Athletics: Radcliffe set for golden exchange

After two silvers, Britain's premier cross-country runner is stronger than ever.

YOU ALMOST hate to ask it of her, but what other question is there for Paula Radcliffe? And how else could it be put? "Paula, you have the silver medal at the last two World Cross-Country Championships, can you win a gold this year?"

It is an easier question to ask than it is to answer. Radcliffe, who carries home hopes on her shoulders as she takes to the course at Barnett Demesne in Belfast today, is understandably cautious in her response.

"There are always five or six runners in with a chance at these championships," she said. "And you can expect another two or three to have an outstanding run. But I am going to give it all I've got. I know what I have to do. I have to stay calm."

This time round she will not have to face the Ethiopian who out-sprinted her in the last 50 metres in Turin two years ago, Derartu Tulu, or Ireland's winner of last year, Sonia O'Sullivan, who is pregnant. But, as the 25- year-old Bedford runner rightly says, there remain a number of other rivals well capable of rising to the challenge on a meandering 8km course, including Annemari Sandell, of Finland, Kenya's Jackline Maranga and Ethiopia's 1996 world champion Gete Wami, who has followed Radcliffe home for bronze in the last two years and leads this year's IAAF Cross Challenge series.

Five months after chasing O'Sullivan home in Marrakesh last March, Radcliffe endured a traumatic disappointment at the European Championships in Budapest, where she slipped from first to fifth place in the 10,000m final, drained by what was later diagnosed as a virus infection.

She was forced to miss the Commonwealth Games and told to take six weeks' complete rest. It was a measure of how ill she felt that she never once felt like protesting about her enforced inactivity. "Normally, I'm raring to go after three weeks' off, but when I got back to training in October I still felt very lethargic and heavy," she said.

In the aftermath of her Budapest defeat, there were those who gravely shook their head and pointed critically to the unremitting regime of altitude training she had undertaken in preparation at Font Romeu, in the Pyrenees, where she has a flat.

But Radcliffe rejects the charge that she over-trained. "It was nothing to do with the training," she said. "I showed my training diary to our team doctor and physiologist and they couldn't see that I had done anything wrong. I was just unlucky in picking up a virus.

"It annoyed me that some people were pointing the finger at my coach, Alex Stanton. I have prepared in exactly the same way this year and I am in at least as good a condition as I was for Turin and Marrakesh. If anything, I am stronger. I'd be lying if I said what happened in Budapest was totally forgotten. But it's something I've got to put to the back of my mind."

Radcliffe drew some kind of a line under her disappointment on 13 December, when she secured her first senior international title by winning the European Cross-Country Championships in Ferrara, Italy. "I needed to win that, and it meant a lot to me that I went and did it," she said. "I knew I was taking a risk, because I was still only 80 per cent fit after the summer. But I'm glad I did it. So many people had been saying I couldn't win anything." Radcliffe disproved that back in 1992, when she battled through the snowy wastes of Boston to win the world junior cross-country title. But her senior career until Ferrara had been dotted with honourable defeats.

After returning from a month's work at altitude in Albuquerque, Radcliffe joined members of the British team last week at the Italian training camp in Terrena.

Her warm-weather preparation became hotter than expected when she and her boyfriend, Gary Lough, the international middle distance runner who was brought up just north of Belfast, were apprehended by military police after straying inside an army base.

"We thought we'd identified the perfect route and were running around the edge of the base," she said. "But we came alongside some water and eventually we had to cross to the other side along a pipe. It turned out we were two miles inside their security cordon. The police would not believe we were just running even though it was shorts and t-shirt weather and it was pretty obvious we weren't concealing cameras. Eventually, they made us run back the way we had come."

Radcliffe won't be getting into any more hot water today. In order to stimulate the blood supply to her legs, she will take a cold bath before setting out for gold. So, cool and calm. Can she finally collect it?

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