Athletics: Paula inspires her conqueror

Paula Radcliffe has already been on the suffering end of the Paula Radcliffe effect. In the storm-force wind and driving rain of Puerto Rico two weeks ago, the leading lady of long-distance running experienced her first defeat in an individual event for two-and-a-half years.

Paula Radcliffe has already been on the suffering end of the Paula Radcliffe effect. In the storm-force wind and driving rain of Puerto Rico two weeks ago, the leading lady of long-distance running experienced her first defeat in an individual event for two-and-a-half years.

To Lornah Kiplagat, the woman who beat Radcliffe by four seconds in the World's Best 10km road race and who will be among her rivals in the 8km long-course race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in the shadow of the Brussels Atomium next Saturday, the result came as no surprise.

While Radcliffe was busy blazing a seemingly invincible trail - leaving her nominal rivals scattered in her high-speed wake in the European Championships 10,000m final in Munich in August 2002 and finishing four minutes and 30 seconds clear of the opposition en route to her Beamonesque 2hr 15min 25sec marathon world best in London last April - Kiplagat was looking on not so much in awed admiration as in the spirit of Yosser Hughes, the Alan Bleasdale Boys from the Black Stuff character who watched the deeds of others and declared: "I can do that."

"For the past two-and-a-half years, Paula has done exceptionally well," Kiplagat reflected, speaking from her home in Groet on the North Holland coast. "She has run incredible times. But always I have said, 'If Paula has done it, in a human way, in human blood, then somebody else can do it'. What she has done has never shaken me at all.

"In the marathon I would have to say she is far, far away from any other competitor. The standard she has reached is amazing, but it has also given the rest of us motivation. It has made people realise that you can do more than you think you can. If you imagined running 2hr 15min it looked quite impossible, but Paula proved that it actually is possible. And if she has done it therefore somebody else can.

"It's all about mental things: about going for it, about taking your chance. It takes a lot of courage and training and you have to take risks. I have a lot of respect for what Paula has done. She has taught us there are no limits. The question now is: how many other people can do the same?"

The answer will become a little clearer in Brussels. Just five months down the road from the Olympic marathon, Radcliffe will be keen to rediscover her winning touch in an event she won in the mud in Ostend in 2001 and on the firm going at Leopardstown Racecourse in Dublin in 2002. It is unlikely to be a stroll in Laeken Park, though. The opposition includes Kiplagat, who turns 30 on the day of the race, and two strong Ethiopians, reigning champion Worknesh Kidane and Tirunesh Dibaba, the 18-year-old world 5,000m champion.

Radcliffe is also entered for the 4km short-course race on Sunday. So is Kiplagat. She is attempting the double as preparation for the Olympic 10,000m. "Cross country is not really my line," she confessed. "I have only run the world cross once. I finished 79th, I think." Kiplagat was actually 80th in Stellenbosch in 1996 - 61 places behind a youthful Radcliffe. They are certain to be closer on Saturday, when Kiplagat will be comfortably close to home. A native of Kenya, she has been a Dutch citizen since 23 July last year. In her case, it has not been a nationality of convenience.

Kiplagat has been happily settled in Groet, a small village near Alkmaar, for five years now. Her husband and manager, Pieter Langerhorst, is Dutch. The couple met at the London marathon in 1997. That Kiplagat has been accepted in Holland was confirmed when she was voted Dutch Runner of the Year - four weeks before she received her passport. She speaks fluent Dutch too.

Not that she has forgotten her homeland. Far from it. Four years ago Kiplagat used $200,000 of her earnings to build a high-altitude training centre for female Kenyan runners in the Rift Valley. She was concerned that the social tradition in Kenya was affording insufficient opportunities to women, who have been historically expected to serve the men in their families.

"My own father told me that if he caught me working for my brothers, obeying their orders, he would break my hands," Kiplagat recalled. "He told my eldest sister that she did not require to be circumcised and that was very unusual in 1954. Women who are not circumcised often cannot find a husband, but my father told her that if nobody wanted to marry her that was fine; she could stay home. She is now a veterinary graduate."

And now Lornah Kiplagat is pushing back the boundaries for her native countrywomen - like Paula Radcliffe, venturing beyond the perceived limits.

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