Athletics: Vilamoura is next stop on Radcliffe's road to Athens

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The Independent Online

Perched on the southernmost reach of Portugal, with the Atlantic Ocean breaking steadily on its soft, sandy beaches, the Algarve resort of Vilamoura has changed little since Paula Radcliffe last competed here three years ago.

Its high-rise hotels are still thronged with British golfing parties who will take time out from the myriad local courses to cheer on their girl in today's World Half Marathon Championships, just as they did when this tourist town hosted the World Cross Country Championships back in the spring of 2000.

But Radcliffe herself returns as an athlete transformed. In the year of the Sydney Olympics, she spent 10 days acclimatising in Vilamoura and set out in pursuit of her first World Cross Country title believing she was in better shape than ever before, only to stagger home in fifth place. The next day, after a reviving swim in the ocean, Radcliffe contested the shorter four-kilometre version of the championships, this time missing out on a medal by just one place. Asked what she thought she could do to become a winner, she responded with a shrug: "Work harder." When Bedford Athletic Club's pride and joy went on to suffer further frustration in Sydney, where she finished a desolated fourth in the 10,000 metres final, it seemed as if her career was to be one of successive frustrations.

So much for that notion. The 29-year-old woman who will run today on a twisting, six-lap course around the Vilamoura marina has, in the space of the last couple of years, established herself as the world's outstanding athlete.

The world cross country title she coveted for so long has been won, twice. She has earned her first gold medals on the track in the Commonwealth 5,000m and European 10,000m finals. She has set world best performances in five of her past six races, twice lowering the mark for the marathon and, a fortnight ago, finishing the Great North Run in 65min 40sec, the fastest half marathon time ever recorded.

And she sets out today as clear favourite to earn her third World Half Marathon title despite the fact that her opponents include the Ethiopian who won the world 10,000m title in her absence two months ago, Berhane Adere, whom she beat by almost two minutes in the Newcastle to South Shields race.

The girl who couldn't win has become the girl who cannot lose. It is a measure of her progress that the dramatic triumphs of recent times have been greeted in some quarters, notably France, with suspicion. How can she have made such a great leap forward if not by illegal means? Radcliffe's implicit answer to the question which, sadly, is automatically raised by any extraordinary performances in this sport rests in the resolution she showed here as she was carried, exhausted, from the field. Since Vilamoura 2000, she has worked harder, even harder, to reach the goals she has never lost sight of.

"Every time you race and you get beaten you learn what you have to do," she reflected yesterday at the meeting hotel outside which workers were busy putting together the logo-rich framework that will mark today's finish. "You have to go away and work harder. I couldn't have jumped straight from the workload I was doing four or five years ago to the workload I'm doing now. It has to be a cumulative process.

"It's hard to pin it down and say, 'I wasn't trying then'. The effort you put in is probably the same. But I wasn't doing marathon training then and the body has got stronger so that for the same effort you're running faster."

Since she emerged to international prominence by winning the World Junior Cross Country title in 1992, Radcliffe's career has been grounded in two critical factors - her unyielding mental strength, and her capacity to cope with whatever level of training was required.

She admitted yesterday that the problems she experienced this summer, when she was forced to miss out on seeking her first global track title after a debilitating run of illness and injury, had briefly caused her to question whether she had reached the limits of her physical resilience.

But medical examination established that the root of her difficulty lay in damage that had been done when she was hit by a young cyclist while training five weeks before this year's London Marathon.

"I know - if I ever find that girl on the bike! - I know where it came from. So it was frustrating and it was hard and it was tough to deal with, but it wasn't like I had broken down because of something to do with training. When they found why my leg wasn't healing, it was reassuring really. I was starting to get a little bit worried before that because my body always does heal fast and this time it wasn't."

Having recovered at the home in Loughborough that she shares with her husband and manager, Gary Lough, she believes she is in shape, if necessary, to run even faster than she did in Newcastle. But it is not her primary worry today.

"A lot depends on the conditions," she said. "There are a lot of laps and a lot of turns, and it can be very windy here. But if it's not too bad, then with Adere and Susan Chepkemei and Marla Runyon and a strong Japanese team, I think it is going to be a fast race. I'm not too concerned about the time, though. I'm just thinking about what it takes to win."

Other thoughts about what she will do after this race are being consciously put on hold as she looks forward to an Olympic year when she intends to keep her option of running either the 10,000m or the marathon open until the last possible moment.

In order to have that choice, she will have to run at least one 10,000m on the track between now and Athens as she needs a qualifying time. That task could be something she attempts next spring.

Radcliffe may also run an autumn marathon, perhaps next month in New York, although that likelihood seems to be diminishing. "There are possibilities," she said. "But I've always said that it wasn't very likely I was going to do another marathon between London and the Olympics." For today, however, she is restricting the full glare of her concentration to a three-and-a-half-kilometres loop of Portuguese road. The course may be flat, but it is likely to maintain Radcliffe's startling upward trajectory.