Radcliffe striding for her golden moment

Britain's captain vows to improve on last year's silver medal at this weekend's World Cross-Country Championships in Portugal
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The Independent Online

Second - by two seconds. Second - by three seconds. Third - by 12 seconds.

Paula Radcliffe's record in the IAAF World Cross-Country Championships over the last three years speaks for itself - here, indisputably, is a world-class performer. But that is not enough for the 26-year-old Bedford runner who carries Britain's best hopes on her shoulders when she takes part in this year's event here today.

After gaining a second successive silver medal in Marrakesh two years ago, when Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan out-sprinted her, Radcliffe vowed not to leave the event alone until she had won a gold to match the one she earned at junior level in 1992 on a snowbound course in Boston.

"This event is as important to me as the Olympics," she said yesterday. "It's where I started out eight years ago and I think every athlete respects it as a race of high ranking. If anything, there is a greater depth here than at the Olympics because you are racing against the best six from each country, including marathon runners."

Radcliffe might understandably be less than thrilled to be reminded of similar declarations to her own which were made by O'Sullivan's compatriot Catherina McKiernan, who was runner-up three times in succession between 1994 and 1996. McKiernan, like the Briton, won the European cross-country title but never the one she most wanted before moving up to competing over 26 miles.

If Radcliffe's own future ambitions at that distance yield her the kind of success which McKiernan, the London winner in 1998, has since enjoyed, she would surely be delighted. But the step-up in distance is at least a couple of years away for Britain's team captain, who will contest the Olympic 10,000 metres in Sydney.

In the meantime, she is eager to take what she regards as a large and important step towards that goal by winning on the Algarve, where she has given herself 10 days to prepare and acclimatise for the 28th edition of these championships.

For the first time since the event diversified two years ago into longer and shorter distances on successive days, Radcliffe intends to run the four kilometres race, which takes place tomorrow. But her main concern is today's test over eight kilometres, where she faces a formidable field which includes Kenya's former silver medalist Rose Cheruyot and three past gold medalists.

O'Sullivan is here, just eight months after giving birth to a daughter, having recently achieved Olympic qualifying marks at 1500m, 5,000m and 10,000m while racing in Australia. Then there are two outstanding Ethiopians in Derartu Tulu - the 1992 Olympic 10,000m champion who out-sprinted Radcliffe three years ago in Turin - and the defending champion, Gete Wami, who beat Radcliffe to the world 10,000m gold in Seville last August.

Despite being out-kicked by Wami on that occasion, the British runner has drawn immense confidence from her performance in Spain, which provoked a huge sympathetic response from athletics followers who had watched her agonising efforts on television.

"It really surprised me how people reacted," she said. "In my mind I had just gone out and run my race in the same way. But I was overwhelmed by the number of people who wrote me nice letters or came up to congratulate me."

As she prepares for today's race, Radcliffe can reflect on a number of factors which may offer her particular encouragement. The course, for a start, which is unlikely to resemble the mud patch at Belfast on which she struggled last March.

"I think the course will suit me more than last year," she said. "There are man-made hills on it, but it is more like a golf course and it should be more like running on a track."

There is also her own training - she believes she is in better shape now than at any previous world cross-country event - and, perhaps, doubts over the full fitness of two of her principal rivals. Ireland's O'Sullivan, for all her impressive victories Down Under, has not yet been put under severe pressure since resuming running, and Wami has only recently resumed training after being carried off a course in Nairobi with an injured ankle.

In short, Radcliffe is in with a definite shout once again, although her lack of a killer final sprint means she must always remain wary. When it was suggested to her yesterday that there were not just three, but four fast kickers in today's prestigious race, she responded with swift realism: "Three and a half."

But although she is unlikely ever to match the sprinting power of O'Sullivan, Wami or Tulu, she feels the presence of so many quick finishes means none of them will be able to rely on winning a slow race. Which would tend to help her cause? "It won't do any harm," she replied with a grin.