As post-race questions go, it was one that was familiar to Paula Radcliffe: ''You've won two silvers now. What do you think it will take for you to win a gold?" This time, however, the question was being addressed to another runner, Susan Chepkemei of Kenya. And listening to it, Radcliffe, who yesterday succeeded in retaining her IAAF World Half Marathon title on home soil, allowed herself a faint smile.
For years, Radcliffe has been an ultimately frustrated runner as titles have narrowly escaped her grasp. On the track, she has yet to make a breakthrough, a 10,000 metres silver medal in the 1999 World Championships being her finest achievement. But off the track, in the space of a year, she has transformed herself from someone hoping to win into someone expecting to.
Just 11 months after winning this title in the 30 degrees heat of Veracruz in Mexico, and seven months after victory at the World Cross Country Championships in Ostend, Radcliffe pulverised a top-class field on the damp and windy roads of Bristol to finish in a championship record or 1hr 06min 47sec.
She was 11 seconds clear of Chepkemei and a tantalising four seconds adrift of the official world best for the distance, set four years ago by Masako Chiba of Japan.
Before the race, Radcliffe had seen Ethiopia's Berhane Adere, who took silver in the world 10,000 metres final two months ago while Radcliffe finished agonisingly out of the medals, as her most dangerous opponent. ''I was pretty confident I could finish quickly," she said. "The only one I was worried about in the finish was Adere."
Radcliffe's mid-race surge saw off the Ethiopian, however, and left her with only the Kenyan at her heels. Chepkemei, whose time of 65min 44sec at this year's Lisbon half-marathon could not be counted officially because the course was downhill, appeared ready to add a second road title to her name on British streets after her victory in the Great North Run this year.
But with three miles to go Radcliffe, flushed and nodding with the effort, increased her pace again as she ran parallel to the River Avon – ''I could hear from her breathing she was starting to struggle" – and by the time she turned under the Clifton Suspension Bridge her margin was a winning one.
The reception for her as she approached the finish line under lowering skies was huge. As the Union Jacks waved, it was a welcome moment of celebration for British athletics at the end of a week in which its ambition and prospects had been brutally reduced by the Government's announcement that the plan to build Picketts Lock stadium to host the 2005 World Championships was being abandoned.
Having become only the second woman to retain this title since it was first won in 1992 by Scotland's Liz McColgan, Radcliffe is unlikely to seek a third consecutive win as the next championships are being run in May, shortly after the Flora London Marathon, where the Briton intends to make her debut at the distance. "If I want to have a track season after, I have to have a break," she said.
There was, of course, another pressing reason for Radcliffe to do well yesterday. "I had to do something today otherwise David Beckham was going to get all the headlines," she said.
The men's race was won, as expected, by Ethiopia's double 10,000 metres champion Haile Gebrselassie, although he had to work hard to outsprint his compatriot Tesfaye Jifar, finishing a second clear in 1hr 03sec.
* Kenya's Catherine Ndereba set a women's world best yesterday, running away from the field to win the Chicago Marathon in 2:18:47 to break the old mark of 2:19:46 set in Berlin by Japan's Naoko Takahashi last week by almost a minute.
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