As Paula Radcliffe has run her last serious marathon and articles are written about the most exalted part of her career I thought I would write about my memories of the early part of her career which isn’t so well known. Some of these were of races I saw myself while others were the ones that told me Paula would go on to be a truly great athlete.
Watching the English Schools athletics championships on a scorching day in Derby in 1990 I thought that I had seen a potential star in the making. The Intermediate Girls 1500m had for me been the most thrilling race of the day. A girl called Jeina Mitchell had run away from the field to win by ten seconds and looked brilliant. Only one girl had managed to stay with her in the early part of the race. After keeping up for 800m she was treading water by the final straight and had been swallowed up by the pack before collapsing as she crossed the line.
As it turned out I had seen not one but two future stars in that race but it wasn’t Jeina who went on to become a household name. Jeina had a decent career at national level but behind her that day were a future European champion and an athlete who would become a world champion and a world record holder. The girl who had tried to go with Jeina was called Joanne Davis. The effort she put in that day would come to typify her attitude in races and twenty-four years later, as Jo Pavey, she would win the European title at 10000m. In all the drama at Derby I hadn’t even noticed who finished third in that 1500m. She was a girl from Bedfordshire called Paula Radcliffe.
I first started to notice Paula during the following cross-country season. I was still expecting Jeina to run away with her races and when she was beaten by someone I had never heard of called Paula Radcliffe I wondered who she was. As the season went on and Paula’s results got better and better I wanted to see her for myself.
The opportunity arrived at the National Cross-Country relays in Mansfield in February 1991. Paula flew around Berry Hill Park that day and set a course record. It was great to see her run so well and later in the day I spoke to her for the first time to congratulate her. I knew she was in good form going into the world cross-country championships but I wanted to see how she would cope with the pressure. She was running in the junior race but against many girls who were a year older than her. Paula ran really well to finish 15th and I think that race was the one that showed me she was an athlete who could rise to the occasion and would have a great future.
Paula continued to excel, particularly at cross-country, and going into the 1992 world junior champs I thought she had a great chance. She didn’t run the cross-country relays that year as they were just before the championships but she was there to watch and I saw her doing a short training session near the course. The world cross-country in Boston was on a snow-covered course. This was a slight concern as some runners don’t enjoy snowy conditions. I needn’t have worried as Paula again ran superbly and won the race ahead of a future world-record holder from China, Wang Junxia. (see picture)
Paula had been great on the country but I hadn’t seen her race on the track since Derby. Two years on I was keen to see how she would do at the AAA Championships in Birmingham. Her form was good and being a athletics stats geek I was hoping that she could be the first British junior (apart from Zola Budd) to run below nine minutes. Paula ran with the seniors and did 8 minutes 57 seconds. I was really pleased with that run and even more thrilled when the next day at the championships as I was walking round I bumped into Paula. It was the first time I had had a proper chat with her and although it was only for a few minutes we covered her run the previous day, the Boston victory and her prospects for the world junior track championships (where she was fourth but in an even faster time).
A few days before those championships I had run 8 minutes 33 seconds for the 3000m and wondered to myself if Paula would ever beat that. It took a while, but in 1999 Paula ran 8:31. She beat my best time on several other occasions culminating in a fantastic 8:22 in 2002. That time is still third on the European all-time list, behind specialists at that distance, and is I think one of Paula’s most underrated performances.
I didn’t see Paula run live gain until the first week of 1993. It was the Durham International Cross-Country meeting and I was there to run in one of the races for club runners. Paula was now a senior and running in the elite women’s race against older athletes. She again distinguished herself with a fine second place behind the reigning Olympic 10000m champion Derartu Tulu. What I remember most from that day however, is the sight of Paula charging around and cheering on her young clubmates from Bedford. She must have covered miles before her own race began.
One of those Bedford clubmates was Liz Talbot, later Liz Yelling, who ran for Britain with Paula in the Beijing Olympic Marathon. Before Beijing Paula had struggled with injuries which meant that she only finished 23rd at the Games. Just after the finish line she was struggling to hold herself together after bad luck had again ruined any chance of Olympic glory. Then, less than a minute behind Paula, Liz crossed the line and went to hug her. Paula burst into tears but I don’t think it was only the frustration and disappointment of the race as the media assumed. I think it was also because Liz was there to comfort her. They had been running together since they were girls, and now on the biggest stage of all they were together again.
Paula may have been unlucky at the Olympics but it is my belief that her world marathon record from 2003 is the greatest single performance in the history of British women’s athletics, and probably in the history of British women’s sport. Nobody has got near it since and it is hard to think it will go in the foreseeable future. I believe that you can tell from quite a young age what someone’s best event will be and it was clear to me from an early stage in her career that Paula would end up as a marathon runner. Despite some fine efforts on the track she just didn’t quite have the speed to cope with a fast finishing kick. Paula also had the mindset to cope with the huge mileage and training required. Unfortunately, it was almost inevitable that the distances she clocked up in training would catch up with her and cause injuries but I am pleased that she was able to record such a brilliant set of performances before those injuries took hold.
So what now for Paula? I have been lucky enough to meet her a few times and know what an engaging and intelligent person she is. I always enjoyed our conversations, even if they eventually turned to comparing our respective injuries! Paula is an inspirational figure and with the memory of that day in Durham in my mind I think it would be great to see her involved in the British cross-country scene, possibly as team manager. Cross-country is something Paula has always loved and I can just see her dashing around the course urging on the members of the team.
It has been a privilege to follow Paula over the last twenty-five years and I am sure she will continue to enjoy her running and inspire others.