The childhood friend becomes Radcliffe's right-hand woman

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Liz Yelling has come a long way since she ran in the Under-13 girls' race at the English women's cross country championships at Leicester in 1986. So has her best friend. Back then it was the first big race for both of them, team-mates and training partners in the group of girls coached by Alex and Rosemary Stanton at Bedford and County Athletics Club. Liz Talbot, as she was at the time, finished 254th. Paula Radcliffe was 299th.

"I didn't think anything of Paula being behind me," Yelling reflected, 15 years after the event. "She was just another team member at the time."

It is not quite the same this morning. Radcliffe lines up as defending champion in the women's race at the world half-marathon championships in Bristol. Yelling lines up as the second fastest member of a British team who are capable of finishing among the medals.

Radcliffe is not the only international success story for Bedford and County and for Mr and Mrs Stanton. Yelling, 26, has not quite come as far as her 27-year-old club-mate but she is an emerging performer in her own right on the international scene. Back in March, when Radcliffe ploughed her way through the Ostend mud to outsprint Gete Wami to the long-course world cross country title, Yelling finished a highly impressive 17th – an improvement of 17 places on her previous best performance.

She has been making rapid strides on the roads, too. In August she improved her best half-marathon time to 72min 26sec at the Great Scottish Run, finishing fourth in an international-quality field. Today she hopes to break 72 minutes, to finish in the top 30, and to challenge for team medals – with a little help from her old friend, naturally.

"We've known each other since I was 11 and she was 12," Yelling said, reflecting on her long-standing friendship with Radcliffe. "Paula came to join the club and we just sort of clicked. We became best buddies. How corny! But we did. We used to spend a lot of time round each other's house. We were just friends really. Running was just a hobby.

"It's really weird now, because I had idols as a kid – like Liz McColgan and Yvonne Murray – and I forget that Paula is like that to kids today. To me, she's not. She is just my friend. It's only like when we went to the southern road relays last weekend and all the kids were asking for Paula's autograph that I realised how much little children idolise her and that she's achieved so much.

"I mean, I know that she's awesome, but I forget because I have grown up with her. It's been such a gradual process. I've seen it from the start to where she is now. I've seen her go through all the steps and I've seen her training so hard."

That hard training could pay another dividend for Radcliffe today, with a third world title in 12 months. It was in November last year that she lifted the global half-marathon crown, finishing 33 seconds clear of Kenya's Susan Chepkemei in Veracruz, Mexico. Chepkemei has since recorded the fastest-ever half-marathon, clocking 65min 44sec on the slightly downhill Lisbon course in March, and the second fastest 10 miles time, running 51min 23sec in the Amsterdam to Zaandam race two weeks ago.

She is likely to be Radcliffe's main rival today, although the field also includes Berhane Adere, one of the trio of Ethiopians who swept past Radcliffe to fill the medal positions in the World Championship 10,000m final in Edmonton two months ago.

Radcliffe has not enjoyed the best of fortune in the closing stages of her major track races but Yelling has not enjoyed the track, full-stop. "I have a big psychological problem with it," she said. "I just find running round in circles very difficult. But I have been trying to get my head round it. I know that I am capable of doing it."

Indeed, having finished runner-up in the 1500m at the AAA championships this summer, and broken the nine-minute barrier for 3,000m, Yelling knows it is within her scope to qualify for the English Commonwealth Games team at 5,000m or 10,000m next year – especially as in December she will be giving up her job as a physical education and cookery teacher, at the Mill Vale Middle School in Dunstable, to become a full-time athlete.

"If it doesn't make any difference, that's fine," she said. "But I'm going to have a crack at it to see what happens. I'm going to give it a go." Which is what both Bedford girls will be doing around the streets of Bristol today.