KATHMANDU -- As a child soldier with Nepal's Maoists, Mira Rai learned to fire guns, disarm opponents and race down trails, little imagining her guerrilla drills would help make her one of the world's top ultra runners.
"It is like a dream, beyond anything I ever imagined. I was just a girl from a village," Rai told AFP.
The daughter of a poor Nepali farmer, Rai was only 14 when she ran away from home to fight alongside Maoist rebels seeking to overthrow the government.
"In our society, girls are supposed to behave in a certain way. I didn't want to be confined by that," said Rai, now aged 26.
She chafed at the rules she was expected to obey as a teenage girl living in a patriarchal country and the Maoist call for revolution resonated with her.
"The Maoists gave opportunities to women, they treated us equally. I saw that women could fight like men, be brave. I built up my confidence there," Rai said.
She practised firearm drills and competed with other cadres in running contests designed to build endurance.
"I did very well, I even used to outrun the boys," she recalled.
Today, Rai ranks among the world's leading ultra runners after a record-breaking win in the 80-kilometre Mont Blanc race in Chamonix, France, last June, when she beat her nearest rival by 22 minutes.
But when the decade-long insurgency ended in 2006, Rai, like many Maoist foot soldiers, was left with little in the way of cash or career prospects.
Desperate for work, she prepared to leave Nepal for a job in a Malaysian electronics factory before being scouted by a Kathmandu-based karate instructor, Dhurba Bikram Malla, who urged her to stay.
Rai gave up her plans and started training -- initially doing practice runs on the capital's congested roads because she could not afford the 15-cent bus fare to the nearest stadium.
"She was very single-minded. If you told her to do something, she would just do it," Malla told AFP.
"She is very consistent in her speed (and) never seems to get tired."
Rai made her racing debut in March 2014, running a steep 50-kilometre course along the hills overlooking the Kathmandu valley.
Dressed in a cheap t-shirt and shoes that cost USD 4, she ran for hours before she felt dizzy and stopped.
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