Athletics: Royal ascent for Radcliffe

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The Independent Online
PAULA RADCLIFFE chose a Royal setting yesterday to emphasise her position as the Queen of British middle- distance running as she set a new world best of 24min 54sec for a 5 miles road race. Her dominating performance at the Compaq Highland Challenge in the grounds of Balmoral Castle left the woman whose position she has now taken over, Liz McColgan, nearly half a minute adrift.

It took 15 seconds off the previous world best held by Lorna Kiplagat of Kenya, and rounded off an outstandingly successful period of running. Last month, the 24-year-old from Bedford won the silver medal in the world cross-country championships, and last Saturday she took seven seconds off McColgan's British 10,000m record in Lisbon with a time of 30min 48.58sec.

Yet another of the Scot's British records disappeared yesterday, as her 8km time was expunged by Radcliffe's unofficial mark of 24min 45sec. But McColgan, who runs the London Marathon later this month, was greatly encouraged by her run. "The days when you could combine running marathons and winning races at this distance are gone," she said.

Radcliffe had been aware of the possibility of the record, but said that she had discounted the possibility after blizzard-like conditions had closed in upon the course. But as her race began, the conditions cleared, and she broke away from the rest of the field within the first mile. "I wasn't intending to go that early," Radcliffe said. "But Liz was racing, and when Yvonne Murray clipped my heels I picked up the pace a little bit." That change of pace, maintained with her familiar, head-bobbing, apparently agonised running action, saw her through to another momentous win.

When she won the world junior cross-country race in similarly snowy conditions six years ago, many predicted that Radcliffe was Britain's hope for the future. The future has now arrived, and - despite missing a year with a career-threatening injury - she is fulfilling all the bold predictions.

Hosting such an event sits well with the people-friendly image the Royal Family has attempted to foster following the death of the Princess of Wales. Yesterday her two boys, William and Harry, played their own carefree part as they chatted to spectators on the course and were shown around the BBC commentary position established beside the castle.

They then made a polite request to the presenter Sue Barker - would it be OK if they built a snowman on their own front lawn? This surely marks a new level of public relations for the people's royals. It was photo- opportunity made in heaven, and although clamouring photographers were brusquely shooed away, the television cameras gorged on the images.

For all the potential PR benefits of the occasion, the Palace took nearly a year of convincing before giving its assent. The man who, in the words of one insider, "opened the door", was none other than Sir Jimmy Savile, who was among those taking part in the 2km fun run yesterday. Savile's history of charity work - and, perhaps, his Goon-like sense of humour - has endeared him to Prince Charles, and this novel project began to assume realistic definition once he had been asked to help. Yesterday, bearing race number 666 and puffing on a trademark Havana cigar, the supercharged septuagenarian played down the importance of his role - sort of. "Wild rumour", he said, with a smoky waft of his hand. "The fact that I am having dinner with the Prince of Wales tonight is pure coincidence."

Savile and company set off into swirling snow which had taken hold during the preceding men's 4km challenge, which produced a genuinely stirring sprint finish between the British rivals John Mayock and Anthony Whiteman, and Manuel Pancorbo of Spain. Face screwed up against the conditions, Pancorbo held on to the narrowest of leads to earn a small measure of recompense for last month's defeat in the European Indoor Championship 3,000 metres final at the hands - or rather, elbows - of Mayock.

The race in Valencia was a triumph for the 27-year-old South Yorkshireman, as he jostled to hold his position and deny three Spaniards victory on their home ground. Yesterday's race had a certain symmetry as the British pair were denied in front of their home spectators. The indoor champion shaded second place ahead of Whiteman, with all three men being timed at 10min 59sec.

"It was nice to win, but it does not make up for losing the European title," Pancorbo said. But he denied that any bad feeling had carried over from that roughhouse of a race. "What happened was purely caused through tension and nerves," he said. Mayock said that his preparations had been affected by a recent bout of food poisoning which had consigned him to bed for five days. But at least he could claim to have won the snowball fight he had with Pancorbo before the race.