Paula Radcliffe's 2007: 'After the first mile or so, things started to go well...'

In the first of our annual series of interviews with major figures who have shaped the sporting year, Mike Rowbottom talks to the athlete who began 2007 by embracing motherhood but ended it by winning the New York Marathon so convincingly that she has realistic ambitions for Olympic gold next year and even in 2012
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Paula Radcliffe was 10 when she first became aware of her Olympic connection. Until then, the woman she vaguely remembered meeting as a young child had simply been her great aunt Charlotte. But as the Los Angeles Games got under way in 1984 she learned the details about Charlotte Radcliffe's sporting achievement winning a silver medal at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics in the 4x100 metres freestyle swimming event.

"I was told about what she had done when I first started watching the LA Olympics on television," Radcliffe recalls. "We had pictures of her in our album. They were mostly family shots, although there were some taken of her at the time of the Games, diving into the water with her team-mates."

As you might expect, Radcliffe was a competent swimmer. But her areas of endeavour, even then, were the track and the road rather than the pool.

"I can swim I'm not bad, but not great," she says. "I got my bronze, silver and gold badges. But there was no contest in terms of what sport I wanted to do."

At the age of 34 it was her birthday on Monday Radcliffe has a wealth of titles and records. She has, indeed, a wealth of wealth. She has homes in Monaco, the French Pyrenees and Albuquerque. She has a supportive family, a loving husband, Gary Lough, who is also her manager, an adored daughter, Isla, who is coming up to a year old. She has a coach in Alex Stanton with whom she has kept faith since her childhood. She has almost everything, it seems, except an Olympic medal.

That ambition still flares in her like the Olympic flame itself. And given her nature, she is unlikely to be satisfied even with a medal of the same hue as her great aunt's.

Radcliffe has been close to the Games podium, tantalisingly and tormentingly so, in the last 11 years. At the 1996 Atlanta Games she finished two places away from a medal in the 5,000m. Four years later, excruciatingly, she saw three runners move past her on the final lap of the 10,000m at the Sydney Games, wailing afterwards: "No one remembers who was fourth."

Four years after that came the trauma of Athens, where she staggered to a halt four miles from the end of the marathon and finished as a broken and weeping figure on the pavement. The decision to compete in the subsequent 10,000m final was revealed as a triumph of optimism over reason as she had to drop out of contention once again.

It was in New York, just 10 weeks after her calamity on the road to the Panathinaiko Stadium, where Radcliffe boldly redeemed her reputation with a narrow marathon victory. Last month the Big Apple offered her the chance to restate her case as the world's prime marathon runner as she produced another triumph in her first run over the 26.2 miles distance since taking the world title in 2005.

That gap might have been shorter had she not encountered unexpected injury problems which stemmed from the difficulties she had in giving birth to Isla on 17 January after a 16-hour labour that was eventually induced. A stress fracture in her lower back, and a subsequent foot injury, meant she toed the line in New York with many observers questioning whether she could still be a major force in the event.

Those doubts were dispelled by a performance which saw her outsprint her old track nemesis, Gete Wami of Ethiopia, and provide press photographers with the double whammy of a British winner draped in the Union flag and kissing a photogenic daughter.

"I was determined this was my territory," she announced afterwards. It was partly a geographical reference she had won Fifth Avenue Miles there before she became a marathon runner. But it was also about the distance itself.

"It was a bit of both," she says. "I've had a lot of success over the years racing in New York, but the main point is that I feel the marathon is a different event, a lot more my event. I felt like I had plenty of options open to me while I was running and I was telling myself that this wasn't like a track race, and Getewasn't going to be able to sprint past me like she has in the past.

"I have always loved running on the roads, ever since I used to take part in relays for my club when I was 12 and 13. I felt really at home on the surface."

That conviction grew when she secured her first world half marathon title in Bristol in 2001, five months before running her first marathon in London, which she won in 2hr 18min 56sec, the second fastest time in history and a record for women's only races.

"When I won in Bristol it felt very easy," she recalls. "And I thought to myself, 'I really do like this. I can't wait to run the marathon now.' It was always something I wanted to move towards sooner or later. I knew from training that I was in good shape and I felt I could perform well. But there was always a bit of a question in my mind because I had seen people who had achieved success elsewhere move up to the marathon and never really quite match up to their aspirations."

Those aspirations were revived in New York, putting Radcliffe back in the public eye, and this time not just as a winner, but as a mum and a winner. Now this iconic figure is looking forward intently to the Beijing Olympics and indeed, to the London Olympics four years beyond it.

A couple of months ago, on the eve of Radcliffe's comeback race at the Bupa Great North Run, one of her most ardent admirers, Brendan Foster, opined that she would probably never better her world marathon record of 2:15.25, set in winning the 2003 Flora London Marathon. He added, however, that she would be unlikely to need to, and that he could envisage her running the London Olympic marathon as defending champion.

The suggestion that 2008 will be her last realistic chance to earn an Olympic title surely she cannot hope to win in London if she doesn't make it in Beijing? brings a hint of iron to her voice.

"I can win in London even if I do," she insists. "It can be a realistic target for me. Plenty of people who are 38 have run really well in the marathon. And there are advantages to it being in London where I have run so often. Don't underestimate the extra buzz."

