Athletics: Run free, while the world lets you: Paula Radcliffe wouldn't thank you for calling her the new Liz McColgan. She's just happy getting the most out of life and beating the world's best cross-country runners. Richard Williams reports

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The Independent Online
SOMETIMES you can catch them before their look changes, before they start staring over your shoulder into the middle distance or letting their eyes slide away from a question, before they get into the habit of referring to themselves in the third person.

'It's still a bit of fun, really,' Paula Radcliffe says, looking the questioner straight in the eyes. 'I'm not looking to make a living out of it. Obviously it's nice that there's a bit of money coming in, but that's not my goal. I just want to do my best, and still enjoy it.'

Fame tapped Paula Radcliffe on the shoulder this month, on a frosty Saturday afternoon at Aykley Heads. In the fog and ice, she finished the Durham International Cross Challenge a few yards behind Derartu Tulu, the Ethiopian who had won the 10,000 metres gold medal at the Olympic Games last summer. More to the point, she was in front of Elana Meyer, the South African who had shared Tulu's lap of honour in Barcelona and now went slipping and sliding into third place. Suddenly the Grandstand cameras were on the runner-up, transmitting the image of a pretty, charming, highly excited 19-year-old English girl live to the nation. Something about the way she handled the interview combined with the significance of her performance - this, it turned out, had been her first race as a senior - suggested that it wasn't going to be the last we'd be seeing of her.

Waiting in a cold wind outside the bookshop at Loughborough University one day last week, Paula Radcliffe looked exactly like all the other students milling around the campus: jeans, boots, shirt, parka, winter pallor. And with a direct look not yet blunted by the need to deflect others' importuning. Nothing, as yet, to show on the surface that here is anything more than a very bright girl attending the lectures - French, German, economics - that make up a Modern European Studies course, let alone an athlete of such potential that one day we may know her name as well as we do those of Liz McColgan and Yvonne Murray.

She'd just been to see The Bodyguard on the special students' night at the local cinema, and had liked it so much that, back in her twelve-by-six room, the soundtrack lay on top of a small pile of CDs on her desk, not far from an open Virago paperback - something by Mary Webb, the pre-war Shropshire novelist. There were messages from friends scribbled on a sheet of paper stuck to the door; a postcard of a cat; a mosaic of family snaps; one of those posters of a couple of young nouveau-bohos embracing. Only the second pair of muddied running shoes and the 1993 calendar of international athletics meetings pinned above the narrow bed gave clues to the true nature of the occupant.

Paula Radcliffe is the world junior cross-country champion, a title she won in Boston last March, on a day when Liz McColgan was favourite in the senior event. Radcliffe had just recovered from a lengthy bout of anaemia; she was not expected to beat the Kenyans. But she made a shrewd choice of spikes to suit the icy conditions, and ran in five seconds ahead of the field. McColgan was offered a spare pair of Radcliffe's spikes by one of the coaches, but declined. She finished 41st.

Today, Paula Radcliffe will be pointing her green VW Polo back to where she feels most at home: among the junior middle-distance girls of the Bedford and County Athletics Club, cheering on their representatives in the southern area cross-country championship. Alec and Rosemary Stanton, who run the 30-strong group, are her coaches; it was they who took her on as an 11-year-old and gradually encouraged her to develop her talent.

'In my first year with them,' she recalled, 'I came 299th in the national championship. I'd only been with them a couple of months. Mind you, I was happy with that, because I was in the top half of the field. But a year later I came fourth. That's what their work had done for me. After that I was always second or third - until I won it for the first time, as an under-17.'

High-pressure training is not the Stantons' style, perhaps because they came into athletics almost by accident - when, 15 years ago, their daughter Kim took an interest and joined Bedford. When Kim dropped out, they stayed. Now their group is so popular that three boys - including Paula's 17- year-old brother Martin - recently wangled their way into it.

'You can't tell how anyone's going to turn out,' Alec Stanton, a 57-year- old group leader on a motor-factory production line, said last week. 'At 11 years of age, they're all ordinary little girls. And that's how they are until they're 16 - some are going forward, some are going back. Paula was never a southern champion at under-13 level, for instance. But it's often the good runners who make great runners, if you see what I mean. When they get to 15 or so, really, that's the nitty-gritty. Of course, if you've got the right mum and dad it's a big help. Sometimes you see ones who aren't satisfied with their daughter's performance. They can't stop pushing. Paula's lucky there.'

Her parents both participate in the life of the club. Peter Radcliffe, 46, the director of marketing and human resources at a division of the Whitbread brewery, is a vice-president, while Pat, a deputy headmistress, manages the cross-country team. Paula's first run came when, as a six-year-old, she ran alongside Peter while he jogged in order to lose weight after giving up smoking. Pat, too, became a fun-runner, but neither had a background in athletics.

