Paula Radcliffe: Strength of mind that runs and runs in the family

Britain's long-distance doyenne has the steel, now she needs luck. Simon Turnbull meets a reflective Olympian
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Sitting at a table in the stockroom of Borders Books in Birmingham's Bullring shopping complex, Paula Radcliffe still has a lot on her plate. It is a wonder the poor woman can lift her fork to tackle her sushi. Some of her Brummie fans queued for three hours to get her signature and it took a good hour and a half to work through a line that snaked around two floors of the shop.

Sitting at a table in the stockroom of Borders Books in Birmingham's Bullring shopping complex, Paula Radcliffe still has a lot on her plate. It is a wonder the poor woman can lift her fork to tackle her sushi. Some of her Brummie fans queued for three hours to get her signature and it took a good hour and a half to work through a line that snaked around two floors of the shop.

"One woman told me, 'You've got a bigger queue than Sting'," Radcliffe says, chuckling and shaking her cramped left wrist. The Geordie songsmith has been around the corner at Waterstone's, signing copies of his autobiography. Like Radcliffe, he knows what it is to be a champion runner. As 16-year-old Gordon Sumner, he won the 100 yards at the Northumberland Schools' Championships in Ashington in 1967.

He hung up his racing spikes when he suffered his first defeat, in the heats of the English Schools' Championships. As he reflects in the pages of Broken Music: "Excellence in sport is cruelly definitive and this is the nausea in the pit of your stomach and in your throat, this is the fear - that you will not be good enough, that you will be beaten, that you will fail."

It is not a fear that has stopped Radcliffe. In her first competition at national level, the girls' race at the English women's cross country championships in 1986, she finished 299th. Eighteen years, two world cross country titles and two marathon world records later, she tasted the nausea of defeat and physical debilitation in what just happened to be the most important race of her running career, the Olympic marathon in Athens in August. She tasted it again in the 10,000m final six days later. And yet here she is, three months farther down the line, back on top of her game, fresh from an inspirational, cathartic victory in the New York City Marathon.

Reading her autobiography, Paula Radcliffe: My Story So Far, it is easy to trace the roots of her steely determination. Her great-grandfather, William Radcliffe, was an engineer on whaling boats who survived a torpedoing in both world wars. When he was unemployed in the 1930s he walked from Liverpool to Hull to get a job, a distance of 122 miles.

Radcliffe herself has always been blessed with mental fortitude. When she woke to find her period had started on the morning of the Chicago Marathon in 2002 she went out and broke the world record. When she dislocated her jaw and injured her back crashing into a cyclist a month before the London Marathon in 2003 she went on to break the world record again.

Such was her strength of character even at the age of 10 she would break her weekly treat, a bar of Orkney fudge, into eight squares and eat it piece by piece after her half-an-hour of piano practice each day, saving two bits for Sunday. "I would never have done anything like that for running," she says, laughing at the reminder. "I did it because I wasn't good at music, and I didn't particularly enjoy it. The fudge was my motivation. But, no, I couldn't do it now. I'd probably just demolish the packet."

The young Gordon Sumner had his struggles at the keyboard too. He liked to hammer away at the piano in his grandmother's front room, until one day she asked him to stop playing "that broken music". Still, after turning to the guitar, he did find his métier, his professional field of gold.

There was no gold for Radcliffe in Athens, of course, but it says everything about the Bedfordshire woman that she has swiftly rediscovered her Midas touch as a runner. Reading the 17 chapters of her book, which went to press before she went to the start line in New York, there was clearly never any doubt in her mind that the 18th chapter of her life story was going to be a successful postscript to her Olympic nadir.

"A lot of people said it was going to be hard to come back and race in New York," she reflects, "but I knew by then what had happened to me in Athens. It wasn't like I had lost it or suddenly just couldn't run. There were reasons for what happened in Athens that weren't relevant for New York, so I knew I was right going into the race. I knew I was right from the training.

"And I was excited about running the race. I didn't see it as a lot of pressure. I just saw it as a chance just to get back out and enjoy doing what I want to do."

Was she not even fearful of the outcome, and the subsequent reaction, when the Kenyan Susan Chepkemei stuck doggedly to her side as she approached the closing stages? Or was she more scared when darkness descended as she ran the same stretch of Central Park in training some years ago and the unnerving sound of a key-jangling pursuer accompanied her quickening steps? "Yeah," she says, chuckling again, "that probably was more scary. I was all right once I got back into the light. It's just that your brain kind of runs overtime. But in a race, it's just a race. It's nothing to get scared about. It's something you can control."

