Anticipation is mounting in New York as the Big Apple gets ready to stage its annual running jamboree through the streets of its five boroughs, from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on Staten Island to the Tavern on the Green in Central Park. It is the prospect of the elite women that is setting pulses racing ahead of the New York City Marathon a fortnight today. It promises to be the mother of all battles.
At 33, Britain's Paula Radcliffe will be contesting her first marathon, and only her second race, since giving birth to her first child, her daughter Isla, in January this year. As the holderof the world marathon record (by some distance, with the 2hr 15min 25sec she recorded in London in 2003), there will be considerable interest in how she will fare at her specialist distance on the comeback trail from childbirth and with the Beijing Olympics just nine months' distant on the horizon.
The undulating New York course is not the quickest. It took Radcliffe 2hr 23min 10sec to negotiate it in 2004 while exorcising the ghost of her failure to finish the Olympic marathon in Athens three months prev-iously. She prevailed in a dramatic sprint finish with Susan Chepkemei of Kenya. This year the opposition will be tough too, notably in the shape of Catherine Ndereba, the woman who succeeded Radcliffe as the world marathon champion with her victory in Osaka in August and who stands closest to her on the all-time ranking list, with a time of 2:18:47 from the Chicago Marathon back in 2001.
Like Radcliffe, Ndereba (pictured, right, winning the Boston Marathon) also happens to be a mother, though a rather more experienced one. Her daughter, Jane, was born in 1997. For 10 years now, the 35-year-old Kenyan woman has been a significant trailblazer for the sporting motherhood.
When her daughter was a year old, Ndereba left her in Nairobi with her husband, Anthony Maina, and spent three months away on the US road-racing circuit. In doing so, she departed from the accepted tradition of female subservience in East African society and attracted a great deal of criticism.
With her drive, her talent, and her ambition, though, she succeeded both in breaking through the social barriers and in becoming a world-beating professional runner.
Ndereba's winning time in Chicago in 2001 was a world record. It came seven days after Naoko Takahashi of Japan had become the first woman to break two hours 20 minutes.
While Radcliffe has since taken women's marathon running to a whole new dimension – to the brink of sub-2:15 territory – Ndereba has established herself as the most accomplished female marathon runner in the field of championship competition. She has finished in the top two in the past four global championships: winning the World Championship in Paris in 2003, taking an Olympic silver behind Mizuki Noguchi of Japan in 2004, finishing runner-up to Radcliffe in the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki and emerging victorious from a thriller of a World Championship race in the stifling heat and humidity of Osaka in August this year.
"If I had been able to run naked today, I would have," Ndereba said in Osaka, reflecting on the oppressive conditions. "Unfortunately I could not because my daughter was watching and she would not like it if mum was running without her clothes on." Now aged 10, Ndereba's daughter is old enough to accompany her mother on her global travels.
It was all very different, of course, in the days of Francina Blankers-Koen. The world frowned when "Fanny" Blankers-Koen left her two children at home in Amsterdam to compete in the London Olympics in 1948. "I got very many bad letters, people writing that I must stay home with my children," the "Flying Dutch Housewife" recalled, reflecting on her life and times before her death in 2004. Jack Crump, the British team manager, said Blankers-Koen was "too old to make the grade". At the time no one imagined that a 30-year-old mother of two could possibly be a world-beating athlete.
Blankers-Koen became the star of those post-war London Olympics, winning gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4 x 100m relay. Her quadruple success remains a feat unmatched by any other female in Olympic track-and-field history. Marion Jones won just the three gold medals in Sydney in 2000 – and she, as the world now knows, was powered by something more than natural talent.
Unknown to herself and the world at the 1948 Games, Blankers-Koen was actually three months pregnant at the time. It was she who conceived the concept of the successful sporting mother that has become so commonplace that it is barely remarked upon these days.
Indeed, outside Jana Rawlinson's native Australia there was barely a passing note of recognition when she won the 400m hurdles title in Osaka in August, making it from the maternity ward to the top of the World Championship podium in record time.
