Athletics: Rivals have no answer to Radcliffe's interrogation

The 31-year-old Bedford runner adopted the same attitude to the marathon field as a skilled interrogator. There was no need to go mad. She simply questioned them, again and again, until they broke down and gave her what she wanted.

And after the last vestige of opposition had drifted back on the damp roads looping the Olympic Stadium - first Constantina Tomescu-Dita, the Romanian who was the only woman in the field who felt able to step up to the Briton's shoulder, and then Catherine Ndereba, the Kenyan whose world record Radcliffe broke in 2002 - there was still enough time for the impending champion to enjoy the feeling of running towards her heart's desire. For Radcliffe, Helsinki 2005 has been everything she so desperately wanted Athens 2004 to have been. She has travelled a long way from her position in the gutter four miles from the end of the Olympic marathon.

Even while sitting in that gutter, she was still looking at the stars. And after drawing a swift line under the Athens experience with a brave win in the New York Marathon, followed by a third success in the Flora London Marathon in April, she arrived here insisting that all was well. And indeed, it has proved to be the antithesis of Athens.

Having made what many saw as a hare-brained decision to use last weekend's 10,000m final - where she was beaten into ninth place - as a warm-up, Radcliffe was proved correct.

As she stood on the podium watching the Union Jack rise and ripple on the rim of the stadium, her lips moving to the national anthem, it was as if she was reviewing her whole career. Tears trembled to be released, and were.

"This is very special," she said. "It's up there with my world record run. It's important for world record holders to show they can win major titles as well."

Asked if the race had gone perfectly according to plan, she responded with a smile: "Pretty much. If someone had been with me near the end I could have gone faster. Someone at the last drinks station shouted that I had a 50 metres lead, so I was able to enjoy the closing stages. But you can never count on victory until you cross the line. You mustn't do that."

The only thing that seemed briefly capable of deflecting her from the gold medal was a dog that leapt out at her on the course, but thankfully it was connected to an owner by a lead.

The statistics of Radcliffe's performance were impressive. Her time of 2min 20.57sec was more than five minutes outside the world record she improved in 2003, but no-one has run faster in a World Championship or Olympic marathon.

And the list of her split times for each five kilometres as she broke the opposition in the first half of the race illustrates the steadily escalating nature of the challenge she set out: 16min 47sec, 16.38, 16.31, 16.22.

By the halfway point, passed in 69min 49sec, only Tomescu-Dita and the two Kenyans, Ndereba and Helen Kimutai, were in contention. The Romanian eventually paid for her enterprise, but recovered to take bronze in 2:23.19, while Ndereba, inhibited by cramp in her left calf, took silver in 2.22.01.

Radcliffe's success here mirrored her achievement in the World Cross Country Championships, where she suffered years of frustration, twice finishing runner-up to Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu, before breaking through to win in 2001.

It would be nice to think that yesterday's victory would help erase some of the more painful memories she has collected at these World Championships, where she lost the 10,000m gold in 1999 to Gete Wami's sprint, and two years later saw three Ethiopians including Wami stream past in the closing stages to deny her even a medal.

"She was in control of everything she was doing," said Radcliffe's husband and manager, Gary Lough. "There was no need for any heroics."

Dave Bedford, the former world 10,000m record holder, concurred with Radcliffe's judgment that this was one of her greatest performances. "This was not a fast course; it had so many twists and turns - yet she was only a minute and a half outside her world record.

"It was an awesome achievement. She will obviously be delighted, but the sport of marathon running is also delighted that we continue to have the greatest female distance runner of all time."

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