Radcliffe on a high after Pyrenees build-up

Mike Rowbottom meets a British middle-distance runner whose resolve to come back from injury knows no bounds columns and across two decks across three columns and two decks
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For middle distance runners with high aspirations, the high bit usually comes first. Training at altitude does not suit every athlete, but the benefits can be enormous. And Paula Radcliffe, who has prepared for today's 5,000 metres final with two months of running 1800 metres up in the Pyrenees, has found that she is utterly in her element.

Britain's former world junior cross-country champion, now 21, stayed in Font Romeu while in France as part of her European Studies degree at Loughborough University. It was a characteristically resourceful arrangement.

Radcliffe is bright - four A levels at grade A, fluent in French and German - talented and pleasant. Not exactly a female Jonathan Edwards, but certainly a personality to provide a warming glow to those concerned with the image of British athletics. In her own estimation, she is in the best shape of her life. Last month at Crystal Palace she became the fastest Briton at 5,000 metres, other than Zola Budd, with a time of 14min 49.27sec. Five days before, at Gateshead, she reduced her 1500 metres best to 4min 06.84sec in finishing fourth behind the winner, Kelly Holmes. And in between races, she returned eagerly to the hills.

The paths and trails of the French Olympic training camp teem with international athletes. Radcliffe's preferred routine was one run before breakfast, and another around six in the evening. Others, as she came to learn, had different schedules.

Vincent Rousseau, the world half-marathon champion, and Khalid Skah, the Olympic 10,000 metres champion, were late risers. Liz McColgan - wouldn't you just know it? - preferred to run even earlier in the morning than Radcliffe, and again in the middle of the hot afternoons.

Those who did run with Radcliffe had cause to regret it. She mentions a Moroccan runner, a 3min 37 1500 metres man, who had to turn back after they had set off together for an hour's run uphill. When they eventually met again in a cafeteria frequented by runners, Radcliffe recalls that he stood up and warned the assembled throng: "Don't run with this woman. She's a public health hazard."

That particular uphill challenge stands as nothing, however, beside the one which Radcliffe faced a year ago, when a foot injury threatened to jeopardise her career.

At least one medical expert had told her she was finished, and although the response was probably more polite than that with which McColgan greeted a similar diagnosis two years ago, the resolve to defy the gloomy prediction was the same. She kept the faith, keeping generally fit with weights and swimming.

"When some athletes are injured, they can't even bear to read about the sport," she said. "But I deliberately didn't cut myself off from it." That policy was helped by the fact that her mother, Pat, is the cross- country team manager for Bedford AC, and her father Peter is vice-chairman of the club.

"Spending all that time in the pool, and having to go to races and watch had made me realise how much I enjoy athletics," she said. "You do realise that life goes on without running. You also realise your life is extremely empty without running."

Inevitably, given the commitment she has always shown in races, she overdid things when she returned to action early this year.

She went into the World Cross-country Championships at Durham in March off only three months' training. The wise course, perhaps, would have been to hang back against a field which included the Olympic 10,000 metres champion, Derartu Tulu, and Ireland's European cross-country champion, Catherina McKiernan. Instead, Radcliffe went for it, keeping up with the leaders for two thirds of the race before running dramatically and distressingly out of steam. After a staggering finish, she slumped, deathly pale, beside her mother in the contestants' marquee and wept with chagrin and frustration.

She accepts now that she was being ridiculously hard on herself. "Because I had missed so much I was really determined coming back," she said. "But I wanted it all too soon, and I let the pressure of running in front of a home crowd get to me.

"Afterwards, I thought, `what is the point in getting so upset when this is what you want to do?' I decided after that that I was going to put the enjoyment back into my running."

No doubt she will enjoy her race today - even though the task it presents is a formidable one. Sonia O'Sullivan, of Ireland, qualified with ominous ease, and the fact that she decided not to double up here at 1500 metres - in which she has run the world's fastest time this year - will only help her concentration. Fernando Ribeiro, Portugal's newly installed world 10,000 metres champion, will also play a dominant role in an event in which she set the world record last month.

Radcliffe, as she must, remains sensibly optimistic. "I don't think anyone is unbeatable," she said. "Everybody has their weak spots in a race. It is just a case of finding them."

The weak spot in Radcliffe's racing, as she readily admits, is a lack of speed at the finish. "I can't sprint," she said. Although she has been working intensively to improve in that area, with endless track sessions and hill sprints, she cannot afford to get involved in a slow race today.

But at least she won't have to deal with the Chinese who took her and the rest of the 3,000 metres field aback as they swept the medals at the 1993 World Championships. This year Ma Junren's group of runners is in bewildering dissarray.

"The way the Chinese trained, they were never going to be able to last more than 18 months," Radcliffe said. "I don't think I could train like that. But you make a choice about whether you want a quick burn-out or whether you want to stay in the sport. I'm looking for a career that is going to last another 10 years."

If Radcliffe can remain fit, next year's Olympics, and indeed the 2000 Games in Sydney, could be memorable for her. Gothenburg could be an important step on the way.