As the leaders of the elite women's field in the ING New York City Marathon wound their way into Central Park yesterday, Paula Radcliffe suddenly dropped behind, falling four, five, ten metres adrift of Ludmila Petrova, Derartu Tulu and Christelle Daunay. Tulu kept glancing round at the struggling Briton as though she could not quite believe what was happening. Three miles from the finish line, the fastest woman in the history of marathon running could not keep up with the modest pace.
Tulu, twice the Olympic 10,000m champion and Radcliffe's nemesis in their track and cross-country days, stretched out an arm and gave a "come and join us" gesture to her old rival. It was to no avail. Three times a winner in New York, and victorious in all eight of her previous big city marathons, this time Radcliffe had bitten off rather more than she could chew in the Big Apple.
As the 37-year-old Tulu proceeded to sprint to victory ahead of the 41-year-old Petrova, clocking 2hr 28min 52sec – 13 minutes and 27seconds slower than Radcliffe's world record – the 35-year-old Briton fell farther behind before finishing fourth in 2:29:27. As she crossed the line, the grimacing Radcliffe pulled up sharply, clutching her left leg. Tulu, draped in an Ethiopian flag, was quick to console her. She knew there was something up.
Last year in New York Radcliffe had ground down her rivals with a relentless front-running effort. Yesterday, it was clear on the long climb up the 59th Bridge Street, from 14 to 16 miles, that the Bedfordshire woman was feeling far from groovy. All year she had been dogged by injury and illness, a toe operation and tonsillitis ruling her out of the London Marathon, the World Championship marathon and the World Half Marathon Championship race. A tweak that she suffered in the bottom of her left hamstring, in the tendon behind the knee, in her final speed session before heading to New York had proved more troublesome than she had hoped.
It transpired that Radcliffe had not been able to run for two weeks until the night before the race, after having a cortisone injection. "I knew it was a risk, but I was hoping my leg would hold," she reflected. "It happened two weeks ago in my last workout. I started to feel it in the last couple of kilometres. I didn't want to say too much about it because I didn't want anyone to try to run away from me if I started feeling it in the race.
"I had a jab in the tendon and I really thought it was going to be okay. I went for a run last night and I couldn't feel it. I felt great in the race and then at 11 miles it just went. For the last miles I was just trying to hang in as long as I could. I was just trying to stay with the other girls.
"I was just saying to myself, 'hang in, hang in,' and I thought I had a chance but my leg just gave in. I can't even bend it now. Derartu was lovely. She kept saying, 'Come on, Paula, come on.' The frustrating thing is I don't feel tired now. My legs just couldn't go any quicker. I'm just very disappointed."
The men's race featured a first US win since 1983, Meb Keflezighi prevailing in 2:09:15, but for Radcliffe it was a first defeat in nine big city marathons - adding to the two she has suffered when struck by illness and injury at Olympic time. The question now is whether she will attempt to ease the setback out of her system with a spring marathon as she plots a course towards the London Olympics of 2012. Next year had seemed the most likely window of opportunity for another pregnant pause in her career, with Radcliffe and her husband Gary Lough hoping for a brother or sister for their two-year-old daughter.
In 2008 and 2009 Isla Radcliffe had been waiting at the finish line in Central Park for her victorious mother. Asked what her daughter had said to her after the race yesterday, Radcliffe replied: "Mummy, you had a boo-boo."