Athletics: Paula with a point to prove

After failing in Athens, Paula Radcliffe is returning to the scene of her greatest triumph
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The Independent Online

With customary politeness, Paula Radcliffe has pushed her plate of rice, sausages and salad to one side in order to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the media. Despite the fact that she is running her third Flora London Marathon on Sunday, that traditional carbo-loader, pasta, is off the menu following changes she has made in the wake of her failure to achieve in Athens.

With customary politeness, Paula Radcliffe has pushed her plate of rice, sausages and salad to one side in order to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the media. Despite the fact that she is running her third Flora London Marathon on Sunday, that traditional carbo-loader, pasta, is off the menu following changes she has made in the wake of her failure to achieve in Athens.

And the absence of wheat, gluten or dairy products from the Radcliffe diet is far from the only change that has occurred since she struggled to a teary halt on the road from Olympia eight months ago.

As she contemplates a return to the venue which witnessed arguably the finest performance of her career - her 2003 world record of 2hr 15min 25sec is still three minutes faster than any other female runner has managed - the 31-year-old Bedford runner finds much that has altered, not least in herself.

Radcliffe's girlish glow of previous years is absent. She now has the slightly guarded look of someone who has been through difficult times. Although Dave Bedford, the London event's race director, made a point of introducing her yesterday as "the greatest female distance runner of all time", the climate has altered dramatically for the woman who crossed the line in The Mall two years ago after making a stupendous advance on her own world best time.

Although she responded to her Athens disappointment by entering and winning the New York Marathon in November, by her own admission she was not operating at the top of her form, and her defeat of Kenya's Susan Chepkemei over the last couple of hundred metres owed much to sheer guts and courage.

Last month, having emerged from a three-month training sojourn in Albuquerque, she produced an encouraging time of 30min 45sec in the Crescent City Classic 10km race in New Orleans, but was well beaten by Kenya's Olympic 5000m silver medallist, Isabella Ochichi.

And in the build-up to the 25th running of the London marathon, several observers within the sport have suggested that her best days are behind her.

The starkest version of this opinion was offered this week by a former winner of the event, Liz McColgan, who has in previous times acted as something of a mentor to Radcliffe.

Asked to respond to the Scottish runner's observations, Radcliffe managed to do so witheringly while apparently insisting that she did not want to be drawn into any slanging matches.

"I haven't actually read the article, but I heard about it," she says. "Liz is someone I looked up to and had a lot of respect for when I was growing up. I don't want to get involved in criticising her. But I have to say that Liz hasn't contacted me since this time last year. If she was really concerned she probably would have contacted me privately rather than through the media."

When presented with the suggestion that marathon runners only have four great races within them - a view first formed by Australia's 1983 world champion Rob De Castella - Radcliffe, whose current record stands at four wins and one "Did Not Finish", is similarly resolute.

"I don't think you can put a number on it," she responds. "It depends on so many things and at what stage of your career you come to the marathon."

However you seek to explain what happened, or rather did not happen, in Athens - and she puts her failure down to a severe stomach upset brought on by anti-inflammatory tablets she was taking for a thigh injury - it is something Radcliffe accepts will always be with her.

"You never totally get over a thing like that," she says. "But it's made me stronger. I've toughened up, and it's made me care less about criticism. There were people who said I was wrong to run in New York so soon after Athens, but everyone around me was happy, and I enjoyed the race. I winged it a little bit, but I won."

While the main decision of the year - whether to attempt the 10,000m or marathon, or even both, at this summer's World Championships in Helsinki - remains to be made, Radcliffe has no doubts that she has made the right choice in going for a third London title rather than attempting to complete the unofficial marathon "grand slam" by racing in Boston.

She says her preparation this year is on a level with that of 2003, and is unequivocal in her belief that she still has the capacity to surpass that performance.

But when you ask her how vital it is to her career to proceed in the belief that she continue moving onwards and upwards, she pauses. "Of course there comes a point when you have to be realistic," she says. "Everybody gets older. But you also find that you learn new things and become wiser in the way you work. Look at Haile Gebreselassie. During his last years on the track he knew he wasn't going to beat his world records, but he still won races and titles. It's about managing and running your career intelligently. I may not be as fast as I was in previous years, but my endurance is better than ever, and that is what counts in marathon running. In time, you become more mellow, and in less of a rush to get everything done.

"Going to Albuquerque was a good way to get an angle on what happened last year. I was able to deal with things and get myself healthier, physically and mentally. I had to let my body recover, and because of the damage I'd done to my stomach in Athens I was advised to go on a strong dose of antibiotics and to go on the diet. It's helped a lot - I only wish I'd done it earlier."

Unlike her last London race, when Radcliffe was able to benefit from male pacemakers, Sunday's competition will be a separate women's only affair, which means she can claim a world record bonus of $125,000 by breaking 2hr 18min 56sec, the time she set on her marathon debut in the capital three years ago when she was competing in the same circumstances.

The bonus, however, is hardly a huge concern to a woman who has been comfortably in the millionaire status for several years, and who is reported to be receiving £500,000 to race in London this year before any bonuses start being thrown around. Inevitably, Radcliffe's financial status has not escaped criticism. One paper ran a cartoon this week depicting her running over streets paved with gold, a sack of cash over her shoulder.

"There comes a point when you realise that you can't please all the people all the time," she says. "In the past I'd probably worry about the five per cent who weren't happy and try and change what I was doing rather than thinking about the other 95 per cent. I take advice now from the people who are close to me. But I have to do what's right for me."

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