Radcliffe fit to face the world

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PAULA RADCLIFFE reaffirmed her status as a world-class performer here yesterday as she won the Bupa International Cross-country Challenge with exuberant ease.

The 22-year-old Bedford runner can now approach the world championships in Cape Town three months hence, and the Olympics next summer, as much in expectation as hope.

Hers was one of two outstanding displays on a bone-hard Aykley Heads course dusted with snow and with a view clear over the city to the cathedral. The other came from Ethiopia's 17-year-old world junior champion Assefa Mezgebu, who calmly awaited his opportunity to pass Britain's European bronze medallist Andrew Pearson before finishing the 10,050 metres course 17 seconds clear in 30min 12sec.

For Radcliffe, it was all a heady contrast to her last cross-country race - at the world championships held in this city nine months ago - when she sobbed on her mother's shoulder after staggering home in 18th place. At that stage she was still making up training time after a year's absence with a foot injury, which may or may not have been a stress fracture. With increasing desperation, she consulted around 10 specialists during her time out. Only 16 months ago, one physiotherapist advised her that she would never run again without pain.

"I didn't go to see him," she said. "He just rang me up." She grinned at the recollection of that presumably well-meant gesture. Indeed, she had run with the trace of a smile for much of the race after breaking clear of her nearest challenger, Morocco's world 5,000m bronze medallist Zhara Oaziz, with 1,200 of the 5,550 metres gone.

"I planned to work hard on the final lap, but I got settled into a pace which I felt comfortable with." She added with a further laugh, "I was just enjoying it."

The exercise did seem wonderfully simple as she ran away from a field that also included Gete Wami, of Ethiopia, fifth in this year's world championships, driving up the hills and bobbing her head in characteristic fashion. By the finish she was 22 seconds clear.

The conditions were similar to those in which she won the world junior title in Boston in 1992. "I'm not scared of the snow," she said. "I don't have any inhibitions, whereas a lot of people get tensed up."

She will race sparingly from now on before sitting the first half of her final exams for a degree in European Studies at Loughborough University. The other half fall a couple of weeks before the Olympic trials. After the empty months, Radcliffe is living her life to the full again.

The snowy conditions may also have reminded Kenya's John Ngugi of Boston 1992, where he collected a record fifth world cross-country title, but he did not look as comfortable in them yesterday. The 33-year-old is still making his comeback after being allowed to return to competition early following a controversial four-year ban for refusing a drug test. He is back to his racing weight of just over 10 stone, but he was never in touch with the leaders, finishing 15th in 31min 27sec.

Pearson, who has established himself as Britain's foremost cross-country runner, produced a characteristically determined run, but could not shake the Ethiopian off. Was he pleased? "Well," he responded, "it was better than third. But it is nice to be the first Britain again."

He finished ahead of Belgium's European 10,000m silver medallist Vincent Rousseau, and Britain's John Nuttall. Rob Denmark, who has been running 120 miles a week of late, faded but then recovered to take a creditable seventh place.