Athletics: Radcliffe lookalike leaves the main attraction adrift

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Paula Radcliffe's comeback race went largely to plan here yesterday. But she was beaten by an athlete running without a plan.

After 21 months' absence through injury and maternity, a time of 67min 53sec on the Great North Run course where she had triumphed twice before was quite acceptable for the 33-year-old world marathon record holder. Radcliffe's rapture was modified, however, by the fact that she finished almost a minute adrift of debutant Kara Goucher, whose winning time of 66min 57sec was the fastest half marathon this year and an unofficial US best.

"Winning was the aim, but it's not like it was a total disaster," said Radcliffe, who will now decide whether to seek an Olympic marathon qualifying time in New York next month or at a later date. "I need to sit down with my coach Alex Stanton and decide what to do next."

Goucher, who beat Britain's Jo Pavey to the world championship 10,000 metres bronze last month, was clearly dazed by the success of what she maintained had been "kind of an experiment". She added, with a grin, that her unexpected assumption of the lead soon after the seven-mile marker had created confusion among the crowds who lined the 13.1 miles course from Newcastle to South Shields.

"The entire way people were shouting out 'Great job, Paula' and I was like 'sorry, I'm not Paula.' It was pretty funny because I don't really think we look alike. The crowd was fantastic but honestly I think most people thought that I was Paula. I was running alongside her for the first few miles and I was just hoping that someone was getting a picture of it because it was like, 'I can't believe I'm running next to Paula Radcliffe.' I've looked up to her for so long, she's just an inspiration."

The 29-year-old from Portland, Oregon – whose husband Adam finished sixth in a men's race won in 60min 10sec by Kenya's Martin Lel – had never raced further than 10,000m beforehand, although a recent nine-mile run at 5min 9sec pace had encouraged her to compete here. Her coach Alberto Salazar, the former New York marathon winner, had told her beforehand to try and run with the leader as long as possible but not to run under 5.05 pace.

It was a direction she patently failed to fulfil, as miles seven and eight, run in 4min 57sec and 4min 49, established a clear lead over the labouring Briton, even if she was unaware of it.

"I honestly thought Paula was there the whole time," Goucher said. "I did not know what my gap was and I kind of thought she was going to come up on me with two kilometres to go. I was hurting pretty bad and I kept expecting her to be there. I was saying to myself, 'don't turn around, because then she'll know how bad you're hurting and she'll pass you.'" Radcliffe had approached this race looking for a time under 68 minutes, and ideally around the 67min 07sec she recorded on the first of her two victories here in 2000. She admitted that the American's performance had been unexpected.

"I was surprised she was running that fast," Radcliffe said. "When she kicked in I was thinking 'don't panic, just hang in there' because it was not like I was running really slow. I felt it a bit today. I feel fine – I just need a little more leg speed." Goucher, meanwhile, is likely to maintain her focus on earning an Olympic medal over 10,000m rather than the marathon in Beijing. "That was really hard," she said. "I can't imagine going twice as far."