Radcliffe is still considering whether to make a return to the roads of London on 13 April as part of her Olympic build-up. The World Cross Country Championships being held the previous month in Edinburgh, on the same basic course where she won the European title in 2003, may also be a factor for her, and she does not rule out doing both events.

As she runs on a daily basis in the hills that rise behind her Monaco apartment, Radcliffe is preparing her mind and body for the Olympian struggle that lies ahead, and her New York win has bolstered confidence that was already evident upon her return to racing in October when she declared that the marathon had not moved on in her absence, adding: "I think I can still be right in there."

Even last month's performance by Japan's Olympic champion Mizuki Noguchi in winning the Tokyo race in 2:21.37 after a two-year period of injury has failed to alter Radcliffe's gathering conviction that she can still achieve Olympic glory. She accepts that Noguchi will be one of her main rivals. But she is clearly bringing her formidable focus to bear on her own preparations, borne up by her recent restatement in New York.

"In terms of my coming back this year, winning New York again was significant," she reflects. "If I hadn't thought I was ready I might have left it to the spring to run a marathon. It wasn't as if I was scrabbling for a race. But I felt it was a race I wanted to do and which I felt I could do really well in.

"I didn't feel any trepidation about it. I wouldn't have been there on the start line unless things had gone well in training. After the first mile or so things started to go well, and I felt comfortable on the course probably more comfortable than I had felt in 2004.

"There were similarities in the two races for me and not just in the way the races were run, with close finishes, and in the fact that they were won in very similar times. People thought I was taking a risk in 2004 running so soon after Athens. But to me it was just a matter of trying to get back to racing.

"Athens was a disaster for me. A nightmare. I never envisaged things would turn out for me like they did. But the important thing is that I know there were reasons for it. And there is no reason why it would ever happen again."

Those reasons, not evident in the immediate aftermath of her Greek meltdown, have been dwelt upon at length by a woman who believes in getting every element of her life right and who employs all legitimate means be they altitude training, ice baths, nose clips or knee socks to maximise her performance. Earlier this month Radcliffe publicised a titanium-treated necklace manufactured by Phiten which she believes helps her body to function efficiently by stimulating blood flow and helping to regulate her biorhythms. While such claims remain speculative, there is no doubting that it is making some kind of positive contribution to her cause otherwise it would most certainly have been jettisoned by now.

The devil is always in the detail as far as Radcliffe is concerned, which is why, painful as it is to recall her awful experiences of 2004, she feels impelled to do so. "I was surprised at what happened to me in Athens," she says. "Even though I knew I had problems going into the race I never thought I would get to the point where I wasn't able to go any further. My mind was in shock. There was almost a sense of disbelief, a sense that itwasn't happening to me."

That disbelief was evident in the way her ambitions ground to a halt by the 36-kilometre marker as she made two faltering attempts to re-start before slumping to the roadside.

"I was thinking, 'Maybe if I start again it will be OK'," she reflects. "But I couldn't run in a straight line. It was just... it felt like Iwasn't going to be able to... I couldn't even keep away from the kerb. I kept veering towards it..."

She knows now that her challenge was crucially undermined by her body's reaction to the anti-inflammatory drugs she took in the Olympic village in an effort to counteract a belatedly diagnosed calf injury.

Unconvinced about the suitability of Britain's Athens preparation camp in Cyprus, Radcliffe had acclimatised to the heat by training in Spain with her physical therapist, Ger Hartmann, in attendance. But when her injury problem occurred, there were delays getting an MRI scan.

"Even when we were in the Olympic village there was another delay before the local people could see how to handle it," she recalls. "It was not so much the initial injury. It was more how my body reacted to treatment."

As she looks ahead to Beijing, the question of where she will prepare has yet to be settled. As she was unable to run at this year's World Championships in Osaka, she did not join competing British athletes who were able to give the British Olympic Association's preparation venue in Macau a dry run.

But as with the Cyprus venue, there are concerns that Macau will not offer endurance runners what they need. "The problem for the endurance runners at the camp before Osaka was that they could only run on the golf course before 7.30am, when it wasn't even particularly hot, which was no help with acclimatisation," Radcliffe says. "And I've heard from some people that some of the trails are very rocky."

On the other hand, she is acutely aware of the possible advantages of being close to what she believes will be a wide selection of scanners MRI, CT, ultrasound centralised by the British Olympic Association.

Even if she does end up joining other British athletes at Macau, she is not likely to inspect the Beijing course until she races on it. "I would have done if I'd been able to go to Osaka, but I'm not planning a visit now," she says. "I've run lots of marathons without seeing the courses beforehand. I know all about the topography of the course anyway, and as far as the worry about smog is concerned, my worst triggers for asthma are very cold, polluted conditions and it's not going to be very cold.

"What happened to me in Athens wasn't anything to do with the conditions," she adds, her voice hardening again with resolve. "I have run well in the heat and usually handle it fine. If you are in good shape you can handle it."

British supporters can start praying now that this exceptional athlete arrives in Beijing with her shape unaltered either by late injury or illness. She deserves to have a proper go at the marathon this time round.

Tomorrow England all-rounder Paul Collingwood talks about his 2007 with Cricket Correspondent Angus Fraser