Paula Radcliffe enlists 'Healing Hans' to get fit

Injury-prone runner turns to world-renowned doctor in bid to cure foot problem before London

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The Independent Online

Paula Radcliffe flew to Munich yesterday afternoon to see whether Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, the celebrated sports doctor known as "Healing Hans", could help ease a foot problem that is threatening to reduce her fifth Olympic appearance to another wing and a prayer mission. The osteoarthritis in her left foot could even keep the 38-year-old out of the women's marathon on 5 August, although she stressed before departing from London: "I don't think my participation at the Games is under threat at this stage."

Still, Radcliffe conceded that the untimely recurrence of a condition that first troubled her in 1994 had left her "in a bit of a panic". And with good reason. The Bedfordshire woman said she could still run but in a painful state that left her "in agony after I have finished training".

That does not bode well for her prospects of finally nailing the Olympic medal that has so cruelly eluded her in an otherwise trail-blazing distance-running career.

Radcliffe is the fastest female marathon runner in history by a fair margin – the 2hr 15min 25sec she clocked in the London Marathon in 2003 is 2min 55sec quicker than any other woman has covered the punishing 26.2-mile distance – but she has been consistently thwarted by illness and injury when confronting the Olympic marathon. In Athens in 2004 she was left running on empty and failed to finish after antibiotics she was taking following an injury depleted her glycogen stores. In Beijing in 2008 she limped across the line 23rd, a long way short of fitness just three months after suffering a fractured femur.

The poor woman must have shot a whole squadron of albatrosses in a previous existence. Radcliffe has endured such an assortment of injuries and illnesses that she has been able to race only six times in the past three years, and just once in 2012. In the Vienna half-marathon in April she clocked her slowest ever time for the distance, 72min 03sec, while suffering from the after-effects of bronchitis.

At that time Radcliffe was still hopeful of challenging for a medal – "of any colour" – but acknowledged that she would need to be capable of running "2hr 17min or 2hr 18min" in London to be in contention for a place on the podium. She might have run 2hr 15min before but she has not broken 2hr 20min since 2005. Eight other women have done so in the past 10 months.

So now, it would seem, the goalposts have moved somewhat for Radcliffe. Rather than aiming for a second Olympic medal in the family – her great aunt, Charlotte Radcliffe, won a swimming silver in the 4 x 100m freestyle in Antwerp in 1920 – she might have to lower her sights and settle for a belt-and-braces build-up to the race and a performance of respectability in London.

"I just want to get to the Games healthy and in the best shape I can," Radcliffe said yesterday. "I'll give it the best shot I can. I want to walk away being able to say, 'That was a good performance.'

"I know that at 38 I don't have as strong a chance as in previous years, but there's still a chance. I want to run really well in the streets of London with the support that British athletes receive."

The immediate support of Müller-Wohlfahrt could prove vital. The Munich medicine man, renowned for using such unorthodox ingredients as the crest of cockerels and the blood of goats to accelerate the healing process, has helped Usain Bolt cope with a congenital back problem for several years now and his eclectic client list has included Luciano Pavarotti and Bono. He forged his reputation as the team doctor for Bayern Munich and the German national football squad and could be seen sitting on the Germany bench at Euro 2012.

"Preparations for the Games have gone really well and I was really pleased until the last 10 days or so," Radcliffe said. "The joint in my foot that can give me trouble has been giving me a bit of a problem. I'm getting some answers on that this afternoon, so that I won't be training in pain between now and the Games.

"Hopefully everything should be all right. It's just a case of managing it. I can run on it. It just hurts."

Radcliffe admitted last year that she might have already retired had there not been the carrot of a home Olympic Games in 2012. "Having injury and illness is always difficult," she said at the time. "When you are battling through and you've had a number of setbacks, you wonder if you can take one more."

Sadly, it would not have been Olympic year for the fastest marathon woman of all time without yet one more painful setback to overcome.

Paula Radcliffe: Pain Games

1992 Came tantalisingly close to making the British team for the Barcelona Olympics as an 18-year-old, missing an automatic qualifying slot in the 3,000m by 0.07sec at the trials in Birmingham.

1996 Picked for the 5,000m at the Atlanta Olympics. Reached the final and finished fifth in 15min 13.11sec.

2000 Forced the pace from the start in the 10,000m final in Sydney but was unable to shake off her three main rivals. Led until just before the bell but finished fourth.

2004 Dropped out with four miles of the marathon in Athens remaining, drained by the effects of injury, illness and antibiotics.

2008 Lined up for the marathon despite having suffered a fractured femur three months earlier and having thus been able to do minimal training. Limped home in 23rd.

Simon Turnbull