It was in 1988 that Jo Pavey first made a mark on the national athletics scene. She was 14-year-old Jo Davis at the time.
Running for Devon at the English schools championships in Yeovil, she smashed the UK Under-15 record for the 1500 metres, clocking 4min 27.9sec. Eight places and 13sec behind her was a plucky girl from Bedfordshire by the name of Paula Radcliffe.
Twenty-three years on, the former teenage prodigy – now 37 and a mother – is getting ready to follow in the footsteps of Radcliffe. At 9am tomorrow Pavey sets off from Blackheath into virgin territory. It will be her first attempt at a marathon, the event in which Radcliffe, despite two Olympic disappointments, has become the leading lady of all time – with an untouchable world record of 2hr 15min 25sec, set on the streets of London in 2003.
Radcliffe is preparing for an autumn comeback in the marathon, following the birth of her second child, and has her sights on another shot at Olympic glory, this time on home ground. Pavey, already a three-time Olympian on the track, is also aiming for a spot on the British marathon team when the Games come to London next summer.
"That would be a dream," she said yesterday. "But there's a lot of good talent in the women's marathon in Britain. It's not a matter of just scraping the qualifying time because there are a lot of people who are going to be challenging for it.
"Like anyone else doing their first one, I am going into the unknown and I want to strike a balance between being cautious and being competitive. I'd like to think I could run two hours twenty-something. It's the best field that's ever been assembled for this race, with 13 women who have run quicker than 2hr 24min, so it's going to be a really hard race but it's also a great opportunity to run a good time."
The provisional British selection standard for the 2012 Olympic women's marathon is 2hr 31min, six minutes quicker than the qualifying time announced yesterday by the International Association of Athletics Federations. With a track pedigree that includes a Commonwealth 5,000m silver medal in 2006 and a fourth-placed finish in the 10,000m at the 2007 World Championships, Pavey would appear to have the potential to become – eventually, at least – only the third British woman to break 2hr 25min for the marathon.
Her debut at the 26.2-mile distance has been postponed for two years, because of pregnancy, illness and a broken toe. Still, the one-time teenage trailblazer arrives at the marathon with a deep sense of fulfilment, having given birth to a son, Jacob, 18 months ago.
"I remember training in South Africa, doing a really hard session where I just ran until I was lying on the floor," Pavey reflected. "I was thinking, 'What am I doing? I haven't got a child. This isn't the be-all and end-all of life.' I just felt like I needed to have a child because otherwise my life wouldn't be complete.
"Then, once I'd had Jacob, I felt really motivated, because I felt happier in life generally. And now, having the focus of a new event, my motivation is high."