Jane Merrick: It should have been me wearing Paula's GB vest

Related Topics

Twenty-two years ago, in a soggy field in the Midlands, a skinny, blonde 12-year-old by the name of Paula Radcliffe came 299th in a cross-country race.

About 200 places ahead of her, there was another skinny, blonde 12-year-old, trying to shield her face from the flying mud and grass – and that girl was me.

So Paula, you won't remember me from that day – 15 February 1986 – just as I don't remember you. I can barely recall the event itself: all cross-country races run together in my memory. But, piecing together the evidence of our life histories, I can say that I once beat you, one of the greatest British athletes of all time.

Born 24 days apart, in 1973, we were both fairly average runners at the age of 12: neither of us had a prodigious talent. But since then our lives have taken us in different directions: you became a marathon world record-holder; I gave up athletics at 15 when I discovered boys, cigarettes, alcohol and, a year or two later, journalism.

I've often wondered what would have happened if I'd had the willpower, the determination, to train as hard as you. Would I be with you in Beijing?

By the late 1980s, I had an ambition to make it to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, and win gold at the 1,500m, my favourite event. But someone – at school, or at Liverpool Harriers – made it clear if I ever did get there I'd struggle home in eighth, at best.

And so my athletics career was over before it started. By the time we were 15, I ran my last cross-country race somewhere in County Durham. I came 256th. You were probably in the top 10 by then. Shortly afterwards, in the park opposite my school, I had my first cigarette.

You've probably never smoked a cigarette in your life. It was wonderful. At 16 came a vodka and orange, or two, in Kascades bar in Mossley Hill. And then I started kissing boys. There was no going back to 7am training runs after that.

By the time the 1992 Olympics came around, when we were 18, I watched the women's 1,500m race aghast as the competitor from Western Samoa came last in a slower time than my personal best of just over five minutes. "It could have been me!" I shouted at the TV. "Only if you'd emigrated," observed my Dad, helpfully.

When you were in your first Olympic final, the 5,000m, in Atlanta 1996, I was skipping lectures and drinking in the Leeds University Union bar. When you broke the marathon world record in Chicago in October 2002, I was hunting stories of plots to unseat Iain Duncan Smith at the Tory Party conference in Bournemouth.

By April this year, the cigarettes were long gone and I'd managed to stop drinking for enough weeks to train for the London Marathon – my first.

I was looking forward to Radcliffe vs Merrick: The Rematch. Twenty-two years on from that muddy day in the Midlands, we would be at the start line again – 26.2 miles ahead of us, half a lifetime behind us.

But Paula, where were you? I couldn't believe you'd pulled out because of a "minor" toe injury. I pulled my calf muscle training in Dulwich Park, but bravely fought through the pain to turn up on race day, and finished in 4 hours, 49 minutes and 5 seconds – 5,980th, if you must ask.

Every four years, when the Olympic torch is lit, I feel the frisson of excitement combined with the jarring pangs of "What if?" But for the rest of the time, I don't regret one single kiss, cigarette, or vodka and orange.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life