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Athletics: The family in the background

Husband and wife the unsung heroes of Radcliffe's run to the top. Simon Turnbull reports
IF Paula Radcliffe runs into the medals once again in the world cross country championships on Saturday, the global running gurus gathered in Marrakesh will want to know the secret behind her continuing success. The answer is Rosemary and Alec Stanton. In Italy, Spain and elsewhere the would-be world beaters have their national squad systems, withtraining camps and armies of professional coaches, doctors, dieticians and psychologists. Radcliffe, runner-up in the worldchampionships last year, has the unlikely husband and wife team from Bedford.

Rosemary Stanton is a wages clerk. Alec Stanton is a production line manager. "I wouldn't like to say how old we are," Rosemary said coyly, "but Alec's semi-retired. That gives you some idea." Neither has run at club, let alone international, level. "But what," Rosemary said, after confessing her background as a non-runner, "is an expert? Good runners don't necessarily make good coaches, do they?" And the Stantons, without doubt, have become running coaches of the highest order.

Between them, they have transformed Radcliffe from a 12-year-old also- ran - she finished 299th in the minor girls' race in the national cross country championships in 1986 - into one of the leading ladies of the running world. They have also nurtured Liz Talbot, who booked her seat on the Marrakesh express by winning the British trial race in Cardiff a fortnight ago. And there are another 28 likely lasses following in the muddy footsteps of Radcliffe and Talbot in the group coached by Rosemary and Alec Stanton at Bedford and County Athletics Club.

"We just used to go down and watch, as parents, when our own children joined the club," Rosemary said. "That was 17 years ago. Then we started tagging along with the coaches and eventually we had our own group." But how, exactly, did the Stantons gain the expertise required to develop their group? "Books," Rosemary said. "Clinics. We picked out the bits we liked and adapted them. You also need motivation. And you need to be there - all the time. It's about commitment and consistency.

"People used to tell us we'd never have any success because we ran the group like a family but it's obviously worked. The girls all look to each other. They all socialise together. The other girls look up to Paula and Lizzie but they train with them. Being part of a big group certainly helped Paula. When she first came down there were four other girls who used to beat her regularly. She had to fight to improve and I think that's stood her in good stead. She's never been a prima donna runner. She's always fought for what she's got."

That fighting spirit was never more evident than by the banks of the River Po in Parco del Valentino, Turin, 12 months ago. Radcliffe, head bobbing in her familiar nodding-dog style, battled her way to the front of the world cross-country field with victory and the finish line in sight. "For six seconds I thought I was world champion," she later said - ruefully. In the run-in to the line, Radcliffe was edged into second place by Deratu Tulu, the Ethiopian who became the first black African woman to win an Olympic title when she struck 10,000m gold in Barcelona in 1992. It was, nevertheless, an inspirational run by Radcliffe, her finest in the international arena since she revealed the depth of the talent behind the determination, as winner of the junior world cross country title in Boston in 1992.

At 24, Radcliffe is best known as a country girl. But she has no mean track record too. She has been close to the medals in the last two major championship 5,000m finals: fifth in the 1996 Olympics and fourth in the world championships last summer. Whether she is in shape to ascend the medal podium in Morocco on Saturday remains to be seen. "She's as fit as anything," Rosemary Stanton said. "All you can do is prepare and cross your fingers."

The Stantons will be in Marrakesh keeping fingers crossed for both Radcliffe and for Talbot. It was the same yesterday as they stood in the mud at Roundhay Park, Leeds, cheering on the younger Bedford girls in the national cross country championships. "I think we've won 38 titles of different sorts," the affable Alec said, with pride rather than conceit. "We've had a pretty good run for our money."

He was speaking strictly in the metaphorical sense, but the truth is the Stantons must have spent a small fortune nurturing and following their extended family. "We don't drink," Alec said. "We don't smoke. Hasn't it been worth it?" The answer, on behalf of Bedford and County Athletics Club and British athletics, is a grateful yes. You simply cannot put a price on the value of such gems as Mr Stanton and his wife.