The undulating 13-and-a-bit miles course from the centre of Newcastle to the South Shields coast, otherwise known as the Great North Run, has twice defined Paula Radcliffe's standing as a world-class runner. Tomorrow morning the 33-year-old world marathon record holder intends to redefine that status as she races for the first time in almost two years after an absence caused partly by injury, partly by maternity.
She expects to win here. And her ambitions for next year's Beijing Olympics are no different, it seems, as she revealed yesterday that she does not believe the marathon event has improved in her absence. Having watched last month's World Championship marathon in Osaka on television, she concluded: "Obviously, I was wondering what I would have done in the race. I don't think the event has moved on. I think I can still be right in there."
That belief will be tested on the same roads she traversed in 2000 and 2003, when she won the race in, respectively, a European best of 67min 7sec, and a world half-marathon best of 65min 40sec that still stands. Watching DVD replays of those triumphs yesterday, with the window behind her affording a fine view of the event's trademark feature of the Tyne Bridge, Radcliffe looked tanned and relaxed after three weeks of untrammelled mileage at her Font Romeu training base in the French Pyrenees.
Since striving and nodding to the Great North Run finish line seven years ago, Radcliffe has transformed herself into the dominant force in women's marathon running and, on the eve of her first race since the Madrid 10k on 31 December 2005, she maintained that she felt ready to return as an even more formidable force.
"I definitely don't have any concerns in terms of motivation or focus because I think, if anything, I will be raring to go because of being out so long," she said, striving to make herself heard over the intermittent cries of her daughter, Isla, as she was cradled in the arms of her father, Gary Lough. "I think I'm happier and more balanced, and I think the competitive instinct, that's never going to go away. If anything the break will be an extra motivation because I want to do well for Isla as well. I think I am deep down stronger because of the whole process."
It has long been acknowledged that childbirth can leave athletes feeling stronger and more capable. Ingrid Kristiansen won the Hamburg marathon just 10 months after giving birth to her son in 1983. Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan also produced outstanding performances within months of producing her first-born. And Liz McColgan, who preceded Radcliffe as a winner at the Great North Run and the London Marathon, won the 1991 world 10,000 metres title 10 months after giving birth to her first child, Eilish.
"I spoke to them all throughout the pregnancy about training and, to be honest, I didn't have any problems there at all," Radcliffe said. "So I was moaning to Gary, 'How come I can carry 10-11 kilos extra and I don't have a problem, and then when I get back to training that's when the problems start?'"
She now accepts, however, that the problems stemmed from the difficulties she had in giving birth to Isla on 17 January this year after a 16-hour labour that was eventually induced. That led to stress fractures in her lower back, and upon her return to running she suffered a foot injury that she believes was caused by an alteration in her stride length caused by weeks of training in a swimming pool.
Radcliffe will be seeking to test herself tomorrow against the levels of performance she has previously established here. "In terms of stamina, endurance and things like that, that's why you have to come out and race to find out," she said. "It has been really frustrating. Not during the pregnancy, because that was planned. But after getting back into good shape and starting to think about getting back to racing in May, to have the injury then was just a nightmare. And then when I got back after the stress fracture I had the foot injury which meant I couldn't run in Osaka which I wanted to do.
"So now, even when I'm really knackered and going out for my second run of the day in a really long mileage week, I'm not complaining. Even the other day we were out in massive hailstones lashing down, and Gary said, 'Sod this', and went back to the car. But I just carried on because I'd missed it and I was not going to take it for granted." No such climatic extremes are forecast for tomorrow. Although in her current mood, Radcliffe looks capable of running through an asteroid shower.Reuse content