Athletics: Radcliffe's aim to be queen of the north faces tough test

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The Independent Online

Paula Radcliffe sets off from Newcastle to South Shields tomorrow morning in pursuit of her third victory in as many weekends following her enforced five-month absence through illness and injury.

Having won the Nike 10km in a time just 30 seconds off her world best, and then lowered the 5km world best to 14min 51sec in last Sunday's Flora Light London race, the 29-year-old Bedford athlete is seeking to regain the BUPA Great North Run title over 13.5 miles she earned three years ago.

But the presence of a top class field, including the Olympic 10,000m champion Derartu Tulu and her fellow Ethiopian Berhane Adere, the world 10,000m and half-marathon champion, as well as Kenya's Susan Chepkemei, holder of the world best half-marathon time, will ensure that this is Radcliffe's toughest test since her recent return to action.

Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan, beaten by Radcliffe on both of the last weekends, will also be eager to end that run as she defends her title.

But it could be Chepkemei, three-times world half-marathon silver medallist, who provides the strongest opposition for Radcliffe on a day when a capacity entry of 47,000 will be taking to the streets.

O'Sullivan, Tulu and Adere - who ran out of energy in seeking to add the world 5,000 metres title to her earlier gold in Paris last month - have all had tiring track seasons. Chepkemei declined a place in Kenya's marathon team at the World Championships in order to test herself in tough road races following a stress fracture to her right foot. And victories in Atlanta and Bogota indicated that she has made a full recovery.

"I think Tulu, Adere and O'Sullivan will make it very hard for Paula," Chepkemei said yesterday. "And I will be doing all I can to win."

Tulu, who has been suffering this week with a cold, presented a less confident front. "I will try my best to beat her," she said. "But I'm expecting Paula to just put her head down and lead from the start. The way she has been running since she came back, Paula looks unbeatable."

Tulu believes the race will give Radcliffe, who is considering running the marathon at next year's Athens Olympics, an ideal indicator this weekend of her chances of regaining the world half-marathon title in Vilamoura, Portugal in a fortnight's time.

"The entry list at the top end of the race here is even better than I think will be turning out there," Tulu said.

Radcliffe is odds-on favourite to repeat her 2000 success in the Great North Run when she set a then European and UK allcomers' record of 67min 07sec, but she is proceeding with caution. "It is not going to be easy at all," Radcliffe said. "This is a very good quality race and I am looking forward to it. The top women in the race all have my respect.

"The GNR always puts together a very strong field and Peter Elliott has done a great job in putting it together. Adere, Chepkemei, Tulu and O'Sullivan are all very strong competitors and this should make for a great race on Sunday."

Britain's hopes in the men's race rest with Sam Haughian and Mark Steinle, although they will do well to make the top 10 on a day when Kenya's Paul Kosgei defends the title he won last year in becoming the first man to break 60 minutes in the UK.

"Since last year I have had problems with my ankle and had to stop training for over two weeks," Kosgei said. "I've been back racing for a month and I would not have come here if I thought that I would not win."

The world marathon silver medallist Julio Rey, of Spain, the European cross country champion Sergiy Lebid, from Ukraine, and the New York marathon title holder Rodgers Rop are three opponents planning to upset his plans.