That was not quite the case in the marathon in Athens. It just so happened that on the biggest day of her life Radcliffe's finely honed body ran out of control.

The course of antibiotics she had taken to ease an untimely injury had virtually drained her body of its glycogen stores, the fuel most vital to endurance athletes. She was left her in a state of hypoglycemia long before she finally ground to a disorientated halt. There might have been only four miles to the finish but, like a toy bunny without Duracel batteries, Radcliffe was bereft of the power she needed to continue.

Devastated though she was at the time, after four years of painstaking preparation, it is clear from the first page of her book that the disappointment has been placed into a healthy perspective. It is clear, too, that, as with her running, Radcliffe has given everything to the telling of her story so far - whether it be the bullying to which she was subjected in her early teenage years, the complexities of her relationship with her husband and manager, Gary Lough, the unfortunate timing of her periods, or even the necessity of relieving herself in her shorts while suffering from stomach cramps in the Olympic marathon.

Jim Alder, the 1966 Commonwealth marathon champion, wrote in his autobiography, Marathon and Chips, of runners sliding in his wake when he was obliged to drop a similar mid-race load. He also wrote of visiting the "flesh pots" of Acapulco after the Mexico Olympics, of catching something for which he had not bargained and of almost losing his marriage as a consequence.

"Oh my God!" Radcliffe exclaims, spluttering into her sushi. Her autobiography does not venture to such lengths, but it is disarmingly frank nevertheless. "It surprises me when people say, 'Oh, you've been honest in it'," she says. "I thought that's what you're supposed to be in an autobiography. I didn't have anything to hide so I didn't see why not to be frank about it all.

"Obviously people like Frank Skinner are going to pick up the bowel stuff, but you have to put that in because that's what happened. It explains how bad I was feeling in the race. Some of the stuff about Gary, I think, has been misinterpreted. Yeah, he is forthright in his opinions but that's what I love about him. I think that's what's strong about our marriage: that we can be ourselves and be open and say what we think to each other. It doesn't affect the strength of the marriage because we know how much we care about each other."

After pacing a group through the Nike Run London 10k race tonight, Radcliffe and her husband will be packing their bags for a well-earned holiday. When they return, the preparations will begin for 2005 - and the World Cross Country Championships in St Galmier, France, and the track and field World Championships in Helsinki. The Beijing Olympics is on the longer-term agenda and, at 30, Radcliffe has not even ruled out an Olympic bid eight years down the line, in London, Paris or wherever.

She can only hope that eventually her luck will come good on a given day in the 1,460-day cycle of an Olympiad. "Oh, there is luck involved," Radcliffe reflects. "There's a lot of hard work and a lot of training and you've got to have the commitment and the talent behind you. But there is luck on the day in any event. I've just got to keep persevering and hope that one year the Olympics will work out for me."

And after that, after Paula Radcliffe's Olympic odyssey has worked itself out, one way or another: what will become of her then? "Oh, I'll do all of the things I can't do now," she says, dreamily, "like parachute jumps and paragliding."

There might even be the odd piano lesson - and the odd square of fudge.

'Paula Radcliffe: My Story So Far' by Paula Radcliffe, with David Walsh (Simon and Schuster, £17.99).

'Broken Music' by Sting (Pocket Books, £6.99).


Paula Jane Radcliffe, MBE

Born: : 17 December 1973 in Northwich

Married to: Gary Lough (also manager)

Career highlights: Olympics - 5th in 5,000m, Atlanta 1996. 4th in 10,000m, Sydney 2000. Failed to finish marathon and 10,000m, Athens 2004. World Championships - 5th in 10,000m, Stuttgart 1995, 2nd in 10,000m, Seville 1999, 4th in 10,000m, Edmonton 2001. World half-marathon - won in 2000, 2001, 2003. World Cross-Country - 2nd in 1997 and 1998, 1st in 2001 and 2002. Marathons - winner of London (2002, 2003), Chicago (2004), New York (2004). Commonwealth Games - 1st in 5,000m, Manchester 2002.

Also: BA with first-class honours in European languages (1996).