Athletics: Morris the fun runner races into new life as Olympic challenger

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The Independent Online

Tracey Morris has run only two marathons ­ both of them in London. Five years ago, this Leeds optician helped raise £3,000 for the blind by completing the course in 3hr 39min; yesterday, stupendously, she transformed herself from a fun runner into an Olympic athlete as she beat that time by more than an hour ­ yes, one hour ­ to claim a place at this summer's Athens Games at the age of 36.

Tracey Morris has run only two marathons ­ both of them in London. Five years ago, this Leeds optician helped raise £3,000 for the blind by completing the course in 3hr 39min; yesterday, stupendously, she transformed herself from a fun runner into an Olympic athlete as she beat that time by more than an hour ­ yes, one hour ­ to claim a place at this summer's Athens Games at the age of 36.

Morris, who took up serious running 18 months ago and only began proper training in order to take part in last autumn's Great North Run, finished as the first Briton home in a race lacking the defending champion, Paula Radcliffe. Her time of 2:33:52, earning her 10th place, was comfortably inside the Olympic qualifying mark of 2hr 37min.

That means that Morris and her husband, Paul, who completed the race yesterday in a time of 4hr 45min, raising £3,000 for the NSPCC in the process, are going to have to alter their summer holiday plans, and the Albion Street branch of Dolland and Aitchison in Leeds, where Morris works as a fitter of contact lenses, is going to have to revise its rota. Radcliffe is also going to have to welcome a team-mate to whom she has never spoken before.

"Paula won't know who I am," Morris said yesterday. "It will be 'Tracey who?'" She is almost certainly wrong. But if Radcliffe wasn't au fait with this former Welsh schools cross-country runner yesterday, she will know all about her today as her face appears in every newspaper and on all TV channels.

To say Morris's achievement had come as a something of a surprise would be an understatement. "It's as big a shock as it could be," she said, adding that she had absolutely no thought that she might qualify for the Olympics before she crossed the finishing line. "I knew the qualifying time was 2.37, but beforehand I thought: 'Well, that won't be me'. When I finished, I thought two other British girls were ahead of me. I was only told what I had done about five minutes later."

Morris had earned her glorious reward by overhauling Jo Lodge after 23 miles, and going past the naturalised Ethiopian Birhan Dagne with just over two miles remaining. Her ambitions were far more limited when she set off. "I just wanted to get to the end," she said. "In the closing stages I was thinking: 'Please legs, carry me to the end and don't make a fool of me.'" They complied, earning her a total of £3,750, comfortably topping her previous highest race earnings of £250, a sum amassed at this year's Helsby Half Marathon.

Morris's marathon career began on a whim. "When I was 30, I thought to myself: 'Things you do when you're 30: I'll do the marathon.'" Thus, five years ago, she took to the streets of London ­ but her application to run in this year's event did not succeed and she would not even have toed the line had British coach Bud Baldaro not noticed her performance in winning the 10km Abbey Dash in Sheffield last December and asked her if she fancied entering this year's London event as one of the élite runners. As it happened, she did.

Her glorious run almost never happened, however. The night before, while getting out of a bath in her hotel near Tower Bridge, she had slipped and hurt herself. "I went flying across the floor and banged my ankle against the door," she said. "I bruised my back as well. I thought: 'Oh great'. But the pain did go off."

Now she needs to come to terms with a whole new world of possibilities. Such as attending the British Olympic training camp in Cyprus later this year. "Is that right?" she said. "So would I have to book that? I feel like we are talking about someone else, not me." Morris will also have to work out with her employers how to fit in her running commitments. "I think they think I just go and jog around the block, so it might come as a bit of a shock for them," she said. "I think they think I am one of those fitness freaks who go running all the time."

In the men's race Jon Brown claimed an Olympic place by finishing inside the qualifying time of 2hr 15min, recording 2:13.39 for 15th place. Dan Robinson also staked a claim for an Olympic place by finishing one place behind Brown in 2:13.53.

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