Forged at Zoo Lake - The Hendrick Ramaala story
Updated: Mar 8, 2021
Every morning, without fail you will see a group of runners circling Zoo Lake in Johannesburg. Lap after lap of the roughly 3km circuit, they float along in almost poetic motion. Sometimes for an hour, sometimes for 3 hours. But every day you will find them there, doing the work, clocking the miles that they hope will one day allow them to come close to, equal or even surpass of the man who has trained here for his entire career - one Hendrick Ramaala.
Since he started his running career in the colours of Wits over 25 years ago, Hendrick, with iron resolve and discipline, could be found circling Zoo Lake. Most times alone, sometimes in company. But always he would turn up, come rain or shine. It was here he honed his mental tenacity, built on his natural talent and forged a legend.
“When I don these colours, I feel no pain.” I had not yet met Hendrick, but I so vividly remember these words from him in 1995 at the World Athletics Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden. Hendrick was representing South Africa in 10 000m. His first time flying national colours abroad in an incredible career that would last for over 15 years. During this time he would don the green and gold of South Africa 11 times at four Olympics, five World Championships and four World Half Marathon Championships. In the latter he was twice on the podium and also led team South Africa to the team gold in 1999.
Throughout his entire career, every time you spoke to Hendrick, his pride in representing South Africa was evident. But it was more than pride, it was a desire to give nothing but the best, and if you beat him, you knew you were in a race. “No one laps me!” I remember Hendrick saying this in conversation with me after he set the still standing SA Record in the 10 000m in PE – Gqeberha. Hendrick had just clocked in 27:29.94, defeating the best in South Africa that included the likes of Shadrack Hoff, Enoch Skosana, Richard Mavuso, Motsehi Moeketsana, Stephen Phofi and Laban Nkete, to name but a few. The comment arose when a cheeky bystander remarked that Gebrselassie would have lapped him.
Fighting Spirit - The Paul Tergat Rivalry
That tremendous fighting spirit is what won Hendrick so many races. The incredibly talented and former SA 5000m record holder, Shadrack Hoff was his arch rival in South Africa during their heyday in the 1990's. And more often than not, it was Hendrick's sheer bloody mindedness that held off the speed and talent of Hoff.
There are many examples of Hendrick’s never-say-die approach to running. It was this fighting spirit that saw Hendrick embroiled in some epic battles with one of the greatest athletes of all time. Paul Tergat. Tergat can lay claim to five World Cross Country titles; a world record in the 10 000m (broken by his arch rival and friend, Haile Gebreselassie); and a world record in the marathon (again broken by his friend and rival, Gebreselassie). Hendrick and Tergat’s paths crossed a multitude of times. In 1998 at the World Half Marathon Championship. Tergat won. In 61:50. Hendricks time? 61:50.
2005 New York Marathon – a battle royale
Hendrick and Tergat were embroiled in another titanic battle in 2005 at the New York Marathon. I will never forget that day. Sitting at Supersport to edit highlights packages, a number of us were glued to the screen as Hendrick and Tergat went toe to toe. Hendrick had won New York in 2004 and would have known the course well. The race unfolded with athletes surging repeatedly and Hendrick keeping an eye on them. Tergat though was never one for the surging tactics and would run at a steady pace. So he dropped off with around 17km to go. Gradually his steady pace pulled in the leaders and 3km later was back with the group. When the leaders entered Central Park with roughly 6km or so to go, the lead pack consisted of America’s Meb Keflezighi, Kenya’s Robert Cheruiyot, Tergat and Hendrick.
Cheruiyot developed stomach pains around 38km and was the first to drop off. Keflezighi was next.
Gradually Hendrick and Tergat ratcheted up the pace even more as they approached the finish. It developed into an all-out sprint. You could not write this script better if you tried. In the final 200m the pair swapped the lead again and again. Tergat, the World Record Holder was grimacing. Hendrick’s mouth was wide open, gasping for oxygen. This is not supposed to happen at the end of a marathon. But it did. This was the closest marathon finish in the history of the New York Marathon.
The race literally went to the line, Hendrick diving, but it was Tergats chest that was just ahead of Hendrick. Tergat won in 2:09.30 with Hendrick being awarded 2:09.31. Those were the official times distributed. The timer read 2:09.29.90 for Tergat and 2:09.30.22 for Hendrick. When a marathon turns into a sprint finish. You can watch that finish here
It just doesn’t get closer than this. After the race Hendrick admitted he “ran out of gears.” Reflecting on that final sprint. Hendrick could only say “It is not nice, you do not enjoy it.” Tergat’s manager, Gabriella Rosa summed it up best. “It was terrible at the end. It was wonderful.”
Self-Coached - the journey comes full circle
In 1999, while working on the Athletics Magazine Show, Gijima, I went to visit Hendrick in his flat in Parktown. I asked him how he prepares for his racing as he had no coach. “I coach myself. I make use of much of the information from this book (Running With the Legends – Michael Sandrock)”. The book features many legends and speaks about their training philosophies. Athletes such as Frank Shorter, Lasse Viren, Kip Keino, Sebastian Coe and Nouredine Morceli amongst others. Hendrick took the best philosophies from these athletes and moulded them to suit him. A recipe of success clearly as evidenced by his track record (see side bar).
The knowledge gained from training himself is now being used to hone the likes of Precious Mashele who will be making his marathon debut in Hamburg on 11 April. Desmond Mokgobu is also part of his squad and should Precious run faster than 2:10.31 in Hamburg he will join Desmond In Tokyo in the Olympic Marathon. Meaning that Hendrick would have two athletes representing South Africa in the men’s marathon. The journey will have come full circle.
If you are looking for someone who can teach you tenacity, determination and self-belief, look no further than Hendrick Ramaala
Side Bar: Hendrick Ramaala CV
Four Olympic Games
Five World Championships
Four World Half Marathon Championships
Team Gold in 1999
Two individual Silver Medals
New York Marathon winner 2004