Athletics: One of the great runs of all time but Paula's year is still 'a failure'

Heroics of London were eclipsed by cloud of Paris. Simon Turnbull talks to a disappointed Radcliffe
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The Independent Online

Lest it be forgotten, there has not been just the one sweet chariot on the streets of London this year. Back in April, Paula Radcliffe staged her one-woman marathon procession all the way from Blackheath to The Mall. As she turned the corner at Buckingham Palace, she was moving too quickly to stop off for tea and a photo opportunity with the corgis.

It was indeed a high-speed parade. Go down to the local gym and crank up the treadmill to its safety limit. The belt will be whizzing at 16.1km per hour. That's precisely six-minute miling. Imagine what it would be like to run at a speed of five minutes and 10 seconds per mile. That is what Paula Radcliffe did in the 2003 London Marathon - for 26 miles and 385 yards.

Her finishing time, 2hr 15min 25sec, was a staggering feat of speed endurance. It was the fastest time of the year by a British marathon runner - male or female - and an improvement of one minute and 53 seconds on the world-best time Radcliffe set in Chicago last year. The 2002 Sports Personality of the Year has pushed back the boundaries still further in 2003, and yet she seems certain to be handing over the trophy at the BBC Television Centre tonight.

"I think his name's on it already," Radcliffe said on Friday, when asked about being succeeded by some Jonny-come- lately. At least the leading lady of British sport should have her name engraved on a fresh gold medal by tonight, though. The European Cross Country Championships at Holyrood Park this afternoon provides Radcliffe with the opportunity for another glory run in a British capital. She starts clear favourite for the 6,595-metre senior women's race in Edinburgh, despite unhappy memories of her last racing experience.

In the Japanese city of Chiba three weeks ago, Radcliffe ran out of steam 7km into the opening 10km leg of an Ekiden race (a relay run over the marathon distance by a team of six athletes). Her time, 30min 42sec, was far from disastrous, but in finishing behind Berhane Adere, the 10,000m world champion from Ethiopia, and Esther Wangui of Kenya, the Bedfordshire woman suffered her first defeat in 16 races and 16 months.

Not that any mental scars were evident when Radcliffe arrived in Edinburgh. "Obviously it's not nice to get beaten," she said. "But I didn't feel right during the race. I knew something was wrong with me, and it's nice to have had that fact confirmed."

Medical tests showed that Radcliffe was suffering from magnesium deficiency, and she has since been on a drip to cure the problem. It was, ironically, the same condition that prompted Dwain Chambers to seek vitamin supplementation in San Francisco last year, and which ultimately led to his entanglement in a designer- steroid ring allegedly run by a Californian nutritionist. Chambers' involvement in the THG (tetrahydrogestrinone) affair has cast a cloud over British athletics, and nobody is more determined to clear it than Radcliffe, a strident crusader against the blight of doping in her sport.

"We have to learn from it," she said, "and we also have to move on - in making sure that the people who have introduced Dwain to drugs pay the price as well as himself. It's difficult at the moment, because you still don't know whether or not he knew what he was taking. He's claiming not, so it's difficult to comment. If he did know what he was taking then I have no sympathy for him, but if he took something thinking it was genuinely OK than I do have sympathy for him."

Whatever the outcome of his positive test, 2003 has been a year to forget for Chambers, the European Men's Athlete of 2002. Such are the elevated standards Radcliffe has set, she classifies her year with an "F" for failure, despite her trailblazing marathon effort in London eight months ago - not to mention her world-best performances on the road at 5km and 10km and her victory in the world half-marathon championship race. Her principal aim for the year was to capture the 10,000m crown at the World Championships in Paris in August, and illness and injury conspired to wipe out her entire track season.

"I think back to the London Marathon and, yeah, that was really good," she reflected. "But, coming into the year, the London Marathon was my secondary goal. Missing the World Championships was such a disappointment I look back and see the year as a little bit of a failure... Yeah, I do see it as a failure, because I didn't achieve what I set out to."

At 24, Radcliffe's odds-on successor as Sports Personality of the Year has already reached the pinnacle of his career. Radcliffe, who turns 30 on Wednesday, has yet to scale her Mount Olympus. Her day of destiny will come on 22 August next year, when she sets off on the road from Marathon to the Panathinaikon Stadium in Athens.

The pressure is sure to mount once Olympic year dawns and Jonny-mania recedes. For the time being, though, Radcliffe is thinking no further than the finish line in Edinburgh, the so-called Athens of the North - and of the holiday that follows. "We need a break," she said. "Plus, we've got 11 coming to our house for Christmas dinner. I need to destress my husband before that happens."