Paula Radcliffe arrived in the Big Apple this week with a Halloween witch's costume in her suitcase and with something of a scare on the injury front ahead of the defence of her unbeaten big city marathon record here tomorrow. "I tweaked my hamstring in my last workout," the Briton confided at a breakfast meeting with the media in the basement of a Manhattan hotel yesterday. "I came out here a bit ditzy but I've had treatment and I'm feeling better. I'm back running and I believe I'm going to be fine in the race."
Thank goodness for that, then. Having missed the London Marathon, World Championship marathon and world half marathon championship race this year because of toe surgery and tonsillitis, Radcliffe has been due a break. For once, the Englishwoman has no demons to exorcise in New York. The witch's costume is not for her personal use in the ING New York City Marathon tomorrow. Her daughter Isla, aged two years and 10 months, will be wearing it at a Halloween trick or treat party for the children of the elite athletes this afternoon.
Radcliffe's winning New York runs of 2004 and 2008 came on the back of Olympic disappointments that were prompted by ill-timed illness and injury; she also won here in 2007, 10 months after giving birth to her daughter. Halloween celebrations today just happen to coincide with the 1,000 day countdown to the 2012 Olympics but the ghosts of Games past are no spectre to the world's fastest ever female marathon runner as she works towards a shot at Olympic redemption on home ground. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"I just have a relaxed feeling about 2012," Radcliffe reflected. "I know it sounds stupid, because it should probably be the other way round – because of the amount of pressure and with it being realistically my last shot at an Olympics. But I think maybe what I've been through at the Olympics makes me have that more relaxed approach to it – that it's gone so bad sometimes that it's got to work out well some other time.
"I think the more relaxed I stay about it the better. If you get too worried and too stressful around it that can become counter-productive. I've kind of learnt that however much and however badly you want something, it doesn't necessarily have to be yours. But if you stay relaxed and just see how things go, then sometimes you've got a better chance of getting it.
"Maybe it's getting older, getting wiser. Isla's part of that. By having her here, by having her able to come round and dress up in her witch's costume for Halloween, that does help keep you relaxed about things."
Olympic gold is the one prize to have eluded Radcliffe in a trailblazing distance running career in which she has put the women's world marathon record out of sight, at 2hr 15min 25sec. The Bedfordshire woman has run eight big city marathons and won them all. Her only two defeats at the 26.2 mile distance have come in Olympic races. And yet, 1,000 days out, she is looking at 2012 as not some looming great burden of pressure but as an opportunity to savour.
"I think back to the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002 and I think the boost of running at home is going to be way higher than the pressure," she said. "I do think it's going to be a way bigger positive. Other Olympics have shown that with home athletes."
By the time 2012 comes round, Radcliffe and her husband Gary Lough hope they will have a brother or sister for Isla. "That's something you can't plan," she said, when asked into which particular window in her diary another pregnant pause might fall. The 35-year-old also suggested yesterday that her marathon running days might even extend beyond 2012. "By no means am I saying, 'Right, the minute I cross the line in 2012 that's it, my career's hung up and finished'," she said. "I'd love it to carry on."
Helping to keep Radcliffe going tomorrow through the five New York City boroughs will be the inspiration of two women who have had a far greater fight on their hands than that of racing 26.2 miles. Grete Waitz won the big race in the Big Apple a record nine times. The Norwegian has been fighting cancer for four years but will be following Radcliffe's progress from the lead truck tomorrow. Radcliffe's mother, Pat, will also be in town. She was diagnosed with breast cancer 12 months ago, missing the trip to New York and telling her daughter on her return to England.
"It's a relief to have her coming here and looking so well," Radcliffe said. "She's feeling very good. That's the main thing."
Long and winding road: Radcliffe's battle for fitness
*17 JANUARY 2007
Gives birth to daughter Isla, her first child, at Princess Grace Hospital in Monaco.
Misses World Championships in Osaka, with a stress fracture in her lower back.
Makes comeback in the Great North Run half marathon, finishing second.
Wins the New York Marathon in her first such event since the 2005 World Championships.
*6 MARCH 2008
Withdraws from London Marathon with a toe injury.
Recovers from fractured left femur to race in Beijing Olympics (left), but fails to keep pace with the leaders and finishes in 23rd.
Undergoes operation to remove a bunion, after again pulling out of the London Marathon.
Wins New York half marathon, but is not fit enough to run in World Championships in Berlin.