventually set up for an arranged marriage, but she was supported by her mother and her prowess in trail running led her down a different path.
“My parents gave birth to one boy and then seven girls, they wanted to have one more boy in case something happen to my older brother. When I was very young I was on the verge of death due to sickness and malnutrition, and perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference to my family if I was alive or dead. My mum said she looked into my eyes when I was sick and felt a strong determination to keep me alive. So she took me to work in mountains with her and used all her knowledge of natural medicine and prayers until I showed signs of surviving. I am immensely grateful to my mother for my life. I want to make her proud. I want my parents to 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,” said Budha.
Women in Nepal do not have the same access to sports as men do, but at a young age Budha won a school running competition in a nearby town on a gravel track. She won most of her races and loved it. When she finished school at age 16 her dad and older brother wanted her to consider an arranged marriage. Something fairly common in rural Nepal but Budha had other dreams and wanted to be a runner. She had heard of a running sports club in nearby town called the Karnali Sports Club and wanted to join that club, but she told her family that she was looking for advanced schooling instead. She attended the school for just one week and then left to focus on the running program which happened to run at the same time. She soon raced for the club at a national level event and finished with a third place and a prize of 15,000 rupees. She continued to improve and in 2016 was invited to her first trail race – a 12-kilometer event organized by a race director named Richard Bull. She won and was quickly sold on trail running. “My big break happened two years ago when Ryan Blair invited me to join APA’s Athlete team, The North Face Adventure Team. Finally, I got professional management, coaching, money and lots of other support to help me improve to where I am at today. I am extremely grateful to Asia Pacific Adventure, The North Face and COROS as our team’s main sponsors.”
While Nepal is still home, where she grew up is in a very remote area of the mountains and requires two small plane rides to reach Katmandu with frequent weather cancelations or two very long days on a local bus. Thus Budha spends quite a bit of time in Hong Kong where her team is based and where she has great training options. According to Budha many Nepal trails are similar to the CCC course but the weather is dryer, and the Hong Kong trails are more technical and feature shorter climbs.
Before the 2022 CCC competition Budha was dealing with an Achilles injury and there was some uncertainty if she would actually race in the big UTMB event. “It was also an unbelievable race because I got an Achilles injury six weeks before the race and had to take time off training. I arrived in Europe not even knowing if I could run more than few hours, but had really good final preparation there with my team and everything came together on race day. Our team stayed in Europe like a big family with Asian food and support and this also really helped everyone before the race,” added Budha.
Budha’s plan for CCC was to stay steady until the halfway point of the race and then see how she felt, looking out for any signs of her injury. She was surprised to be in the top three and then pushed harder. She moved into second place by the time she reached Trient and that gave her wings – motivating her to chase down the race leader. Her team manager Ryan Blair gave her splits and she learned that she was indeed moving closer. “I was closing the gap and on the last climb I gave everything. I could see her headlight near the last check point. I fought until the end but could not quite catch her. But I was still so happy with my performance and for Nepal and my team. This was my biggest international result after the 110 km UTMB Thailand in 2021 and I feel like I am finally reaching my potential.”
With the prize money collected at CCC she was able to support her family back home in Nepal where those winnings were many times the average monthly salary there.
Earlier this year Budha won the Khijidemba Ultra Marathon in Nepal, using that race to test her legs before flying to Hong Kong to meet her team. The event was not near her home, but she was happy to race again after getting injured in Thailand during the 2022 Trail Running World Championships. She had some problems training before that World Championship race because of flooding in Nepal, along with visa problems and illness in Katmandu affecting her training. “The injury came from not being fully prepared. Fortunately, my team Director Ryan Blair, my local manager Preeti Khatri and my coach Andy Dubois helped a lot with rehab and other support for three months to help me recover.” Budha typically trains six days a week, including two speed session and one long run. Her other runs are easy or just steady. When asked about her strengths and weaknesses she said “I feel strong both climbing and descending. I like trail but not so much running on road.”
She looks up to Killian Jornet and Ruth Croft and likes these athletes because in her view they are strong but also humble and show their power on the trail and not by talking.
This summer she plans to race in the Trail and Mountain Running World Championships in June and then that the Val d’Aran by UTMB in Spain in July before going to the UTMB World Series Finales to race OCC. She will race more 50-kilometer events this year and chose OCC to try something new and because in her mind she already ran the perfect CCC race.