Only eight months beforehand, the wife of the former British hurdler Chris Rawlinson had given birth to a son, Cornelis. She had also spent two and a half of those months incapacitated by injury.
"There is some truth to the saying that mummies come back strong," Mrs Rawlinson said, reflecting on her remarkable achievement. "I've spoken to Paula Radcliffe about this. As a mummy, you can do anything. There were three of us in the final in Osaka."
According to Rawlinson, who spent the summer season based in England at Loughborough, where Radcliffe also has a home, "there is no pain like childbirth". Radcliffe would be inclined to agree, having spent a gruelling 27 hours in labour at the Princess Grace Hospital in Monaco, enduring the pain of her baby's head being stuck at her coccyx for half an hour. She left hospital on crutches, and when she started running again she developed a stress fracture at the base of her spine.
Still, Radcliffe has returned to competitive action with a renewed zeal, and no doubt with a raised pain threshold. It has long been established that childbirth can boost aerobic capacity and red blood cell count, proving of particular benefit to distance-running mothers. The Norwegian Ingrid Kristiansen broke world records at 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon in the three years following the birth of her son, Gaute. Others have prospered too: Ndereba, Liz McColgan, Sonia O'Sullivan,Lisa Ondieki.
Whether Radcliffe will add her name to the list remains to be seen. She was beaten on her return to action in the Great North Run three weeks ago, finishing 56 seconds behind Kara Goucher of the United States in the annual half-marathon on Tyneside. Not that it was a discouraging performance byany means. It was, after all, Radcliffe's first race for 21 months – and, given the problems she endured during and after her marathon labour, a lack of sharpness was only to have been expected.
In the circumstances, her time, 67min 54sec, was highly respectable. In New York, though, especially with Ndereba in the field, Radcliffe knows she will have to rid herself of any residual rust. "My goal is to be competitive and to win the race," she said. "I'm not expecting to come back in at 2hr 15min shape. That, obviously, I want to save for Beijing.
"I think that to have realistic intentions of winning in New York you need to be in sub-2hr 20min shape, and I want to be right in there being competitive with everyone else. I definitely find that I am more fired up to compete now – more likely to stick with it in training. I'm a long way from being done yet and wanting to retire."
Apart from anything, the pride of Bedford and County Athletics Club has unfinished business with the Olympic Games. Back in 1996 she finished fifth in the 5,000m, six seconds outside a medal. In 2000 she was fourth in the 10,000m, four seconds shy of the rostrum.
Then came the agony of Athens in 2004. Suffering from a debilitating stomach problem and ultimately from hypoglycemia, Radcliffe failed to make it to the finish line in the marathon. She dropped out of the final of the 10,000m five days later, too.
"I feel that I haven't got the best out of myself at an Olympics yet," she said, "and that's something that really keeps me motivated. It's hard because it is something that's important to me, something that feels missing. But it's not something that totally weighs down on me.
"Even if I did accomplish everything I ever dreamed of in Beijing, I'd want to try to carry on at least to 2012. I still feel that I have another Olympics in me after Beijing."
If Radcliffe does make it to the start line in 2012, and indeed in 2008, that would take her tally of Olympic appearances up to five – matching Tessa Sanderson's total. It would also, of course, put her in a London Olympics, possibly, like Blankers-Koen before her, as a thirtysomething mother of two. "I don't want Isla to have a sibling seven or eight years younger than her," Radcliffe said, hinting at another pregnant pause somewhere during the next four-year Olympic cycle.
The "Flying Dutch Housewife" was a mother of two – Jan, aged seven, and Fanny, three – when she won four track medals at the London Olympics in 1948. She was also three months' pregnant.
JANA RAWLINSON (above)
The 24-year-old Australian struck gold at the World Championships in Osaka in August, winning the 400m hurdles just eight months after giving birth to a son, Cornelis.
In 1984, the Norwegian runner won the London Marathon just seven months after the birth of her son Gaute. In 1985, she broke world records for the marathon in London and for the 10,000m in Oslo.
The Scot won the World Championship 10,000m title in Tokyo in August 1991, nine months after giving birth to her first child, Eilish. Three months later she won the New York Marathon.
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