Hari Rokaya, marathon runner, eats nothing other than plain old daal-bhat-tarkari. His training is similarly low tech, but you wouldn't know that from this 39-year-old's impressive record of first places. There is more to the story than a starchy Nepali diet. Rokaya's is a tale of hard work, determination, perseverance, patriotism-and, sadly, corruption in the sporting authorities.
Hari Bahadur Rokaya is from Jumla. The very name conjures up a harsh mountainous terrain, with long, difficult winters and a harvest of barley and potatoes that is never enough for the year. Perhaps Rokaya, who for the last two decades has displayed the endurance needed to win marathons, took his cue from his environment.
His life reads like a highland Forrest Gump fiction. Rokaya modestly describes himself as a shy lad at Chandannath Secondary School in Khalanga, the headquarters of Jumla district. But that changed after he won his first race in the Birendra Running Shield Inter School Games when in grade eight. He took off and he's still running. He won the event twice more and then decided, he says, to run for the rest of his life. He was meticulous in planning his sporting career-Karnali, the remotest part of the country, was barely on the national sports radar, so Rokaya decided that he wanted to first remedy that. "No one from Karnali had won a medal until then, I vowed to wipe away this shame," he says.
In 1981 he finally got his chance and made a modest beginning, coming fourth in the 5 km marathon at the second National Games in Pokhara. He stayed in the top five in a number of middle- and long-distance runs at different national-level meets, but his first real break came at the 26th National Athletics Meet in Kathmandu in 1985 where he came in first in the 5 km race and second in the 10 km race. Since then Hari Rokaya has won every other major national long distance run and participated in over 28 international events. Representing Nepal at the third SAF Games in Calcutta in 1987 he finished in third position in the 5 km, and at the 25th Olympic Games in Spain in 1992, he placed at a respectable 70 out of the 172 who ran the marathon.
And of late Rokaya is getting famous as the Everest Runner. The Everest Marathon is a full marathon held every eighteen months and is widely considered as the world's highest marathon. This 42.2 km race that began in 1987 goes as high as 16,500 ft. The breathtaking route in the shadow of the world's highest mountain and the challenge of even just completing the race draws experienced runners from 15 different countries. Hari has won the last three of these races. He won the Eighth Everest Marathon in June 1999 in 3 hours 50 minutes and 23 seconds, beating his own former record of 3 hours 56 minutes and 10 seconds.
Hari's practice schedule is as tough as his home terrain. Like most of his counterparts prefers an early morning run. But unlike them he starts out with a simple cup of tea and heads for the hills. He doesnt plan the runs neither does he time it but he is known to reach Rara Lake from Jumla proper in seven hours, more than a days walk to average travellers.
Impressed by Rokaya's performance, Paul Gut, a Swiss architect and runner who participated in the last Everest Marathon, decided to take him to the famous Jungfrau Marathon held every year in Switzerland. Finding sponsors was a difficult task, but eventually Austrian Air sponsored the tickets for Rokaya and his trainee Laxmi Upadhyaya. When they got there this August, everyone was already talking about the "Everest Runner". Mana Gut KC, a Nepali and the wife of Paul Gut, remembers how tearful and overjoyed she was when Nepal was announced and hundreds applauded as Rokaya jogged on. "Everybody was talking about Nepal, it made us really proud," she says. Expectations were high and for a man who lives on dal-bhaat, Rokaya did pretty well, coming in eighth among 3,700 runners while his partner Laxmi came 23rd. "I am a highland runner-so I gained momentum uphill but my performance slowed down in the flat grounds," explains Rokaya with a grin.
For all those who are sceptical about Nepali athletes, their dedication and their staying power, this is the man to look at. Rokaya says he has had numerous chances to stay abroad when away for tournaments and that even the authorities in Nepal say they are baffled at why he keeps coming back. "They ask me why I don't take the chance and stay away for good," he says. With authorities like these it is no wonder our sportspersons disappear almost every time they leave the country for an international event.
Rokaya says that from the start of his national sporting career he has had so much trouble with the authorities and seen so much politicking, that he has now decided to stay out of the regional and national level meets see. "There is simply too much politics and nepotism there. They (Nepal Sports Council) are not concerned about promoting Nepali athletes, they are only in for the money," he says.
Rokaya has been given the post of Junior Assistant Coach in the Jumla District Sports Committee and gets a monthly salary of Rs 7,000 but now his only source of income is in danger. "They are talking about coaches with degrees. Someone like myself, I didn't even have enough to eat and was still running for the country-how could I afford getting a degree?" laments Rokaya. If he were to receive proper training, there is no telling what Rokaya might do. Says the winner, "For us Nepalis what foreigners eat as breakfast serves as the main meal for the whole day-think what we could do if we had the proper facility. There is no doubt that with that Nepali athletes could perform as well as their foreign colleagues"
Nepal's very own marathon man may be down, but he's far from out-his dream is to establish a mountain running school in his district. But first he needs to have a steady job.