She used to be a champion, but now like so many sporting figures who are battling the advancing years, she has to contemplate the future as simply a contender, yet is still yearning for the one momentous against-the odds victory to propel her back to the top of the world.
Paula Radcliffe will not be running in Sunday's London Marathon, an event she has won three times, saving herself for the Olympic biggie to come. But she was running around the London streets yesterday in the company of a bunch of early-morning joggers happy to be following in the footsteps of one of the great icons of British sport, whose sadly unfulfilled dream is to capture the one prize that has frustratingly eluded her – an Olympic gold medal.
Some of us have been around grand old fighters long enough to recognise talent on the wane, when the legs start to go some time before ambition follows suit. Radcliffe refutes any suggestion that this is happening to her while acknowledging that, pushing 39, she might never be the runner she was.
But she lives in hope, and still burns with the desire to be the best, as she told the 50 fun-runners joining in some gentle roadwork around Russell Square and its adjacent park, an exercise that was actually designed as a masterclass given by Radcliffe to winners of a Facebook competition on behalf of Holiday Inn, one of the numerous commitments she fulfils to London 2012 and personal sponsors. Later, still tracksuited and booted, they gathered over a buffet breakfast for an impromptu Q and A with her and Britain's leading female wheelchair athlete Shelly Woods, who had also taken part in the tutorial. Radcliffe then charmingly conducted a conveyor belt of interviews, as proficient in PR as she has been on the world's roads throughout her long-running career stretching back over two decades which has seen both triumph and tears, injury and illness and latterly more lows than highs.
So is the country's greatest-ever female distance runner really on her last legs? "God, I hope not," she laughs, though she could have been excused for feeling that way in Vienna last weekend when, still wheezing and stuffed up with antibiotics after a bout of bronchitis, she struggled home behind the legendary Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie in a high-profile handicap half-marathon in her worst-ever time over the distance.
The race seemed a bit of a lucrative stunt, and one wonders about the psychological impact on her Olympic marathon hopes. While hailing her as "an inspiration", Gebrselassie warned Britain not to expect too much of her, and added bluntly: "I don't think she will win the Olympics." It was a view to which Radcliffe herself initially seemed to subscribe, suggesting she "might be happy" with a bronze, but having had time to recover and reflect, sanguinity is kicking in again. "Of course I'd be pleased with any sort of medal but I'll be fighting for gold and I don't think it's beyond me.
"I was feeling very low after Vienna. And when you are ill with something like bronchitis, even when you've finished coughing you still feel like crap for a week or so. In the race, my body just wasn't firing right. It's more the frustration and doubts which come into your mind. Sometimes that is harder to deal with than injury."
She recognises that the odds of finding the streets of London are paved with Olympic gold are not in her favour (12-1 according to the bookies). "But my chances were better in 2004 and 2008 and they didn't work out either. Look, any chance is a chance, and I'm in it to win it. I wouldn't be competing if I didn't think I could.
"The important part for me is to be able to stand on that start line healthy and give it my best shot. I wasn't able to do that in the last two Olympics because of injury so I want that last chance to do the best I can."
Some may argue that after so many perils of Paula she has had chances and is running out of time, if not excuses. This she also refutes. "I do believe that gold is a possibility; it's not like I've got unreasonable expectations. I know that, on paper, it's not the strongest chance I've ever had, like in 2004 and 2008, and the competition's tougher now."
So can she finally lose that Olympic albatross on the morning of Sunday 5 August? "The thing is, I'm big on perseverance, I believe that if you keep trying and trying and trying, your odds have got to improve rather than if you give up and say, 'Oh the Olympics just weren't lucky for me'.
"Also I hope that the Olympics being in London will work in my favour, with the crowd giving me a lift." As they did in 2003, when Radcliffe broke the world record in 2hr 15min 25 sec, a run which race director Dave Bedford said remains "the most awesome" in the history of the London Marathon, a race in which she has rarely been caught, though she was once famously caught short.
Radcliffe will not be at Sunday's race but watching on TV with her husband Gary and two children, before joining the GB team for high-altitude training in the Pyrenees. "I would love to have done it but I didn't want to take the risk of injury and not being able to recover in time for the Olympics."
Will 2012 be her valedictory race? "Gosh I hope not. I'd love to run at least one more London Marathon. But after that I don't know how much farther on I will go."
Although not as far as the Rio Olympics in 2016, Radcliffe confirms, as motherhood will then be more of a priority than marathons.
So the zest is still there? "Gosh yes. I just love the thrill of it all. Some days you feel the years are catching up with you, creaking in the morning as you get out of bed, then sometimes you still feel like you're 21."
Olympic gold or not, winner and sometimes loser, she remains up there with the likes of Bobby Moore, Seb Coe, Steve Redgrave, Kelly Holmes and Henry Cooper as a national treasure.
I first saw her when, as a teenage sixth-former, she won the world junior cross-country championship in Boston. "I remember that day vividly," she recalls. "It was freezing." That was more than 20 years ago. "When I look back I am extremely grateful for the length of my career. I know it has to end some day, but I just don't want it to be yet."
With a prolific PR machine behind her every step, Radcliffe has never been short, or shy, of publicity, although she insists: "I don't like being in the public eye. It's certainly not the reason I am in sport. I have always done this to be the best and win races, not for the fame that comes with it. I'd like to keep on running forever if I could."
Olympic athlete Paula Radcliffe and Paralympic athlete Shelly Woods hosted Breakfast With Champions – a free marathon warm-up session and one-mile run – outside the Holiday Inn Bloomsbury in Russell Square, London. Holiday Inn is the official hotel provider to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Olympic news you may have missed...
All four of the British modern pentathletes have made tomorrow's women's World Cup final in Rostov, Russia, boosting their chances of making the team this summer.
Heather Fell, Katy Livingston, Samantha Murray and Katy Burke all progressed safely through yesterday's semis.
What's coming up...
Today-Sunday Synchronised swimming qualification con-tinues in Stratford. Spain and Japan competing for places.
Tomorrow-27 Apr The fourth regatta of the Sailing World Cup in France includes Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson.
Chris Adcock & Imogen Bankier British badminton pair beat Jenny Wallwork and 2004 silver medallist Nathan Rob-ertson in Sweden to take pole position in race for London.
Birgit Fischer Eight-time champion canoeist has been ruled out of Games by doc-tors due to heart problems.Reuse content