ATHLETICS: Radcliffe returns to heavy Durham going

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The sports shops in and around Durham, which hosts today's international cross-country race at Maiden Castle, have been raided. With further wind and rain forecast, the organisers have invested in large numbers of long spikes to equip unsuspecting runners in the international field for the expected heavy going.

Choice of footwear has been a prime concern to Paula Radcliffe, Britain's former world junior cross-country champion, who will make her first domestic appearance after 10 months'

absence with injury.

Radcliffe will be racing with orthoptic inserts which have been specially fitted to support the arches of her feet - a fallen arch in her left foot following a stress fracture has been the cause of her wasted summer.

A bright and lively individual, Radcliffe has cut a sad figure during that time, troubled increasingly by doubts about when she would be able to resume a career that had already established her as one of Britain's most talented women runners. "I had a lot of trouble during the summer," she said yesterday. "There have been times when I thought I would not get back."

Among the specialists to whom she has turned is the German doctor Hans-Muller Wolfhardt, to whom a number of leading British athletes have turned in recent years.

For Radcliffe, a consultation was relatively convenient, as she is spending a year in Germany as part of her degree in Modern Languages at Loughborough University.

He advised her not to race in the European Cross-Country Championships. Instead, she took her first step back in winning a cross-country event at Neuss, near Dusseldorf, on 11 December.

"The Durham race will be more significant because it is a lot higher class," said Radcliffe, who estimates she is about 80 per cent fit. "I am really keen to get back to racing, but I will use this race more as a pointer towards the World Championships

next year."

The opposition in the women's event, over 6 kilometres, will be strong, despite the withdrawal with flu this week of both Liz McColgan and Jill Hunter. It includes the European champion, Catherina McKiernan, and her Irish compatriot Sonia O'Sullivan, theEuropean 3,000 metres champion.

There are also two Chinese - Wang Xiujie, who has a 3,000m time of 8min 47sec, and Zhan Jiangyiang, are both 20 and ranked among the top 10 women runners in their country.

They are coached by Wang Bin, a friend and admirer of Ma Junren, whose women runners convulsed the athletics world with their performances at the 1993 World Championships.

John Caine, the event director, originally requested two of that group - the world record holders Wang Junxia and Qu Junxia - but has been happy to welcome two young runners seeking to gain international experience.

Several of Ma Junren's group were due to appear at the 1994 London Marathon but failed to appear. Wang Bin's runners, however, were in Durham yesterday and were prepared for the inevitable questions about drug abuse among Chinese sports men and women, 11of whom tested positive at this year's Asian Games. "I am against drug-taking," Wang Xiujie said. "Quite apart from the fact that it is against the rules, drug-taking is not good for China."

Her success in the sport, she said, stemmed from a training regime of 30 kilometres per day, seven days a week. And good Chinese food.

The men's main race, over 9km, sees Britain's 5,000m Commonwealth champion Rob Denmark take on the world 5,000m champion, Ismail Kirui of Kenya. If their race is as close as the one over 5km at Aberdeen earlier this year, when the Kenyan narrowly prevailed, it should provide a fine spectacle.

Denmark, beaten by Eamonn Martin in the recent Essex cross- country championship, is not expecting anything extravagant today. If things go well, however, he will consider challenging for a British place in next year's World Cross-Country Championships, which are to be held on a similar course in Durham.

Salah Hissou, of Morocco, 12th in this year's world Championships, could well figure strongly in the race, along with three other Britons - Andrew Pearson, Paul Evans and Dave Lewis, who will probably relish the conditions.

n The Chinese coach, Ma Junren, is in hospital suffering from from bruises to his chest and head after a car accident on Thursday. Ma, who was travelling with his wife to his father's funeral was in "good condition" in hospital after his van went off theroad.

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