It has taken her 14 frustrating years, but Jenny Clague is finally starting to play catch-up with her arch-rival from her teenage running days. As 18-year-olds, they both had the look of future world-beaters. On one weekend in February 1992, Clague smashed the British junior record in an indoor 5,000-metre race in Birmingham. Paula Radcliffe finished five seconds behind her. A month later, Radcliffe won the junior race at the World Cross Country Championships in Boston. Clague finished fourth. It was to be the pinnacle of the Liverpudlian's athletics career.
Until now, perhaps. At the age of 32 (old enough and experienced enough on the sidelines to have been appointed last year as manager of the England women's cross-country team), Clague has re-emerged on the national scene as a marathon runner gaining serious momentum.
Since making her debut at the 26.2-mile distance in Shanghai in November 2004, she has reduced her personal best from 2hr 48min to 2:38.04. In the absence of the injured Radcliffe, Clague lines up as the third fastest of the élite female British entrants for the Flora London Marathon today, behind Mara Yamauchi and Birhan Dagne.
If she can maintain her improvement and make it across the finish line inside 2hr 35min, the forgotten young woman of British distance running would be a thirtysomething debutant in major championship competition at the European Championships in Gothenburg in August. She would also, more than likely, be a Great Britain team-mate of Radcliffe for the first time in 14 years; Radcliffe has yet to declare her intended plans for the summer, though a defence of her European 10,000m crown would seem likely.
"I saw Paula just a year ago, actually," Clague said. "It was in the lift at the hotel before the London Marathon. [Radcliffe won in 2hr 17 min 42sec; Clague, in only her second race as a marathon runner after a decade of injury problems, finished 20th in 2:41:21]. We had a little chat. It was a bit weird, because obviously we were main competitors when we were younger. I beat her once or twice, as well."
So what had it been like for the Liverpool Harrier, being out for so long after rupturing an Achilles tendon in 1993 and watching her old rival establish herself as the leading lady of world distance running?
"It was very, very hard," Clague confessed. "I rem-ember the first few years I couldn't watch the races; it got me so upset. But I did come to terms with it. Yeah, it's disappointing that I didn't fulfil my potential, but I think there's a lot of luck in sport and I was just injury-prone.
"I lost a lot of confidence when I got back again after the injury, so I didn't perform as well as I should have. I've got a lot more confidence since I started training for marathons. I had a couple of good results and I thought, 'Maybe I can be OK again'. I ran 2:48 in Shanghai in November 2004, then 2:41 in London last year. That got me a British vest for the Kosice Marathon in Slovakia last October, and I finished second there in 2:38:04.
"I'm hoping to get the European qualifier in London: 2hr 35min. They're taking a team of five, so I've got a better chance of getting selected than I did for the Commonwealths this year... That's a bit of a sore point."
It has good reason to be a tender topic, though the chuckle that accompanies mention of it tells you that Clague is far too affable a soul to harbour any smouldering bitterness. Her time in the Kosice race put her third in line for selection for England's Commonwealth Games team, only for the powers that be to limit their selection to just two runners.
"That's been the biggest blow, if only because it took me 14 years to get back [to being] that fit again," Clague said. "To make the qualifying time [2hr 40min], to be in a position where you think you're in the team, and then to get told you're not going because of the funding, when I've funded myself through everything... it was a bit of a bad time.
"But I've run better since then, because I got a bit angry about it, I think. I've had the best winter season I've had for 14 years. I've won the Northern title this year and I won it 14 years ago. I've run under 34 minutes for 10km on the roads for the first time. So it's not all been a waste. I've obviously got myself into good shape. I'm quite confident I can do 2hr 35min. It all just comes down to the day now, doesn't it?"
That day has dawned finally for the woman who has managed to fit in her marathon-training mileage while holding down a full-time job as a sports development officer with Liverpool City Council - and who has beaten the clock before, of course. The indoor 5,000m time she recorded in Birmingham 14 years ago, 16min 11.61sec, still stands as the fastest ever by a British junior. The second fastest, 16:11.10, still stands to Paula Radcliffe.Reuse content