ATHLETICS: Radcliffe's climb back

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The sight of Paula Radcliffe on crutches at last year's World Cross-Country Championships in Budapest was peculiarly distressing, like witnessing a bird caught up in an oil slick, writes Mike Rowbottom.

This 21-year-old from Bedford has always appeared such a free spirit when racing that her sudden incapacity seemed particularly unnatural.

It got worse before it got better for the former world junior cross-country champion. The foot injury she suffered in winning last year's World Championship trials, diagnosed as a dropped arch, led to severe tendinitis. Last summer she was advised by one physiotherapist that she might never compete again.

When Radcliffe told Alex Stanton, who has coached her since she was 13, of this medical judgement, the response was forthright. "I just said to her `we'll get back' and that was it," Stanton said. "We just got through. There have been low points for her, but this is her life, and it is quite wonderful how she has got over it.''

So it is that Radcliffe is able to take her place today in a women's world cross-country championship field that is as strong as any ever assembled before. She will do well to get a medal; a year ago, you would have said she would do well to make the start line.

"She's very sensible," Stanton said. "She tries to do a job in athletics, and she won't let anything alter that. It's sheer willpower. She will give everything in training and a little bit more. She has gone over the top in races quite often. That's why we are careful not to race too often. This will be only her fifth race since she came back in October.''

The year of tribulation has, Radcliffe freely admits, made her a more cautious athlete. She is careful to run on the softest surface available - roads are out, grass is in - and after every training run, just as a precaution, she packs her troublesome left foot with ice. "I have been told that it will take a year for me to regain my confidence in it," she said. "Whenever I do things like running downhill now I still favour it.''

Her degree course, which involved working near Dsseldorf last year, was invaluable to her mental state when her physical state was at its lowest. "It wasn't exactly another life, because I never forgot about running," she said. "But it kept my mind off things. It was a help being out of England and talking a foreign language. The first month abroad, when I couldn't run, I spent a lot of time travelling around Germany and Belgium."

While several other leading British athletes are notable absentees at Durham, there was never any doubt in Radcliffe's mind that she wanted to compete - fitness allowing.

The financial incentives to run cross-country may not amount to much, but for Radcliffe, who is in the middle of a European Studies degree and has earned money working in Germany in recent months, money is not a major factor.

"It's nice when I do get paid - and I don't like getting ripped off - but I am not in athletics to earn a living. There have been quite a few comments going round recently where athletes have said they will not race because they haven't been offered enough money. Obviously some people who are full-time athletes have bills to pay. But I think you should race because you want to race. I don't think I could become a totally full- time athlete.''

Stanton agrees. "Running is just a love with her. If there was a good race with not much money and another with more money I've always thought she would pick the good race.''

That is something she has certainly done today when the women's field will be headed by the Olympic 10,000 metres champion, Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia, and a strong Kenyan team, featuring the 18-year-old leader of the world rankings, Rose Cheruiyot.

Paul Tergat, the winner of the Kenyan cross-country title and the Nairobi leg of the world circuit this year, will be trying to lead his team to a 10th consecutive title.