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Commonwealth Games 2014: Jo Pavey turns back the years and digs deep to earn 5,000m bronze

Runner joins select band of fortysomethings who have won track-and-field medals at the Games

It was back in the mists of 1988 that Jo Pavey first made her mark on the British athletics scene. She was 14-year-old Jo Davis at the time, running for Devon at the English Schools' Championships in Yeovil.

She smashed the UK Under-15 record for 1500 metres, with a time of 4min 27.9sec. Eight places and 13 seconds behind her was a plucky young girl from Bedfordshire by the name of Radcliffe.

For all that Paula Radcliffe has achieved in her own long and distinguished distance-running career – a marathon world record that has stood beyond reach for 11 years now, a World Championship marathon title, and much else besides – even she must have looked down from the television gantry at Scotland's national football stadium last night and marvelled at the West Country woman in whose wake she once trailed.

Right from the off in the women's 5,000m final, Pavey had the eye of the tiger about her. Even when the three Kenyans – Mercy Cherono, Janet Kisa and Margaret Muriuki – swept past with 600m to go, and then again with 200m remaining, the 40-year-old mother of two refused to buckle.

Entering the home straight, she gritted her teeth, dug deep and plugged into the Hampden roar. She dug so deep she was unaware when she crossed the line that she had joined a select band of fortysomethings who have finished among the track-and-field medals at the Commonwealth Games.

"It's surreal," Pavey said, after a lap of honour that seemed to last more than twice as long as her race. "I couldn't believe I'd got a medal. I had to look up at the scoreboard." The scoreboard confirmed that the Exeter Harrier had claimed the bronze medal ahead of Muriuki. In fact, with a time of 15min 08.96sec, she was only 0.06 sec shy of silver, which went to Kisa, Cherono taking the gold.

"I kept thinking, 'Don't regret this'," Pavey said, when asked about her mindset when the Kenyans – and the medals – looked like moving away from her grasp. "This is special. I'm a 40-year-old mum of two kids, one of them just 10 months old… It's funny."

It is more than that. It's truly inspirational. Emilia Gorecka, the 20-year-old baby of the English trio in yesterday's race – alongside the bronze-medal winner and fellow 40-year-old Helen Clitheroe – was a three year-old toddler when Pavey made her international debut at the 1997 World Championships in Athens. "It's amazing," said Gorecka, who finished eighth. "I've got 20 years ahead of me now to try and match that." Though Clitheroe was disappointed with her own finishing position, down in 11th place, she said: "I'm really thrilled that Jo got a medal. She deserves it."

It was not the first athletics medal won by an over-40 at a Commonwealth Games. Jack Holden, a foundry worker from the Black Country, was 42 when he won the marathon at the 1950 Empire Games, as the quadrennial gathering was then known. When his shoes started falling apart in the Auckland rain, the Tipton Harrier tore them from his feet and ran the last nine miles barefoot. His feet were cut to ribbons by the finish. He won by 4min 5sec.

Two 40-year-old female field eventers have also won medals. Rosemary Payne took silver for Scotland in the discus in Auckland in 1974 and Judy Oakes struck shot-put gold in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, in her sixth and final appearance for England at the Games.

Pavey won a Commonwealth 5,000m silver as a slip of a 32-year-old in Melbourne in 2006. She also won a European silver at 10,000m in Helsinki two years ago, and will get the chance to add to her collection when she contests the 5,000m and 10,000m at this year's European Championships, which open in Zurich on Tuesday week.

For the time being, though, the Devon woman can celebrate Commonwealth bronze with her husband Gavin, who is also her coach and manager, and their two children, Jacob, four, and Emily, 10 months.

Her feat is all the more glorious considering Pavey's local track in Exeter has been closed of late. She has been obliged to travel to train in Yeovil – fittingly, the scene of her teenage triumph against the future world marathon-record holder.

"That was brilliant," Radcliffe said. "I am so pleased for Jo. She already has a Commonwealth silver and I'm sure this one will mean the most to her. She worked hard for it. She injected some pace into that race and I'm sure she took a lot of energy from this crowd."

It was the mother of all medal- winning successes from the oldest woman in the English track-and-field team. Pavey turns 41 next month.