'Paula always ran well, even when she was jogging with me,' Peter Radcliffe said. 'But it was quite a surprise to us all when she came fourth in the nationals. That was splendid for her coaches. There's a lot of loving care there, and attention to detail. Teaching motivation is part of my job, and I know how good they are. They're naturals.'

So what motivates Paula? 'I've always motivated myself to work hard,' she said, 'because it's the way I am. I have to do the best I can possibly do, to try and get the most out of life.'

'She just likes to do well, with everything she does,' her father said. 'She's a perfectionist, which can be a frustrating existence.'

For Alec Stanton, motivating Paula has never been a problem. Her special quality, he said, is 'her ability to get 5 or 10 per cent more out of herself in a race than in training. That's very rare. In fact it's usually the other way round: they leave 5 per cent on the starting line. She likes a challenge, too, and she's got a terrific amount of fight. But I don't fill her mind with what she should or shouldn't do. It's up to her. She's got a quick enough brain that she can turn things round during a race. She's an intelligent lass. And if one of the other girls has had a bad race, she'll be on that phone from Loughborough to talk to her.'

She does most of her training in the parks around Loughborough, running with fellow students ('usually lads - most of the women don't want to run that hard'), but drives down to Bedford on Wednesdays for an evening session with her coaches, who often come up to her at the weekends. 'They've had me since I was 11,' she said, 'and they know exactly how much work to give me. They know that if I'm working hard and getting uptight, they can ease back on the training - although they know I won't want to stop altogether, because I need it to relax me and get rid of whatever is making me uptight - if I've been doing a lot of studying, say. And they know that the way I push myself in training, I can do a lower mileage, because it's a lot more intense. A lot of senior women runners will be doing 80 miles a week now, running steadily. But I can do 35 miles a week, because I push myself hard.'

Not surprisingly, for such an assertive character, she likes to run from the front: 'That's my natural way.' In Durham, she felt confident enough to take the race to Tulu and Meyer. 'I didn't have anything to lose, so I went out to go as hard as I could and just hang on. It felt fast, but I didn't feel out of my depth. I knew I'd have to break, because I'd seen Tulu's sprint finishes. I didn't really think much of my chances, but I thought I'd give it a go and try to break her on the downhill stretch. When she went, with about a thousand metres to go, she was too strong. Everyone said I was closing on her at the end, but really she was just easing down because she knew she had me covered. She makes it look easy.'

It was the first time that she'd raced as a senior in such a field. 'It didn't feel any different, really. When the gun goes, it's a race the same as any other, and you've just got to try to get up to the sharp end as quickly as you can.'

Her future involves a concentration on the 3,000 metres, the distance at which she is most comfortable. 'I've got a difficult decision coming up, because the World Student Games clashes with the British trials for the world championships in Stuttgart. I'm ranked fifth in Britain in the 3,000, behind Yvonne Murray, Alison Wyeth, Lisa York and Liz McColgan. We send a team of three - and since Liz will be doing the 10,000 metres, that puts me up to fourth. So, realistically, I'll have to improve another five seconds to knock one of the others out. And I've got to decide whether the risk is worth staying at home for.'

Further ahead, the Olympics are, for now, merely something her coaches tease her about. But when Atlanta comes around in 1996, she'll just have completed her studies. 'Running is a big part of my life,' she said, 'but there's no way it's going to stop me getting my qualifications.' ('She's always had quite an old head on her shoulders,' her father said. 'And in athletics, you're only one injury or one illness away from it all being gone.')

'I'd like to get to Atlanta,' Paula continued, 'for the experience as much as anything.' Four years later, at 27, she should be in her prime as a 3,000m runner. 'But she's still got a lot of work to do,' the cautious Alec Stanton observed. 'She's capable of winning big races later on, but what those races will be, I don't know.'

Thinking about the claim made last week by Prince Alexandre de Merode of the International Olympic Committee that one in ten athletes now take performance-enhancing drugs, and wondering whether that direct look in Paula Radcliffe's eyes would ever be dulled by the self-absorption success can bring, I asked her father whether he had any reservations about his daughter pursuing a career in athletics.

'No,' he said. 'Not at all. You have to encourage people to succeed in what they do. There are pressures in what she's doing. We can only help her.'

As I watched her gliding over the rough parkland hills above Loughborough on an afternoon training run, I thought of something Alec Stanton had said: 'She's a great girl, you know, never mind about athletics.' Later on, I told someone else about her. 'Wait till the marketing men get at her,' he replied. Well, maybe. And maybe not.

(Photograph omitted)