Athletics: Mild Bill the perfect pathfinder for Paula

The fastest person around Athens' classic marathon course is a Briton who is sure Radcliffe will follow him

It is Wednesday lunchtime in the Coventry Transport Museum, and two items which have carried man to notable record-breaking deeds are on display. In the basement, the Spirit of Speed Gallery houses the SSC Thrust, the space-age machine in which Richard Noble broke the land-speed record, and the sound barrier, in the Nevada Desert in 1997, touching a top speed of 763 miles an hour. Upstairs, on a table in the special exhibitions area, stirring more interest than the ultimate speed machine, sit a pair of old shoes.

By today's hi-tech, highly cushioned standards, they are barely recognisable as running shoes. The soles are little more than two pieces of cardboard. "My feet-breakers," Bill Adcocks calls them, more in affection than disdain. "They were developed for Abebe Bikila to wear in Tokyo in 1964 after he had won the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome running barefoot. There's not a lot to them. They certainly made you pick your feet up."

Along the road from Marathon to Athens on 6 April 1969, they made Adcocks pick up his feet faster than anyone else before or since on the original marathon course - the route on which the Greek shepherd Spiridon Louis won the first Olympic marathon in 1896 and on which, legend has it, the messenger Pheidippides carried news of the Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490BC. Adcocks' winning time in the Athens Classical Marathon that day, 2hr 11min 7sec, still stands as the course record - two months before Paul Tergat and Paula Radcliffe go for Olympic marathon gold on the notoriously demanding 26-mile, 385-yard path from Marathon to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens.

Unlike the shoes he wore along the way, Bill Adcocks is made of the sturdiest stuff. He was built in Coventry, forged in a hard-graft school that had him beavering under floorboards as a gas fitter during the working day and pushing himself to the limit at night as a member of a sink-or-swim Coventry Godiva Harriers training group of true world class. What Adcocks lacked in basic natural speed (with a modest 400m personal best of 57.1sec) he more than made up for by busting a gut to keep up with Basil Heatley and Brian Kilby, the second and fourth men home behind the barely shod Bikila in the Tokyo Olympic marathon in 1964.

Such was his commitment that he was in bed by 9pm each night, and if he happened to wake before midnight he would be dressed and outdoors without realising it was not yet 6am and time for his daily pre-work run.

Now 62, the avuncular Adcocks has been coaxed into telling the tale of his running days in The Road To Athens, a wonderful read written in collaboration with Trevor Frecknall, the first-class feature writer employed in UK Athletics' media department. Not that Adcocks was a willing subject at first. Speaking at the book's launch at the transport museum, he recalls that his initial response to the idea was: "Who would be interested in the ramblings of a once-was?" Paula Radcliffe, for one, it would be reasonable to suppose.

Now that England's footballers and No 1 tennis player have fallen short of the trophy-winning mark, the hopes of British glory in this summer of sport are pinned squarely on Radcliffe's shoulders as she prepares for her date with Olympic destiny on the same road to Athens that Adcocks ruled 35 years ago. The golden girl of British athletics may yet buy the book, though she has not, to date, sought any advice from a man who now makes his living as the information officer for UK Athletics, the domestic governing body of the sport.

"I haven't spoken to Paula," Adcocks says. "Having said that, I've got the utmost respect for her. She's absolutely phenomenal - the kind of runner countries dream of. And, I have to say, I'm not a firm believer that knowing the course is an advantage."

Radcliffe, in fact, has already been to Athens to get a look at the daunting route on which she will be going for gold on 22 August. "From 20km to 32km you go from 75m above sea level to 225m," Adcocks says, the index finger of his right hand tracing the inverted V-shape course profile printed in his book. "There are some stiff climbs and there's no respite until you get to the top. The last six miles are downhill but, even then, if you've had to work so hard on the way up that you're knackered when you get to the top, that's not necessarily an advantage."

The heat, humidity and Athenian smog are other factors in the equation, but the route itself is likely to be the most difficult challenge for Radcliffe, who happens to be the fastest-ever women's marathon runner by a margin of three minutes. "On this course, you have got to run with your head," Adcocks advises. "In 1973, Akio Usami of Japan ran the first 5km in 14 min 28sec and each of the last two 5km splits in 19 minutes each. That illustrates what can happen if you don't play it right.

"But the marathon is all about getting yourself right, and Paula has epitomised that in all of the marathons that she has run so far. I think she has got enough in the bank to run it sensibly and still win by a street."

Adcocks will be in Athens next month to see whether Radcliffe can indeed strike gold - and whether Tergat or any of the other male speed-merchants can beat his time from a race that was billed as an Olympic rerun. The Athens Marathon of 1969 featured the first five finishers from the Games in Mexico the previous year. Adcocks was the fastest marathon man of 1968, clocking European records in Karl Marx Stadt (2hr 12min 16sec) and Fukuoka (2hr 10min 48sec), but in the high altitude of Mexico City he had finished fifth. In Athens he pulled clear on the downhill drag to the finish to win by two minutes from Kenji Kimihara of Japan, the Olympic silver medallist.

It would be fitting if Coventry's classical two-legged speed endurance machine were to remain the king of the original marathon course. Secretary of Coventry Godiva for 14 years now, Bill Adcocks is one of the grass-roots heroes feeding the very heartbeat of his beloved sport. At Birmingham Cross Country League meetings, he can be found marking out the course beforehand and calculating the results afterwards.

"I'd do anything," he says. "Sweep the floor, if it's needed. The wheels only go round if there's someone pushing them. And I don't mind doing the pushing."

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