First the good news. Paula Radcliffe was not trampled by a herd of Lipizzaner horses on the streets of the Austrian capital yesterday. She did not disappear down a manhole into the Viennese sewers where Harry Lime was gunned down in The Third Man.
Still, it was not the best of days for the Englishwoman who has been fêted here as "the queen of distance running". When it came to the finish line in the Vienna City Half Marathon – in Heldenplatz, Heroes' Square, directly in front of the Berghaus, where Adolf Hitler stood on the balcony in March 1938 and proclaimed that his homeland had become part of the Third Reich – Radcliffe was in a far from regal state.
She dropped to her haunches in some distress, receiving a consoling embrace from Haile Gebrselassie. Then she shed a few fleeting tears when race director Wolfgang Konrad wrapped her in his arms. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," the 38-year-old pride of Bedford and County Athletics Club said.
The fastest female marathon runner of all time, Radcliffe arrived in Vienna on Thursday in far from first-class condition, still on a course of antibiotics following a bout of bronchitis. Nonetheless, she expected to put up a considerably better showing in her "catch-me-if-you-can" race against Gebrselassie, the former men's marathon world record holder and double Olympic gold medallist.
Setting off with a head start of 7min 52sec, Radcliffe was no match for the Ethiopian known as "the Little Emperor". That was no great surprise, given the illness that has afflicted her over the past fortnight. It came as a shock to the Briton, though, that she was caught and passed with four miles of the 13.1-mile course still remaining – and that she reached the finish line in 72min 03sec.
Her time was good enough to win in the women's race, and indeed to break the women's course record, but it was Radcliffe's first ever failure to break 70 minutes in a half-marathon. Three months out from what will surely be her final shot at Olympic glory, that was not greatly encouraging. Radcliffe knows she will need to be in sub-2hr 20min shape to have any hope of finishing in the medal frame when it comes to the women's marathon at London 2012. She will have to be capable of running back-to-back half-marathons of less than 70 minutes.
"It is really concerning," Radcliffe confessed. "I knew I wasn't coming into the race in personal best shape, but I didn't expect it to feel that bad. I was three minutes down on the time I was hoping for. There are reasons for it, but even so I couldn't have expected it to make that much difference.
"The first six or seven kilometres were OK but then my legs started to feel really heavy. I didn't have breathing problems until the end. My legs just felt empty. Haile caught me a lot sooner than I would have hoped."
Gebrselassie himself was not happy with his finishing time, 60:52. "I wanted to run faster," he said. The 38-year-old runs in England next month, in the Bupa Great Manchester 10km, but is out of contention for a place in the Ethiopian team for the Olympic men's marathon. "I knew Paula must be ill when I saw she was going so slowly," he added. "It was not what I expected."
Radcliffe was never going to be anything like her best yesterday (her fastest half-marathon time, set back in 2003, is 65:40) but she was disinclined to withdraw from the race because the organisers and the City of Vienna had gone to such great lengths to make a fuss of her: on Friday night she was at the Town Hall, receiving the Goldener Rathausmann award, an honour previously bestowed upon such stellar luminaries as Pelé, Gregory Peck and Billy Joel; on Saturday she had an audience with Austrian president Heinz Fischer.
"I need to recover properly and get back to being fully healthy again before I start my marathon training," she said, looking ahead to her looming date with Olympic destiny. She must have felt like paraphrasing Midge Ure. Sadly, for Radcliffe yesterday, it was definitely a case of "Aaargh, Vienna!"
Radcliffe's finishing time in Austria – it was her first ever failure to break 70 minutes in a half-marathon