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Ramaala to add South African excitement to World Championships

Ramaala to add South African excitement to World Championships
Bob Frank for the IAAF
26 September 2001 - Hendrick Ramaala has competed in some of the most memorable half-marathons in history, and he should be able to add Bristol to that list after October 7.

With Haile Gebrselassie, Khalid Skah and Ramaala in the field, British organisers are hopeful the IAAF World Half-marathon Championships will produce the first sub-hour half-marathon in Britain, but such races are nothing new to Ramaala.

Remember, this is the man who once ran 59:20 and still didn’t win; who also clocked 60:07 and only finished fourth. He also lost out on a £10,000 bonus once when he finished inside the necessary time target but was beaten into second.

But Ramaala does know what it’s like to win major half-marathons and he also has an excellent record in Britain with victories including the Great North Run, Belfast international cross country, AAA 10,000m championships, Carlton London Run and the Swansea Bay 10km where his 28:02 in 1999 was the fastest time in a British road race for 20 years and earned him a £16,500 car.

A week later, Ramaala looked set to win the IAAF World Half-marathon Championships in Palermo, Italy after leading into the final straight. Victory seemed to have been left on a plate for the 29-year-old former law student but perhaps he was too sporting.

Coming round the final bend, world No.1 Paul Tergat was just beginning to make his move when he collided with an official standing on the corner. Many would have taken advantage and kicked for home while Tergat was recovering his composure but not Ramaala.

Partly because he lost concentration after the incident, but equally because he felt guilty about winning in such circumstances, Ramaala hesitated and Tergat was able to battle back. Tergat just got the verdict, both athletes being timed at 61:50, but Ramaala’s best chance of a world title had gone.

Ramaala first ran the distance in 1997, with the IAAF World Half-marathon Championships in Kosice in mind. He won the South African Championships in 61:42 with a sprint finish then the Great North Run where he ended six years of Kenyan domination.

He won that race in 60:25, but his tactics suggested he could have run quicker. Having opened a lead over Kenyans Wilson Cheruiyot and Sammy Korir, he looked back with three miles to go and eased down to a jog, enabling the Kenyan pair to catch him and go to the front. He looked to be in trouble but was merely taking a breather before surging again to win by 15 seconds.

His confidence was boosted for Kosice three weeks later but he came up against an awesome Kenyan display. Despite setting a national record of 60:07 he was out of the medals as the Kenyan trio ahead of him averaged 59:58. His unbeaten record at the distance was gone, but at least he led South Africa to team silver.

Most years they’d have won gold with a performance that also saw Gert Thys inside 60:30, but they made up for it a year later and this time Ramaala did get an individual medal. The fast and flat roads of Uster, near Zurich, saw another accomplished display by Ramaala as he held off Khalid Skah’s late attack to take the silver medal in 60:24, behind Paul Koech’s 60:01.

Thys gave excellent support with 60:37 in fifth and the South African team was completed by Abner Chipu who lines in Bristol with one British success under his belt already this year, having won the Great Scottish Run in Glasgow, which doubled as the British trials for the IAAF World Half-marathon Championships.

Ramaala’s next half-marathon was a notoriously hilly course in Hastings, England in March 1999 where a £10,000 bonus was on offer for breaking the 10-year-old course record of 62:10 by former Chicago Marathon winner Paul Davies-Hale.

Having won the South African 5000m and 10,000m titles in the preceding nine days, Ramaala arrived in great shape but he cruised off the pace for too long. He allowed Kenya’s Sammy Otieno to get away and open a 25 second lead at nine miles which proved too much to close. Otieno ran the last mile in 4:18 but Ramaala was still closing, yet his 61:41 clocking proved in vain as he was four seconds behind the winner.

Back to winning ways in Paris (60:40) later that year, Ramaala then won that car at Swansea before returning to chase the IAAF World Half-marathon title once again. Another sensational finish, and he’s twice come face to face with Tergat in amazing half-marathons since.

If you’d told him before the 2000 Lisbon Half-marathon that he’d run a South African record of 59:20 he probably wouldn’t have believed you. If you’d told him he would run that time and still not win he’d dismiss you as being insane, but he had to settle for second as Tergat scorched round in 59:06, the fastest ever half-marathon over a certified course although not accepted for record purposes due to the drop in elevation from start to finish.

Five men broke the hour that day so there was understandable excitement when both Tergat and Ramaala returned to Lisbon in March of this year. Both were in training for the London Marathon so it was understandable the winning time was a modest (in world class terms) 60:26, but this time Ramaala defeated the world’s greatest half-marathon runner in history.

It was close, Ramaala holding off Tergat’s late bid to win by one second, but it proved to Ramaala he can beat anyone at the half-marathon on his day. October 7 will see Tergat hoping to win the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon but Ramaala may also be smiling that day. He may finally become the world half-marathon champion and boost his confidence for his own marathon diary date in New York in November.

Whatever happens, the IAAF Half-marathon Championships should be special, because Ramaala doesn’t run in ordinary races.