Sonia O'Sullivan's year has not been as triumphant as that of her rival Paula Radcliffe, but, with two silver medals from the European Championships, it has been pretty damned good. Yesterday it got significantly better as she recaptured the BUPA Great North Run title with a performance that sets her up ideally for a first serious marathon attempt in New York next month.
The Irish woman fell just short of Radcliffe's course record, but her counterpart in the men's race, Paul Kosgei, registered the first sub-60 minute half-marathon run in this country as he sprinted clear of Tanzania's John Yuda over the final 400 metres to finish in 59 minutes 58 seconds, equal eighth-fastest in history.
With just over a mile of the 13.1-mile course remaining, O'Sullivan, a winner here four years earlier, was four seconds faster than Radcliffe had been in winning the 2000 race. But as she turned into the final mile along the seafront, a combination of wind and fatigue slowed her to a time of 67min 19sec, 12 seconds outside the British runner's mark.
But if it was a disappointment for a runner keen to reassert her pre-eminence after finishing a distant second to Radcliffe in this summer's European 10,000 metres final, it was only a minor one.
O'Sullivan's time was the eighth fastest officially run, almost three minutes inside her previous best of 70min 04sec. It means she will enter the New York marathon on 3 November with a confidence that will bode ill for her opponents.
"I shall be fairly relaxed in New York now,'' she grinned. "I want to go with the early pace and relax. I think the first half is going to be run in around 71 minutes, and then the real racing will begin.''
As Radcliffe had done two years earlier, O'Sullivan arrived at the finishing stretch with all opposition save the ticking clock long since dealt with. She had broken clear after four-and-a-half miles, shortly after the defending champion, Susan Chepkemei of Kenya, had dropped out of the race clutching her foot.
Asked afterwards if she was surprised not to have faced a more apparent challenge from a field which also included Ethiopia's world half-marathon champion Berhane Adere and Olympic 10,000m champion Derartu Tulu, O'Sullivan grinned again. "The way I ran I made it like that,'' she said. "It's a little bit of a risk to take when you push hard from the start. Once I got to five miles I knew that was the highest point of the course, and the aim was to run hard for the next three miles.''
Susie Power, Australia's Commonwealth marathon bronze medallist, finished 37 seconds behind O'Sullivan, with Kenya's former London marathon winner Joyce Chepchumba third in 68min 34sec.
The result contributed to the notion that having children is beneficial for women endurance runners – all three medallists are mothers.
"I suppose in some ways it gives you a second lease of life when you have children,'' said the 32-year-old winner whose two girls, four-year-old Ciara and Sophie, born last December, were both with her yesterday.
"When you are a junior you want to be the best in the world and you train so hard to get there," O'Sullivan said. "But then what do you do next? If you have children you take time out, and then you want to get back and do better than before.''
O'Sullivan's performance bettered Catherina McKiernan's Irish record of 67min 50sec and means she now holds every national mark from 800m through to the half marathon. "I'm nearly there,'' she said. "Just one more to collect.''
Kosgei and Yuda ran side by side for the final 10 miles before the former, who had beaten his rival in winning the world half marathon title in Brussels earlier in the year, broke clear with the finish in sight, cheered on by the spectators whose sunny autumn outing ended with a display from the Red Arrows.
"I was surprised how much noise the crowd made,'' Kosgei said. Let's hope he was prepared for the arrival of the Red Arrows over the horizon.
* Ernest Kipyego won the Cologne Marathon on Sunday, setting a new record for the event of 2hr 10min 53sec. The Kenyan, who was not among the favourites, finished 40 seconds ahead of the Tanzanian Andrew Sambu. Kipyego broke the event record, set by the German Carsten Eich, by two seconds.