Saturday, June 5, 2010

ROCK 'N' ROLL SAN DIEGO MARATHON: Ramaala headlines Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon competitors


Hendrick Ramaala is daydreaming. Dreaming that his childhood soccer fantasy has been realized. Dreaming that come next week he’s lining up at left wing for his native South Africa, in Johannesburg , at the World Cup.

“I had one of the best left feet,” said Ramaala, the smile that’s seemingly permanently etched across his face expanding. “I could hit that ball hard. I see these guys kick the ball (now). These guys are not strong. Give me the ball. I’ll hit it hard.”

Only Ramaala’s college coach disagreed. He cut Ramaala, who started jogging on the school track, was discovered by a running club and went on to become a four-time Olympian and winner of the 2004 New York City Marathon.

“At the end of the day,” confessed Ramaala, the marathon headliner in Sunday’s Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Marathon and Half, “I was better off doing athletics.”

In marathon circles, Ramaala is respected for his consistency. Since 2000 he has run the New York City and London marathons a combined 16 times. Thirteen times he finished in the top 10. Five times he placed in the top three, including the 2004 victory at New York and a one-second loss a year later to Paul Tergat in the Big Apple.

Said Ryan Lamppa, a researcher for Running USA, a nonprofit distance-running organization, “I think you’d be hard pressed to find too many marathoners that durable and that fast.”

Or that old. Ramaala is 38, an age when most male marathoners are hanging on for a paycheck or searching for a second career. He placed fifth last year in London and believes he can still break his personal record (2 hours, 6 minutes, 55 seconds in 2006 at London).

Some might see it strange that a runner his age registers a long-term goal, but Ramaala lists one. Come 2010 he wants to qualify for his fifth Olympics, in London.

“I must be there,” he said. “I still dream of winning a big-city marathon. I don’t know if it’s possible, but there’s nothing wrong with dreaming. I think my career is not over yet.”

One reason for Ramaala’s longevity is that he didn’t begin running seriously until his early 20s. He tells humorous tales about his first races with a Johannesburg club.

“I thought I was good, but I’m running with the ladies,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it. I said, ‘This is unacceptable.’”

His first half marathon wasn’t pretty either.

“I was so way behind,” he said. “I saw this mass of people pass me. I tried hanging on then another group passed me. Not a good experience.”

Yet he persevered, partly because he derived a pure joy from running.

“After a long day, you go out for a run, come back and one hour later you have a clear mind, refreshed,” he said.

Ramaala has never been coached and runs at the front of the pack.

“Why get a coach if you are doing well?” he said. “What is a coach going to tell me?”

Here, an animated Ramaala breaks into a fictional conversation between a coach and himself.

“Go run 40K (kilometers).”

“No, I’m not going to do that.”

“C’mon, let’s go run.”

“I’m still sleepy, relax.”

He has heard the criticism that’s he’s impatient in the marathon.

Imitating a critic, he said, “Relax. The marathon is a waiting game.” Added Ramaala, “Waiting is not for me. I like to be aggressive. The more people I drop, the more confident I get.”

Ramaala, who lives in Johannesburg, earned a law degree. His brother is a lawyer. But don’t bet on Hendrick turning to litigation when his running days are done.

“My brother, he doesn’t have time for himself,” Ramaala said. “I feel sorry for him. I don’t see him often and we live a few kilometers apart. He gets calls in the middle of the night to go to the police station, represent clients. He’s always working. What a shame.”

While Ramaala, married with two children, keeps running.

“I guess I’m addicted to it now,” he said. “I can’t do without it. I’m lucky, it’s a way of life for me.”

Ramaala paused a moment for affect and said, “What am I going to do without running?”