Athletics: Bike crash cannot halt Radcliffe's tilt at history

London Marathon: British world record holder recovers from accident to maintain hope of retaining her title
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The Independent Online

Steve Ovett almost ended his running career by colliding with a church railing. Steve Cram once injured himself while playing football with a Coke can. Carl Thackery, an outstanding British road runner during the 1980's, put himself out of action by running into a cactus while training at high altitude.

And Paula Radcliffe? Well, Britain's all-conquering athlete, who will defend her Flora London Marathon title on Sunday, clearly has a bit of a problem with bicycles.

Last year, shortly before she was due to run her debut marathon in London, Radcliffe was slightly hurt in training when she was crashed into by fellow runner Marian Sutton, who was accompanying her on a bike.

Yesterday the Bedford runner emerged into the full glare of pre-marathon publicity bearing the scars of a far more serious incident involving a bicycle which might have ended any aspirations she had of running in the capital on Sunday, or even of contesting the World Championships in Paris four months from now. It left her with extensive cuts, a damaged neck, a dislocated jaw and torn stomach muscles.

The accident took place at her Albuquerque training base on 8 March, 13 days after she had set a world 10-kilometre road race best in Puerto Rico. As she was completing the last of 23 miles on a concrete bike track, she overtook a girl of about 13 who was out riding with her parents.

"I crossed over to the other side of the path," Radcliffe recalled. "I thought I was clear of her. But I think she turned round to see where her parents were. She turned her handlebars as well and came right across the path and took my back foot away.

"I guess I must have been tired. My reactions weren't very good and I hit the concrete very hard. I cut up both shoulders and knees and dislocated my jaw. I also pulled some stomach muscles when I got locked around the bike tyres as I was trying to pull myself free.

"It was very worrying. I was in shock, because I was really scared that something stupid like that could have messed up everything.

"The girl didn't even come off her bike, but she was crying because I was covered in blood. I don't think they knew what they'd done really. I think they thought they'd just knocked over some Saturday runner."

Radcliffe missed two days of training, and her preparations were disrupted as she visited a chiropractor for her neck and received additional treatment from her masseur, Ger Hartmann.

The scars remain – as Radcliffe demonstrated by revealing a knee covered in a livid continent of bruising – but it takes a lot more to halt a woman who has carried all before her since retaining her world cross-country title in Dublin in March of last year.

In London, she will be seeking her third consecutive marathon win following her world record in Chicago last October, and her performance could have a crucial effect on how she approaches the Athens Olympics next summer, where she has the option of doing either the marathon or the 10,000 metres.

"Although I haven't fully decided which event I will do in Athens it's probably slightly in the marathon's favour right now so this would be my last one before then and it's important that it goes well for me," she said.

She is nevertheless scathing about the International Olympic Committee's recent decision to switch the time of the Athens marathon. "I very much prefer the morning, but the last I heard they had gone for a 6pm start, which I think is crazy. It was dictated by the IOC because they wanted to get the runners into the stadium at a good time for TV, and they were also concerned about the fact that the rowing is on the same day and the didn't want to close the roads in the morning.

"If you ask any of the runners, they would all say they prefer a 7am start. But it's the same for everyone."

Radcliffe's winning time in London last year, 2hr 18min 56sec, was the fastest-ever debut by a woman, and her chances of bettering it this year are likely to be improved by the fact that male pacemakers have been allocated to the women's race this weekend.

The decision was initially resisted by the International Association of Athletics Federations, whose secretary, Istvan Gyulai, suggested it was against the spirit of the sport. But the IAAF have subsequently accepted the position after undertakings that the male pacemakers will finish the race.

Dave Bedford, the London event's race director, has reassured officials that there will be no repeat of the events which helped Kenya's Tegla Loroupe to break the world record in Rotterdam and Berlin, where she was surrounded by up to nine men who effectively formed a windbreak for her as well as assisting her with the collection of drinks.

Radcliffe maintained yesterday that pacemakers could possibly become an irrelevance. "I honestly believe that in perfect conditions I can run as fast on my own as with anyone else," she said.

Her pioneering performances have put her into territory that could have awkward repercussions for British men's marathon running. In the absence of last year's top British finisher, Mark Steinle, and the Olympic fourth-placer, Jon Brown, Radcliffe could well take possession of the Jim Peters Trophy, traditionally awarded to the first British man home. That would also make her the first woman to win the AAA marathon title. "These," Bedford said diplomatically, "are some very interesting issues."