Posted: Wednesday November 23, 2005 1:26PM; Updated: Wednesday November 23, 2005 1:26PM
By Richard O'Brien
As a career move, it was a stunning success. Radcliffe won her debut marathon, at London in 2002. She won there again in '03, shattering the world record. That fall in Chicago, she lowered her own record to an ungodly 2:15:25, a time that made her the fastest Briton -- man or woman -- for the year. Athens was next.
The 2004 Games were being held at the birthplace of the Olympics, and the marathon would be run on the historic -- and brutally challenging -- course from Marathon to Athens. Surely, this would be Radcliffe's crowning moment; she would get her gold medal at last, on the grandest of stages.
But it all went wrong. She sustained a leg injury two weeks before the Games and was treated with a high dose of anti-inflammatory drugs, leaving her weakened. She ground to a halt just at 23 miles, ending her third Olympics not in glory, but in tears, as she sat stunned on the curb. Frank Shorter used to say that you have to forget your last marathon before you can run your next.
Radcliffe made sure she held onto the image of every anguished Athens second until, a mere three months later, she ran the New York City Marathon, surging to victory in 2:23:10. It was a measure of redemption, and I saw Paula on a Manhattan street that night, elegant and radiant, making plans on a cell phone for a victory celebration.
But then 2005 came around and there was more work to be done.
It was not an Olympic year, but the World Championships in Helsinki in August. After winning the London Marathon yet again in April, in a superb 2:17:42, Radcliffe appeared vulnerable during the summer, losing some shorter races and reportedly battling some injuries. Observers questioned her decision to run the 10,000 at Helsinki, just eight days before the marathon, and when Radcliffe faded badly, finishing ninth, the specters of Athens -- and Sydney and Atlanta --were raised.
But Radcliffe laid them all to rest on the streets of Helsinki, leading from the start in the marathon to defeat a loaded field in a meet record 2:20:57. Her gold medal in hand at last, Radcliffe proclaimed the moment at least as satisfying as her world records. "I've shown I can win major titles," she said. "I'm going to enjoy it."
Among her plans in the aftermath of the victory was a return home to run in a cross-country race for her local club. Distance runners keep running. Paula Radcliffe is a distance runner.