London Marathon: Marathons and the need for respect: Has Liz McColgan paid her dues? An experienced Australian thinks not. Mike Rowbottom on a race full of snags and riches

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THERE was a curious similarity between yesterday's proceedings at the London Marathon headquarters and those of the day before. This time the race-gaunt, tracksuited figure who turned up to speak to the media with husband, mother and young daughter in tow was Lisa Ondieki rather than Liz McColgan. But once the talking began it became clear that the outward similarities between these two runners - whose boxing-type rivalry forms the main promotional thrust of this year's race - mask differences that go to the heart of the marathon event itself.

You might call it a difference of approach. Ondieki calls it a matter of respect. Although, at 31, she is only three years older than McColgan, she has been running marathons for 10 years. She feels she has paid her dues to the event, and - basically - she does not think McColgan has.

What aroused Ondieki's wrath initially was the brashness which McColgan displayed before her first marathon in New York two years ago - an event the Scottish runner won in 2hr 27min 32sec. 'She was talking about how she wouldn't waste time running between 2.26 and 2.28. It would be 2.20,' Ondieki recalled. 'What annoyed me was her lack of respect for the women who had paved the way in the marathon, particularly Ingrid Kristiansen. Her record of 2.21 is a fantastic one, and no one has got close to it for a long time. To talk about these sort of times as if they are rubbish is in a sense to rubbish the athletes who have run them.

'It all comes down to the athlete. If Liz is capable of running these times she is talking about, she will run them. If she doesn't she'll end up looking foolish. She's put the pressure on herself. But Liz has been great for the women's marathon, I'll say that for her. Her mouth is good for the sport.'

McColgan has talked a good race throughout her career - this week, for instance, she has said that she does not see Ondieki as a major threat, and that she would not be surprised to beat 2hr 20min on Sunday - and she has the medals to show that her talk has not been empty. The approach has clearly paid off for her over the years, both in terms of bolstering her own attitude and eroding that of her fellow competitors. 'If it's good for me and bad for other people, then that's their problem,' she said this week. 'They have to deal with it themselves.' To an extent, the level of the London Marathon's financial commitment to McColgan - her contract to run the next three races could yield her pounds 500,000 - obliges her to give value for money in the build-up as well as the race itself.

But for all her apparent assurance, McColgan is not immune from feelings of insecurity. In Oslo last year, shortly before she failed to better her stadium record for the 10,000 metres, she was transfixed by a televised recording of her Olympic rival Elana Meyer's ominously good performance two days earlier in Stockholm. Yesterday, soon after Ondieki's departure, McColgan's coach and husband, Peter, was ringing to enquire about what she had said.

McColgan has done well in her first two marathons. Her winning time in New York was the fastest ever by a woman making her debut, and her failure to better it in Tokyo last November, when she finished eight seconds slower, was mitigated by the fact that she ran the last 14 miles in pain, having injured a hamstring in avoiding roadworks.

She maintains that whatever happens to her in a marathon, it can never be as bad as that again. More experienced marathon runners smile wryly at such an assertion.

Ondieki enters Sunday's race, sponsored this year by NutraSweet, knowing that she has run nearly four minutes faster than McColgan. She has won races from out of the pack. She has slogged to victory on her own. And for all her unwillingness to mingle with her rival during the race preparations - it was written into her contract that she would not share the podium at any press conference with McColgan - she has underlined her wish for a clear head-to-head confrontation within the event itself by insisting that the women's race should be kept separate from the men's by means of an earlier start.

For all McColgan's competitiveness and combativeness, there are questions which this event has yet to ask of her. The most profound of these was framed yesterday by a man who has been a central figure in the rise of marathon running within the last 12 years, Australia's former world champion and world record holder Rob de Castella, who plans to make this year's London his last major marathon.

'If there is one tremendous thing in a marathon it's being in contention over the last 10 kilometres,' he said. 'That's when it really comes down to what you have in your core. You have run all the strength, all the superficial fitness out of yourself, and it really comes back down to what's left inside of you. To be in a competitive situation like that and hopefully to be able to draw deep and pull something out of yourself is one of the great things about the marathon.'

McColgan ran away to victory in her previous marathons; it will be fascinating to see how she reacts to the challenge if Ondieki is with her as they approach Tower Bridge.

The indications are that the Australian will be. She shrugs off her defeats by McColgan in the 1991 New York marathon and last year in the Tokyo half-marathon, saying that she was not in proper condition for either occasion. After breaking her personal best for 10 miles last week, in a time that she would only say was close to the world record, she believes that she is now ready to face McColgan in top form for the first time.

Ondieki insists nevertheless that McColgan is the favourite. That is not a burden she wishes to carry into the race. 'I'm just here to run,' she says. She is not; but such an approach guards against hubris. You cannot imagine McColgan even bringing herself to say such a thing.

(Photograph omitted)

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