If anyone needed a reminder of the enduringly competitive nature of Paula Radcliffe, they got it yesterday. In her first marathon for almost two years, the 33-year-old Briton reiterated the strength of her Olympic ambitions for next summer as she earned her second ING New York title with a sprint finish that proved too much for Ethiopia's former world 10,000m champion Gete Wami.
As Radcliffe crossed the line with arms outstretched in the gold, brown and red oasis that is Central Park right now, then turned to business by checking her watch and the distance she had put between herself and the woman who had been at her side with quarter of a mile remaining, she had officially reclaimed her position as the world's leading marathon runner. Nine months after producing daughter Isla – who was at the finish line with dad Gary Lough – and then running into an unexpected sequence of injuries, it was as if the Great Briton had never been away.
Having returned to racing after a 21-month gap at the Great North Run on 30 September – when she performed well behind the unexpected American winner, Kara Goucher – Radcliffe elected to run in the Big Apple in order, at least, to gain the formality of an Olympic qualifying time nine months before the 2008 Games get underway in Beijing.
As the world record holder put it yesterday, that box is now ticked. Plenty of others are, too. Radcliffe had predicted that a time below 2 hours 20 minutes would be required to win a race that included Wami – whose second place assured her of the $500,000 prize as winner of the World Marathon Majors series – twice former winner Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia and the Kenyan who succeeded Radcliffe as world champion this summer, Catherine Ndereba.
In the event she won in 2hr 23min 9sec, 23 seconds clear of Wami, who was no doubt feeling the effect of having won the Berlin Marathon five weeks earlier, and one second faster than her winning time in 2004, when, just three months after her meltdown in the Athens Olympics, she re-established her reputation with a similarly thrilling finish that saw her arrive in Central Park alongside Kenya's Susan Chepkemei before establishing a margin of three seconds at the line.
History was repeating itself in other ways over the closing stages of the race as Radcliffe and Wami, having disposed of all opposition, disputed the ultimate prize. The closest Radcliffe ever got to a track gold in a global championship came at the 1999 World Championships in the crushing heat of Seville, when Wami overtook her within sight of the finish and left the exhausted Briton with silver. A year later, at the Sydney Olympics, Wami and fellow Ethiopian Deratu Tulu, the eventual winner, shot past Radcliffe at the bell, closely followed by Portugal's Fernanda Ribeiro, leaving the Bedford runner an agonised fourth.
A year later, however, Radcliffe earned the first of her big titles at the World Cross Country championships on the glutinous Wellington Racecourse in Ostend by – sweetest of all – beating Wami over the final 100 metres. And now here she was repeating the medicine.
After getting underway on Staten Island in dry and sunny conditions, Radcliffe had gone through the first half of the race in 1hr 10min 47sec, which put her on course record pace, but she and her rival slowed slightly over the final 13 miles. Wami appeared to have made a decisive move as she passed Radcliffe just after both had been running for 2hr 20min, but the rangy Briton stretched her legs, bobbed her head and responded before making her final, unanswerable surge for the line.
"It was tough at the end, it was weird," Radcliffe reflected. "My legs got tired and when she came alongside me I thought this was not happening to me again. I've had years and years of her outsprinting me on the track and I thought she's not going to do it in a marathon.
"I was thinking back to Ostend where I had outsprinted her before. I have practised and practised for this situation, and after all the hours I had to spend training in the swimming pool after my most recent injury I was determined it wouldn't be for nothing. I was scared, and then I was sprinting like mad and saying to myself 'don't think you've won it, don't think you've won it." I was trying to get myself to relax my arms and legs because I run best like that rather than fighting all the way.
"I got a real shock when I crossed the line and looked behind because she was right alongside me at 400 metres to go."
While she may now try and win her third world cross-country title in Edinburgh next March rather than taking on another marathon in London in April, Radcliffe acknowledged that only one main goal remains for her. Beijing. "It's always been the big target," she said.
"This was about establishing myself to all the people who thought having a baby would be the end of my career, I never thought it would be. I have my qualifying time now and I can just carry on with the preparations."
Before that, however, she was looking forward to a fortnight's break and, more immediately, "a big plate of pancakes". No doubt they would have tasted sweet even without syrup.
* Elite US runner Ryan Shay collapsed and died five miles into the New York marathon course on Saturday in the men's Olympic trials. The 28-year-old from Flagstaff, Arizona, was national collegiate 10,000m champion in 2001.Reuse content