Athletics: Beware the downhill journey, Paula warned

He touched upon Paula Radcliffe's failure to finish the Olympic marathon in Athens last summer. "She could not biologically have won that race," he asserted. "Because she was 12kg heavier than the Japanese girl who won, at 35 degrees centigrade and in high humidity, she was generating 20 per cent more body heat every kilometre. As long as there was a smaller runner capable of running a 2hr 20min marathon in the race, she was never going to win." Professor Noakes also showed a graph charting the progression of the men's marathon world record which singled out Jim Peters as having made "a huge impact".

Peters was the pioneer of modern-day marathon running, the optician from Southend who took the world record through the 2hr 20min barrier - all the way from 2hr 26min 07sec to 2hr 17min 39sec. He did so in a pair of worn-down Woolworth plimsolls. In 1997, two years before his death, I showed him the passage in Lore of Running which describes him as "the greatest marathoner ever". He was so tickled by the compliment, I left the book behind, though he came running out with it, saying: "You keep it, but if you see Paula Radcliffe please pass on my regards."

Peters confessed that he saw much of his old self in Radcliffe, not least in her bold, determined approach. Like Peters, the Bedford woman has pushed back the barriers of marathon running, reducing the women's world record to 2hr 15min 25sec. It can only be hoped that - unlike her late, great admirer - she can become a marathon champion as well as a marathon record-breaker.

Peters famously ended his career by collapsing with exhaustion within sight of the finish line in the Empire Games marathon in Vancouver in 1954. Two years earlier he led the Olympic marathon in Helsinki before the combined effects of cramp, a nightmare journey - a nine-hour flight in which the plane was struck by lightning - and an over-ambitious racing schedule all took their toll. As in Vancouver, where he held a lead of 18 minutes, he failed to finish.

It was the same for Radcliffe in her Olympic marathon in Athens. In Helsinki today, though, she has the chance to strike World Championship marathon gold. Although she finished ninth in the 10,000m here eight days ago, her time, 30min 42.75sec, augured well for the challenge of a testing three-lap course, and a field that will include a worthy rival in Catherine Ndereba. The Kenyan preceded Radcliffe as holder of the marathon world record and boasts a proven championship pedigree in the marathon, as a World Championship winner in Paris two years ago and silver medallist in Athens. Radcliffe has returned to winning form in the marathon since her Olympic nightmare, prevailing in New York last November and in London in April. The worrying question, in the mind of Professor Noakes, is whether a fourth marathon in 12 months might be more than one too many.

"In my opinion, Paula is the greatest women's marathon runner of all time," he said. "She's minutes ahead of the next best runner, like Jim Peters was in his day. One of the problems she has is that, with each good marathon she runs, she's got one less in her. As Paula will unfortunately learn, you only have so many good marathons in you. And once she stops improving, that will be it. She'll only have one way to go, and that will be down.

"I thought she'd never come back from Athens, quite frankly. I thought that even if she won the race, it would take so much out of her, in the heat and the humidity, that she wouldn't have another good marathon left. She did run well in London in April, but not quite as fast as before. Now she has to be very careful, because you can go downhill very quickly.

"She could still run a good marathon here. But she shouldn't be racing the marathon in Helsinki. Neither should Ndereba, because they both ran marathons in April. If you look at Jim Peters here in 1952, he'd broken the world record just a month before. He simply hadn't recovered. We didn't know then that it takes six months for the body to recover from a marathon."