Radcliffe a winner in the long run

Norman Fox meets an athlete who has scaled the pain barrier
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The Independent Online
LESS than a year ago Paula Radcliffe was told that she might never run again or that at best she would always run in pain from foot injuries that refused to mend. She was only 20 years old, a former world junior cross-country champion and one of Britain's most promising young track prospects for the 1996 Olympic Games.

This Saturday in Durham she runs for Britain in the world cross-country championships. On Friday she was so pain-free and brimming with fitness thatshe was happily taking part in a Comic Relief sponsored run at her local track in Bedford. Her recovery has restored her position as the best cross-country runner in the country, male or female, with every chance of a medal despite the ever increasing power of the Kenyan women and a formidable Continental and Irish challenge.

When Radcliffe entered the Durham International last January, no one expected much, but she ended with a commendable third place behind the Kenyan Rose Cheruiyot and the European champion Catherina Mc-Kiernan, of Ireland. Then, in the British Championships earlier this month at freezing Druridge Bay on the north-east coast, she confirmed that the injuries that had cost her not only a place in the 1994 world cross-country championships but the whole of last summer's track season were behind her by winning with more than half a minute to spare. "No pain, no problems," she said afterwards. She added: "Coming back now, I feel tougher than ever." Other athletes, including Liz McColgan, maintain that there is nothing like a long lay-off to heighten hunger.

In spite of her obvious satisfaction in the trials, the cruel irony of that victory has never been far from her mind. Exactly a year before she had also run away with that season's world championship trial at Alnwick but then suffered a foot injury that left her in plaster. At the very time her career should have been taking off she was on crutches. In a brave gesture of support for the team she might have led, she went to Budapest to watch and shed some tears of personal disappointment.

The injury was diagnosed as a dropped arch due to an imbalance in her running style. Tendinitis followed, and her prospects and morale plummeted. "I was told by a physiotherapist that I might never run again," she said last week. "That was my low point but he hadn't really examined me and was wrong. After a while I began to run again. I got back to full training by December time. Now I'm back to full training, the same as I was before the injury."

So now she aims to make up for the months spent wondering whether she would ever run competitively again. She still has to live up to Brendan Foster's description of her as "the future of British distance running". That was after she achieved seventh place in the world championship 3,000m in Stuttgart two years ago. It was an understandable remark since her early career had shown her potential: she took fourth place at both the 1992 World Junior Championships and the 1991 European Juniors, both at 3,000m, as well as being the world junior cross-country champion in 1992.

By gaining a place in the British team for the world track championships in Gothenburg this summer, when she wants to run the 5,000m, and then competing in the World Student Games, she would rediscover the ambitious path towards Olympic year. She qualifies for the Student Games through a European Studies course at Loughborough University. She is at present taking a year out, which is greatly helping with training in Bedford and abroad (she plans to combine her studies with high-altitude training in France).

She makes no promises about this weekend's race but says she enjoys tough courses. "There are six to 10 of us all with a chance, and it's going to be very quick," she said. "We know that the Kenyans will be strong. A lot of people are in good form at the moment. Gabriela Szabo is one I would pick out but I enjoyed running at Durham before."

She is realistic enough to acknowledge that it will be much more difficult than in the comparatively modest domestic trials, but she also knows that she has added speed training to her already proven endurance. At the very least she should be in the top half-dozen in the world, which in view of her misfortunes would be a success story in itself.