The bookies may have decided Paula Radcliffe will retain her London Marathon title on Sunday, quoting her at 1-4, but Catherine Ndereba, holder of the world best time until the Briton beat her in Chicago last October, has other ideas.
Radcliffe is expected to try to improve on the time of 2hr 18min 56sec she set in London last year – the fastest ever marathon debut by a woman – and even beat the 2: 17.18 she set in Chicago, a performance that would lay down a fearsome marker before the Athens Olympics.
But Ndereba remained unfazed by the idea that she might have to run a 2.16 race to win on Sunday, a statistic that caused the two other leading contenders, Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu and Deena Drossin of the United States, to veer into defensive statements. Drossin said she was aiming for a time around 2.20, while Tulu, the London winner in 2001, insisted she would simply run her own race.
"I always like to challenge myself," said the 30-year-old Kenyan. "I always like to do my best." Given that her best is a time of 2:18.47, when winning the 2001 Chicago title, she is clearly one of the very few rivals capable of giving the 29-year-old Bedford athlete a serious run for her money.
"I feel great," Ndereba added. "Because whatever goes normally comes back. That is sport. Records are there to be broken."
The organisers have attempted to improve the chances of Sunday's race producing a record by providing the women's race with eight male pacemakers, a decision which clearly vexed Ndereba.
"What has made me unhappy is because I always used to hear that London is a women's race," she said. "The men's race starts 45 minutes later. So I thought I am going to have a change and just do a women's only race. Two months ago I realised that there are going to be male pacemakers, who will make the race look like it's a mixed race. That's why I wasn't happy. But since I don't have anything I can do, I just followed the majority."
Tim Hutchings, the event's international administrator, acknowledged that Radcliffe had asked about the possibility of the race being mixed, but denied that the arrangements had been tailored to suit just her. "The pacemakers' job is accompanying the women," he said. "They want someone running alongside them. Whether male or female is neither here nor there."
Hutchings added that the pacemakers would be deployed in groups of no greater than two to run the race at paces requested by the women, whether that meant 2.16 pace or 2.20 pace.
Drossin, who finished runner-up in last month's World Cross Country Championships in Lausanne, expressed surprise that the question of pacing had aroused so much controversy, initially causing the International Association of Athletics Federations to suggest the proposals were against the spirit of the event.
"Pacemakers are involved in almost every race on the track or the roads," she said. "It seems strange to me that this has been such a focus for this marathon."
Ndereba begged to differ. "I've never seen a race where they have women being paced by men," she said, even though her countrywoman Tegla Loroupe twice set world bests surrounded by up to nine male runners. But it will be interesting to see whether the Kenyan can use her dissatisfaction as extra motivation.
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