Paula Radcliffe: Why she can't stop running
Britain's greatest marathon athlete tells Robin Scott-Elliot that she has no plans to slow down... even if she wins Olympic gold
Friday 21 October 2011
Paula Radcliffe is a world champion, a world record holder, a European champion, a Commonwealth champion; one of the most decorated women in British athletics. For all that exhaustively accumulated honour there is a notable, and obvious, missing link; despite five attempts spread across 12 years Radcliffe has yet to win an Olympic title or medal of any colour. She has one last go to come.
Next year – injury permitting, and that has become an ever-present asterisk alongside her recent career – Radcliffe will return to the familiar streets of London around which she has surged with such consistent success over the last decade looking to correct that painful anomaly. For all her success as the best marathon runner this country has produced, and one of the best the world has seen – her achievements made her a rare female winner of BBC Sports Personality of the Year – Radcliffe has endured very public failure on the Olympic stage, the stage upon which public attention, when it comes to athletics, is most fixed.
"It's something I have been over loads," says Radcliffe. "It's mixed feelings. Definitely I should have been capable of getting one in the marathon – I wasn't quite good enough in the 10,000m. Yes, it will always be something missing that I should have achieved. But I have reached a point... when I came home after Athens, Sally Gunnell said to me 'I promise you when you have children you will not ever, ever swap them – they are worth way more than any gold medal would be'. At the time I didn't believe her but the minute Isla was born I did. And that whole side of things does help give you a perspective.
"I have achieved a lot and I'm grateful for that – I'm just a bit greedy because I want to add the Olympics. It's once every four years – everyone wants it and very few people get it. I still want it – so yes, something will be missing, but I won't think my whole career is a failure because I have achieved a lot."
It was the decision, made in the wake of a fourth-placed finish in the 10,000m at the Sydney Games, to switch her focus from the track – and cross-country, in which she was already a world champion – that set her on the long road to lasting achievement.
In 2002 Radcliffe made her marathon debut in London and won in 2:18:55, just eight seconds behind the Kenyan Catherine Ndereba's world record. She has run four of the five fastest times in history. She has won London three times, and familiarity with the city breeds a content runner even if she has not competed in the capital since her last victory in 2005 due to a combination of injury and time off to have her two children – Raphael, her second, was born last year.
"In a good way it makes a difference," she says of a home Games. "So many things are going to be familiar, the home support will raise some athletes' performances by five per cent and that can't be underestimated. It's also little things, like foods are familiar, the streets of London, you know what the weather conditions are like. But most of all is the fact that it's a unique opportunity for an athlete to compete in a home Olympics. The experiences of Athens and Beijing, in a perverse way, will make me enjoy it more. I've seen how bad it can be."
Radcliffe went into the Athens Games in 2004 with a nation's expectation weighing heavily. She was Britain's best chance of an athletics gold, only chance according to many. Radcliffe had already experienced two Games, competing at distance on the track in Atlanta and Sydney, but in those she had been first a novice then one medal hope among a number. By the time of Athens she was the centrepiece of Team GB.
"The only one I look back on with massive regret is Athens," says Radcliffe quietly, as we sit in Nike's central London store. The shop has been closed down for the day for a concert that evening by Ellie Goulding and the sounds of the singer rehearsing drift up the stairs to where we sit. Radcliffe is a fan and intends to watch her later.
"Beijing," she adds, "I look back with some regret but because the injury happened so long before I had more time to adjust to it and I knew it was a long shot. I did the best I could, I just didn't have enough time running. But Athens... I was in such good shape two weeks beforehand, so I do look back with a lot of regret. The injury happened and I panicked. I don't know if it would have been any different if I hadn't been so stressed about it all."
Radcliffe's best was two minutes quicker than the rest of the field, but the searing heat of a Greek high-summer's day took its toll on the Briton, whose training in the immediate build-up had been hampered by a leg injury. After 23 miles – and watched by over 10m UK television viewers – she dropped out and sat slumped on the pavement. She was ferried away from the course in tears.
"With all of that [external pressure], all the time you are healthy it doesn't matter, it bounces off you or even lifts you," she says. "When things go wrong it is a massive extra stress when you are just trying to get your body healthy. Then it becomes hard to cope with."
Five days later she dropped out of the 10,000m nine laps from the end; hopes of double gold reduced to dust. Radcliffe is a quitter was the angry reaction in some quarters. "I wasn't unfairly treated," she reflects.
"I took a lot of bad things after Athens. I just learnt to deal with it. The problem was beforehand I had this feeling where I was trying to please everybody – I wanted everybody to like me. After that I felt it's not going to happen. There's always going to be somebody who takes a dislike to you and you can't waste time worrying about it."
Radcliffe will not carry the same pressures into London. Instead they will rest on Mo Farah, who Radcliffe mentored as a young runner. The story goes she paid for his driving lessons, the reality is she helped set up funding for him and Stephanie Twell to further their athletic careers and he chose to spend it learning to drive as that helped him get to training more easily.
She has known Farah from the outset of his career – how would she advise him to handle what lies ahead? "I don't think you need to say a lot to Mo because he's so laid-back, he's so chilled about it," says Radcliffe. "He's already shown – in between the silver and gold in Daegu – how he can cope. My biggest advice to Mo, and this is what I've already said to him, and which Alberto [Salazar, his coach] will say over and over – he doesn't need to try to do any more than he did this year. He doesn't need to try and do a hundred things better, he just needs to keep doing what he's doing.
"It will be difficult. The biggest thing is that he stays healthy. He'll be fine. I just hope there are no injuries because that's when it becomes this massive big deal and difficult to handle and you're stressing about it. Stress doesn't help your body heal. He's got a really good team around him – and you need that. He's also a bit removed because he's gone over to Portland so that helps, too."
Radcliffe will be 38 when the Games open next year, the same as the winner in Beijing in 2008. Come London, Radcliffe will actually be a month older than Constantina Dita Tomescu was when she became the oldest Olympic marathon champion – Radcliffe finished 23rd after a broken leg earlier in the year ruined her preparation. Her groundwork for next year has already begun. She finished third in last month's Berlin marathon, her comeback race, to achieve the Olympic qualifying time.
Next month she will head to the British training camp in Kenya – she has previously trained alone in the US – where she will be able to have the support of the team's physiotherapists, masseurs and the like (if required). Playing safe? "Yes, there's an element of that," she says.
Her fitness, after years on the road, is a constant concern now she is in her career's twilight. The night after we speak she had a pre-planned operation on her foot. "It's a trade-off," she says. "There's a lot they could repair in there, but they are not going to repair everything." After Christmas, the entire family will head for her usual winter stomping ground in Albuquerque to begin extensive training.
"I don't like going away from my children," says Radcliffe. "I find that hard but it is just this year. After that I can pick the races I will do and work for us as a family and train more at home. But I want to do everything right for next year to give me as good a chance as possible."
Whatever happens in London it will not be the end of the road for Radcliffe. "I want to do New York next year and carry on to the Commonwealth Games, but it's the last one where I will be doing really, really everything I can to get the best out of myself."
Why, though, is she insistent that she will go on after the peak of an Olympics? "Because I enjoy it. What I don't enjoy is the times when you are injured or your body breaks down. That gets harder because they get closer together as you get older. But I still enjoy it – I still can't think of any other job I would rather do, or anything else I would rather be doing. As long as I care, as long as I can still be competitive, I will go on running."
Paula Radcliffe is working with Nike to rally support for #HISTORYSTANDS. Paula is campaigning for the IAAF to reinstate her 2003 marathon world record. To show your support, please tweet using #HISTORYSTANDS
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