Clitheroe looks beyond London Olympic dream


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The Independent Online

It was a picture of domestic bliss, 8,000ft above sea level on the slopes overlooking the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. Outside a modest brick-built chalet at Lornah Kiplagat's High Altitude Training Centre in Iten, two pairs of red-dusted running shoes were propped against the doorstep and a selection of vests, shorts and socks were hanging from the washing line.

For four weeks before Christmas and four weeks after, this was home for Helen Clitheroe and her "roomie."

"Yeah, we had a cosy little room, sharing a wardrobe and not much space," Clitheroe said. "I've known Paula for a long time and it was great to get to know her even better. She's somebody I look up to in athletics."

Six weeks after the completion of the Great Britain training camp, Paula – Paula Radcliffe – is in Albuquerque in the United States preparing for next month's Vienna Half Marathon, her selection for the Olympic marathon assured. Clitheroe is here in Turkey, seeking to reap the reward of all those hard yards at high altitude when she runs in the 3,000 metres at the World Indoor Championships tomorrow and on Saturday and Sunday.

A year ago, after two stints in Iten, the Preston Harrier emerged as the unlikely British hero of the European Indoor Championships in Paris, winning the 3,000m at the age of 37. In the process, she opened up the prospect of a career as an outdoor 5,000m runner and making the Olympic grade – like Radcliffe – as a 38-year-old.

Clitheroe now has an Olympic 5,000m qualifying time in the bag, having made the World Championship final last summer. An Olympian as a 1500m runner in 2000 and as a 3,000m steeplechaser in 2008, the former lifeguard is closing on her dream of a home Olympic appearance. She is doing so as one of the unfunded heroes of the British track and field team.

Clitheroe's European indoor 3,000m victory earned her the inaugural Inspiration Award at the British Athletics Writers' Association's awards last autumn, but when it came to the UK Athletics hierarchy deciding the recipients of Lottery money for 2012, "it was disappointing not to be back on funding," she said. "But I'm just carrying on doing what I've been doing."

Supported by her husband, Neil, a PE teacher, and guided by her coach, John Nuttall, Clitheroe is quick to acknowledge the benefit she has gained from being included in the altitude training camps jointly funded by UK Athletics and the London Marathon.

"It's had a massive bearing on my changing fortunes over the last 12 months," she said. "It's the cumulative effect. It really has worked for me."

Given the strength of the East African opposition – not least from Ethiopian Meserat Defar, who will be chasing a record-equalling fifth world indoor crown – it would be expecting a lot for Clitheroe to make the podium in Istanbul. Still, she is one of the leading non-African entrants and she is not only looking to those home Olympics, but to another lease of running life beyond.

"I'm not thinking of London as the finish line," she said. "I'm thinking of trying a marathon."

Which would set the inspirational Lancastrian off down a path well trodden by her celebrated "roomie".