Why marathon glory is relative for Paula

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It was rather different in Charlotte Radcliffe's day. There were no fanfares, no bugles, and no accompanying weight of national expectation when she set off for the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. There was little fuss, either, when she won a silver medal as the third-leg swimmer in Britain's 4 x 100 metres freestyle relay team.

There was no mention in The Times the next day, nor the day after that, when a brief Olympic report appeared in between a notice about the Westminster Abbey Fund and news of, as the headline put it, "Another Successful Sale of Pure Bred British Friesian Cattle at Shepton Mallet".

Right now, five days before the start of the 2004 Athens Olympics, the late Mrs Radcliffe's great-niece would probably prefer it the more anonymous way. As Great Britain's great big hope - make that one big hope - for athletics glory in the Greek capital, there will be no low-key passage for Paula Radcliffe to her date with Olympic destiny on the road from Marathon to Athens two weeks today, Sunday 22 August. The expectation building on her slender shoulders could hardly be any greater.

Not that the Bedfordshire woman is in any danger of buckling under the weight. "I know there is a lot of expectation about my Olympic prospects, but no one will put greater pressure on me than myself," she said, before departing for her high-altitude training base at Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees. "I have my own level of expectation and that is always high."

As indeed it ought to be, when you have taken the women's marathon and turned it into a singular barrier-breaking exhibition of speed endurance. In the last two of her three races at the classic distance, Radcliffe has succeeded in lowering the world record from two hours, 18 minutes and 47 seconds to 2hr 15min 25sec. That is an improvement of 3min 22sec, a quantum leap in athletic terms.

Radcliffe's time in last year's London Marathon, her 2:15.25, was the fastest of the year by a British marathon runner - male or female. It averaged out at a speed of five minutes and 10 seconds per mile, for 26.2 miles. According to the Hungarian Scoring Tables, the accepted reference point for comparing performances at different athletic disciplines, it is by far the best running achievement in the world record books - equivalent to a 10.30sec 100m run by a woman, a 9.71sec run by a man, or a 4min 8.20sec mile by a woman, a 3min 41.10sec mile by a man.

Whichever way you look at it, the 30-year-old pride of Bedford and County Athletics Club is a woman apart in the marathon.

The night before her debut in London in 2002 she was joined in the lift at the Tower Hotel by Jim Alder, the Common-wealth marathon champion of 1966. "Watch out at 23 miles," he warned her. "It will be like a big bear has suddenly jumped on your back." But instead of falling prey to the dreaded "wall", the point at which the body runs out of glycogen, Radcliffe has devoured each passing mile with undiminished relish. So far, that is.

If Radcliffe is to meet her match in the 2004 Olympics, it is more likely to be a combination of the stifling conditions and the formidable route from Marathon to Athens than any of her opponents. From just before the halfway mark until the 20-mile point, the course profile rises some 150m. The record for the route, 2hr 11min 7sec, has stood to Bill Adcocks since 1969, and the 62-year-old Coventrian reckons Radcliffe will have the measure of the acutely testing terrain. "I think she has got enough in the bank to run it sensibly and still win by a street," the 1966 Commonwealth silver medallist said.

It is no surprise that Radcliffe has been spending her spare time in Font Romeu, when not logging her 160 miles a week of training, reading Adcocks' recently published autobiography, The Road To Athens. She has also inspected the course. It is in her nature to leave not so much as a pebble, let alone a stone, unturned in her painstaking preparation.

She is, after all, the woman who sucks a lemon first thing in the morning, drinks wheat-grass juice, takes ice baths, wears knee-length compression socks and nasal strips, uses emu oil to treat wounds, and takes a siesta each afternoon - all to wring every last drop of natural physiological assistance out of her sleek frame.

She is also a woman who gained a first- class degree in European Languages at Loughborough University. "If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it properly and give everything," Radcliffe reflected in Font Romeu. She has followed her creed in her running since the day she finished 299th as an asthmatic 12-year-old in the junior girls' race at the English women's cross-country championships in Leicester in 1986. The following year she finished fourth.

Radcliffe has dug deep and fought hard for everything she has gained as an athlete - a quality which has earned her as much admiration among the country's rank-and-file club runners as her naturally open and sunny disposition has with the greater British public. It took six years of getting frustratingly close to the big prizes before she finally broke through to the very front at world level.

Even this year, she has overcome the setbacks of her first loss in 17 months (to Lornah Kiplagat in a 10km road race in Puerto Rico in February, subsequently attributable to a viral infection), a hamstring injury that kept her out of the World Cross Country Championships in Brussels in March and a hernia operation later the same month. And still she has arrived at the brink of the Olympics in supreme form - as witnessed by her stunning track performances in June, over 5,000m at the European Cup in Bydgoszcz and over 10,000m in the Norwich Union British Grand Prix at Gateshead.

Radcliffe leads the world rankings at 10,000m and is also entered for that event in Athens, but it is the historical lure of the marathon that has her complete attention. "Athens is the home of the marathon and that makes it special," she said, acknowledging the attraction of following in the footsteps of Pheidippides, the Greek messenger who, legend has it, ran 26 miles to Athens with news of the Battle of Marathon in 490BC, and Spiridon Louis, the Greek shepherd, who won the original marathon race in the Olympic Games of 1896.

Then, of course, there is the small matter of family history. "I did see the medal when I was a little girl," Radcliffe said, when asked about Great Aunt Charlotte's prize from Antwerp, "but it's got lost over the years." What better incentive for Athens, then: a chance to replace the lost family silver with a chunk of gleaming Olympic gold.