It is only when the interview with the Central Gauteng Athletics (CGA) coach of the year begins that it occurs to this reporter that there wasn’t an announcement of Hendrick Ramaala officially retiring as arguably the country’s most decorated marathon runner.
“I’m not yet retired,” the 47-year-old says jokingly.
He has just completed a morning session with his charges at Zoo Lake in Johannesburg.
“I haven’t hung up my running shoes yet. I’m still enjoying the training. That’s why I still wake up early in the morning. Running with the guys keeps me motivated.
“I’m not competitive much these days because I don’t wake up to go to races. But the guys here give me enough competition to give me a reason to wake up early. I’m still doing well. I’m doing three [minutes], 30 [seconds] a kilometre, sometimes under ... ”
Whether he’s still got it or not as a runner, Ramaala’s tentative first steps as a coach have dropped broad hints that he’s definitely got something to give as a mentor, if the coach of the year gong at the CGA awards last weekend was anything to go by.
Somewhat fittingly for a man who got into running as an early 1990s law student trying to get fit, but ended up winning the 2004 New York Marathon, becoming a contender in the London Marathon and the second-fastest South African marathoner so far, coaching is also something Ramaala’s fallen into.
“We’ve always had a big group here at Zoo Lake, but there was never a coach,” he explains. “I started this group, so it makes sense that I must continue with this group even though I’m no longer competitive.
“So it was an easier decision for me to say I’m continuing with the group, but in the capacity of coach. I’ve learnt a lot out there, travelling the world. I know so many programmes so it was easier to adjust. I’m also improving and connecting with the athletes.
“I know what they want and my job is to help them achieve their dreams. But you need to build that connection between yourself and the kids. Coaching is tougher than running because running was a choice,” he says.
“Now the biggest thing is convincing a kid that they can be the best in the world because once you do that, you can get them to run 200km a week to do it.”
Given the amazing times he can still run, Ramaala makes a different coach to a stopwatch-wielding one: “With me running with them, they know I mustn’t beat them because if I do, they have to play soccer or something. So everyone in the group, new or old, is looking behind them to make sure they keep the gap bigger. I put pressure on them and they know that if they flop, I’m coming for them. It’s a nice challenge for me. I hope I can keep up until I’m 50 or something.
“On the easier runs, we run as a big group and we talk running, strategy, emotions ... everything about running. When someone is going to a race, I’ll take them out of the group and jog with them and discuss the race. I find it better than standing on the side of the road with a whistle. My coaching philosophy is that I must be part of it – and I think I get quicker results because of it,” Ramaala says.
Winning the coach of the year award was “good recognition” that makes the sacrifices he has made thus far worth it as he bids to make an “Olympic, world or big city marathon champion” out of one of his charges one day. His runners include Desmond Mokgobu, Precious Mashele, Maxime Chaumeton and Kabelo Seboko.
His foundation, which was launched four years ago in response to a lack of sponsorship for athletes, has looked after the group through “cash or kind” donations such as shoes, supplements, clothing and food. Ramaala, who wishes the help would extend to transport, has provided accommodation for the athletes.
Combined with the fact that Zoo Lake is a rudimentary 3.5km course looping around the park, the structure is a modest one, but it clearly works if the national titles being won by his athletes are anything to go by.