Athletics: Radcliffe runs high risk in comeback race

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The mirror-tiled walls of the Tavern on the Green, deep in Central Park, provided a suitably reflective setting for Paula Radcliffe here as she looked ahead to tomorrow's New York Marathon.

After the trauma of Athens, the 30-year-old world record holder has followed her instinct in seeking the first available opportunity to restore not just her reputation as the best female distance runner in the world, but her very sense of herself. Running is what she does; winning is what she does - or did, until her body and will collapsed on the long, scorched road from Marathon. And according to two athletes who have travelled the same metaphorical route as Radcliffe, there is no other option for her when she toes the line on Staten Island. She has to return victorious.

Most drinkers sheltering from Thursday night's downpour in Rosie O'Grady's Bar, a block away from Times Square, would have been unaware of the place held in their city's history by the straggly-bearded character in the blue peaked cap who sat sipping Guinness in a corner.

But those who nodded respectfully to him or shook his hand knew this was Steve Jones, the former world marathon record holder, a winner in London and, 16 years ago, a winner in New York. Like Radcliffe, Jones knows what it is like to fall from the heights - as the leading marathon runner in the world, the former RAF technician staggered in last at the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart after taking insufficient liquid during the race. Two years later, having failed to gain Olympic selection, he returned to the top of his sport via the streets of Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan.

"Mine and Paula's careers have run very parallel," Jones said. "From being successful in the World Cross Country Championships and winning our first three marathons by kicking ass, and then coming unstuck in our fourth. I didn't come back right away after Stuttgart. I didn't run another marathon until the following spring.

"Paula is the greatest female distance runner of her generation. But she has to win here. It's all about Sunday morning, when she wakes up and looks in the mirror and decides whether she really wants to be here. If the runner says no, she should get back into bed. She has a long life ahead of her, having children etc. I think her plan was to win the Olympics and that would have been it. But now she needs to be successful here, and she can be. But to do that she has to study the course. The best way is to sit in and kick at halfway. That's how I did it in '88. It's not about how fast she can run, but whether she can win the race. She'll have to be patient, otherwise she'll come unstuck."

Patience has not been conspicuous among Radcliffe's virtues since Athens. Barely had she recovered from the leg injury and subsequent stomach upset which she believes undermined her Olympic challenge than she was training again at the high altitude of Flagstaff, Arizona. Having sought a place in the New York field just 17 days before the event, she was made to feel very welcome. She is reputedly getting $500,000 (£270,000) to run here.

If Dave Bedford, the race director of the London Marathon, was hoping Radcliffe would save her long-distance return for the capital he was making a decent effort at hiding it on Thursday night. Bedford, a colourful character, has also experienced the roller coaster effect. Widely expected to win the Olympic 10,000 metres in 1972, he finished out of the medals as Finland's Lasse Viren won the first of two titles. A year later, however, on a damp Friday night at Crystal Palace, Bedford took eight seconds off the world record.

"She wants to draw a line under Athens by coming here to race, and that could be a great strategy," he said. "But to draw a line under it, she has to win on Sunday - no more, no less. Otherwise it will be 'Radcliffe loses again'. If she doesn't - how many times can a prizefighter get knocked out and get back into the ring? When I broke the record at Crystal Palace I felt a huge relief of pressure. I had spent six months after the Olympics getting pissed. That hasn't been an option for Paula."

Radcliffe's appearance here has been determinedly upbeat and she has recovered much of her usual resilience. But the sense of vulnerability remains. And a field which includes this year's London winner Margaret Okayo, Australia's world cross country champion Benita Johnson, Holland's naturalised Kenyan Lornah Kiplagat, Kenya's own Susan Chepkemei and America's Deena Kastor, the bronze medallist in Athens, will be eager to take advantage of any perceived weakness.

Radcliffe's decision to run is a bold one. If the risk succeeds, it will be worthy of salute.