Like a warrior borne on a shield, Paula Radcliffe was carried from the finish line here yesterday, all hope of winning the World Cross Country title destroyed by the sublime talent of Ethiopian and Kenyan rivals. Out of Africa, always the same thing.
Having won two silvers and a bronze in the past three years, the 26-year-old Bedford runner had prepared as never before for an event she regards as equal in status to the Olympics. But, on a cloudless day of blazing heat, she could only stagger home in fifth place as the gold she coveted went to Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu.
"There was nothing wrong with the way I ran," Radcliffe said after recovering in the medical tent. "If the race had been 100 metres longer, I wouldn't have made it to the line."
As ever, the British team captain kept in touch with the lead for the bulk of the race, and when Ireland's former champion Sonia O'Sullivan dropped back at the halfway point, she was the sole European in a group of seven medal contenders which included Tulu and Ethiopia's defending champion Gete Wami. But soon after the bell went for the final, long lap of the eight kilometres, Radcliffe too began to slip inexorably backwards.
"That was easily the hardest world cross I have ever run," she said. "I couldn't believe how fast they were all running. When Sonia got dropped I thought that was the injection of pace. But there were another two or three after that. I've experienced that kind of thing before, but it has been off a slower pace. This was fast from the start and I kept on thinking 'There's no way they can do another one off this'. It was mad."
The race marked a triumphant return to top-level competition for Tulu who gave birth to a daughter, Tion, 18 months ago and is now training in earnest for next month's Flora London Marathon.
Eight years earlier Tulu had left another British contender, Liz McColgan, helpless as she won the Olympic 10,000m title. Yesterday she showed the finishing power she had displayed in beating Radcliffe to this title in 1997 as she sprinted exhilaratingly clear of Wami over the final 150 metres.
There was worse news for Radcliffe afterwards as Tulu, now 28, revealed she was still considering taking part in the 10,000m at the Sydney Olympics rather than the marathon.
When Wami won this event in Belfast last year, and went on to out-sprint Radcliffe for the world 10,000m title in Seville, Tulu - nursing her baby back home in Addis Ababa - watched her exploits on television.
But she was also nursing the ambition of returning to make another vivid impact on women's middle-distance running, an ambition which was gloriously realised yesterday. This time her husband, Zewde, was the one watching at home as he looked after the baby.
Tulu, her long hair flowing, made what looked like a final surge with about 400 metres remaining, but when the slight figure of Wami remained at her shoulder turning into the final straight it seemed as if her chance had gone. Wami edged into the lead, but Tulu found one final burst of speed to move past her again and the defending champion was a spent force. "It wasn't a hard race. I liked the course. I'm very happy I have again won the title," said Tulu.
For O'Sullivan, who gave birth to a daughter just eight months ago, this race was primarily a means of measuring how far she is from complete fitness at this stage of the Olympic year.
"I could have stayed at home but I had to come and find out where I was," O'Sullivan said after finishing in seventh place. "I have now. I knew by the early stages that I wasn't running particularly well. Now I just have to go away and carry on and keep training. It's okay winning races at Gateshead and Loughrea, but this is the real thing.
''I felt so bad with two to go and the primary thing to do was to get to the finishing line. At the end of the day I think it was just one lap too many for me."
Radcliffe, who planned to run in today's 4km event, will need no reminding of that. As she stood in the competitors' enclosure afterwards, her fiancÃ©, Gary Lough, at her side, she was asked the inevitable question: what more can you do to win? "Work harder," she suggested with a shrug. There seemed little else to say.
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