It's time for Paula to run

By Martin Samuel, November 5, 2009
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We were looking out of the window from our room on Central Park South when Paula Radcliffe came past, distressed, running fourth. “Is she all right, dad?” one of the boys asked. No, would have been the honest answer to that. Marathon racers are never all right, not really. It is such a strange thing to do for 26 miles. Running a marathon: well, that’s something else.

There were in the region of 42,000 people running the New York marathon and the majority of them made it down the final stretch tired, but happy. Some were ecstatic, waving to the crowd and bouncing along the last mile like Tigger. That is the difference between running and racing. It is possible to run a marathon in a gorilla suit for charity, but Seb Coe reckoned an athlete only had five proper marathon races in him; five all-out, hell-for-leather, fast-as-you-can charges toward a finishing line 26 miles away.

Radcliffe, though, did not smile or wave when she completed the course, even though she was the fourth fastest woman around four boroughs. She burst into tears. It is a regular event now. Radcliffe races, Radcliffe does not win, Radcliffe cries. It seems she could do with a rest.

The most public breakdown was at the Athens Olympics in 2004, Radcliffe bewildered and sobbing by the roadside because it turned out those advertising slogans on the posters were lies and impossible was something after all. Only the hardest of heart could not feel for her that day, watching a person whose very being is defined by her sport searching for that last reserve of strength and spirit yet finding nothing. She sat on the kerb, she said, because she was unaware of the protocol for leaving a road race early. It had never happened to her before.

In the aftermath, Radcliffe behaved as if bereaved and may well have been in mourning for the girl she had been, the one who could always go that extra mile; yet there are several stages of human loss and the last is acceptance. More than five years on this is what she must achieve if she is to keep her sanity.

Radcliffe was upset at the end in New York because physical frailty thwarted her again. This time it was her left knee. She is not now beaten by young upstarts but by women older than her, who have been luckier with injuries, no doubt adding to her frustration. Radcliffe is 35 and the winner was Derartu Tulu, who is 37. Ludmila Petrova, in second place, is 41. This may give Radcliffe hope for the future and, in particular, the London Olympics in 2012, except the body she forces to run 145 miles each week is increasingly crying enough.

She cannot go on running and crying, that is for sure. The marathon makes special demands but she must strive for balance. Radcliffe has to either learn to run for the fun or the sheer hell of it – whether winning or losing – or she must gracefully accept the next phase of her life, without the thrill of competition. Is she all right? No; but having given everything to her sport, we can only hope she will be.

    Last updated: 2:50pm, November 5 2009