Athletics: Paula has a mind to conquer her demons

Road to redemption: New York can be therapy for Radcliffe as she seeks to restore faith after the anguish of Athens
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The Independent Online

The route of the New York City Marathon wends its way through the five boroughs of the Big Apple, from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the Tavern on the Green restaurant in Central Park. For Paula Radcliffe, though, the 2004 race will not just be run on the 26.2 miles of road through Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queensboro, the Bronx and Manhattan. It will be won or lost in her head.

Eleven weeks on from the anguish she suffered along the road from Marathon to Athens, and 10 weeks down the line from her failure to finish the Olympic 10,000m final, the big question-mark hanging over Radcliffe as she steps back into the competitive arena this afternoon is whether her Athenian nightmare has drained her of her "killer" racing instinct.

In physical terms, having recovered from the haematoma, the stomach upset and the glycogen depletion that led to her grinding to a halt after 23 miles of the Olympic marathon course, there is no reason to doubt the Briton's ability to turn the streets of New York into a road to resounding personal redemption. Radcliffe has, after all, run five minutes quicker than the rivals she will face in the élite women's field. It was only last year that she set her staggering world-best figures in the London Marathon, 2hr 15min 25sec. And it was only in June this year that she clocked 30min 17.15sec for 10,000m in the chill wind at Gateshead - seven seconds quicker than Xing Hunia's winning time in the heat of Olympic battle.

In psychological terms, however, it remains to be seen whether Radcliffe can blot out her double Athenian aberration and bring her peerless pedigree to bear at the sharp end of world-class competition. Sudden setbacks have cost Great British athletes that vital mental cutting edge before. Steve Cram never possessed the same confidence in the cut and thrust of the international arena after being coaxed, against his better judgement, into running the 1987 Europa Cup 1500m race, and getting outsprinted by the Spaniard Jose Luis Gonzalez. Steve Ovett was never the same after he ran into some church railings in Brighton in 1982.

Above anything else, Radcliffe needs to get herself back into the mental winning groove in New York this afternoon. "I can see it's important for her to run another marathon, to achieve whatever goal she has set herself, and to move on," said Carole Seheult, a sports psychologist who has helped British Olympians into the medal zone.

"If you've had some major letdown it takes a while to get over it, and it must have been devastating for Paula. She seems to me to be a very self-effacing girl and she's had to deal with everyone trying to get inside her head, trying to pick over what she's done and dissecting their particular take.

"A lot depends on how she approaches this race. She has to be very careful. If she feels bitter and she's thinking, 'I'll show you', then the motivation is outside her and that has its risks. There'll be people waiting to have a pop at her if she does that and fails.

"All you can do is control yourself, set yourself a goal you're happy with. But I'm sure Paula has set herself an achievable goal - to win, to get a particular time. I'm sure she has said to herself, 'This is a run for my satisfaction'.

"She will plug into the mental system that has worked for her in marathons before. She won't be thinking about fears, doubts and worries. She'll be thinking about what she can control - about what her gameplan will be if there's still someone popping along next to her with 24 miles to go. She'll have thought her strategy through."

The very fact that Radcliffe has chosen to put herself on the line in New York suggests, as she insists, that she is mentally ready for the challenge of exorcising her Olympic demons. It would have been easier for her to have eased back into competition in a 10km road race on home soil in three weeks' time, as she had originally planned, than to have chosen a high-profile event that will attract a television audience of 275 million, which features several opponents capable of taking advantage of any vulnerability on her part (world cross-country champion Benita Johnson, Olympic bronze medallist Deena Kastor, course-record holder Margaret Okayo, and Lornah Kiplagat, who beat Radcliffe in a 10km road race in Puerto Rico in February), run over a testing course with a sting in its tail: an uphill finish in Central Park.

"I want to get back into racing," Radcliffe asserted. "I know that people are going to put me under a microscope in my first race back. That's fine. I just want to get to a race, give it 100 per cent and see what happens. I wouldn't be running if I didn't think I could do myself justice.

"I think I have accepted what happened in Athens. Obviously, I am not happy about it, but it does not affect my mindset going into another race. It does not affect my confidence for how I run in the future. I have learned what lessons I can from it and put it behind me and moved on."

It was while out on a training run in Flagstaff, Arizona, just a fortnight ago that Radcliffe decided to race in New York, responding to an invitation to attend as a guest with a request for a place on the start line instead. The trip to Arizona had been a vital part of the moving-on progress.

Although the shoppers who stopped her on her first supermarket visit after returning home to Loughborough from Athens were overwhelmingly well-wishers, she needed to escape to a place where she could enjoy anonymity "to put things in perspective", to "get away from this whole big 'Olympics disaster' thing," and to regain a joy for her first love: running.

A winning run in one of the world's major marathons would be a big step in the right direction for a woman who turns 31 next month but who has declared her intention to continue racing until the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. A course record would be an even more satisfying, and Okaya's 2hr 22min 31sec is likely to be on Radcliffe's mind when she determines her target pace.

In the 35 years of the New York Marathon only three British runners have achieved victories: Priscilla Welch in 1987, Steve Jones in 1988 and Liz McColgan in 1991. McColgan happens to believe that Radcliffe is risking too much by racing so soon after the trauma of Athens. "If I was in Paula's situation I wouldn't do it," the Scot said. "She has absolutely nothing to prove."

Radcliffe herself bridles at the suggestion that she is running in New York purely for redemption. "I don't think you could pick any race for that other than the next Olympics, in four years' time," she said.

Or, perhaps, she might have added, the race being run on the road from Marathon today. Then again, the annual Athens Classic Marathon was never likely to figure in Paula Radcliffe's recovery plan.

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