The essence of distance running, of course, is to persevere, to press on in the face of pain, unexpected difficulties, even defeat. The distance runner knows that the sport only matters, only makes sense, only exists, really, as long as he or she keeps going. Paula Radcliffe is a distance runner.
To understand why she is also my nomination for Sportsman of the Year, you have to understand something of the long, painful road she has covered. I first saw Radcliffe run at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. She was 26 then, known chiefly -- as befits an old-school British runner raised in the English club system -- for her cross-country prowess; she'd won a world cross-country championship as a junior in 1992 and had taken two silvers and a bronze as a senior. On the track she had won a European championship at 5,000 meters and a silver medal at the World Championships in the 10,000. But she had never won an Olympic medal.
Four years before, in the 1996 Atlanta Games, she'd placed fifth in the 5,000, outkicked by speedier finishers who had clung to her as she set the pace. Still, Radcliffe entered the Athens Games as Britain's best -- and beloved -- track and field hope. The 10,000 would be her best chance. For nearly six miles of the 6.2-mile race -- 24 laps of the brick-red oval in Sydney's Olympic Stadium --Radcliffe led, forcing the pace in an effort to run the finishing speed out of her competitors. And make no mistake, in Paula's case, effort is the right word.
Tall, long-limbed and angular, like some regal wading bird, she is anything but fluid in flight; she runs instead with a terrible, beautiful, urgency, legs driving, elbows hooking, head rolling. You watch that and you think, Surely, she can't go on. But on she went that night in Sydney, lap after lap, forcing the pace, doing the only thing she could to give herself a chance at victory.
In the end, inevitably, heartbreakingly, it was not enough. With 300 meters to go, three runners, led by Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia, swept past. Radcliffe was left to finish fourth, even as her fierce front running assured that the top six would break the Olympic record. "I ran as hard as I could," she said.
And she kept on running, moving up to the marathon. If she was vulnerable to the kickers after six miles, well, then she would add another 20 -- another head-bobbing, eye-rolling, gut-wrenching 20 -- and just let them try to stay with her.