Monthly Archives: April 2013

2:15:25 – Standing the Test of Time

Standing the Test of Time

STEVEN MILLS talks to Steve Cram about Paula Radcliffe’s success in London, the world record and the future of women’s marathon-running

April 13 this year marked a decade since the immediately recognisable rolling-head and wiry-framed figure of Paula Radcliffe obliterated her world marathon record in the London Marathon. Such was the magnitude of her 2:15:25 performance, her mark comfortably bettered Jim Peters’ corresponding men’s world record from half-a-century earlier at a time when women weren’t allowed to run further than 200m at the Olympic Games and the notion of a woman contesting a marathon was largely unthinkable.

I think anyone who follows Paula’s career knew it was inevitable it was going to happen,” said Cram on Radcliffe’s transition to the marathon. “She’d had two really good years on the track in 1999 and 2000 but Sydney showed as good as she was and as fast as she was at 10,000m, winning in the Olympic Games was going to be tough because of the nature of the way things were going and the fast-finishing meant she was always likely to be run out of the medals on the last lap.”

Radcliffe strayed from her trademark front-running tactics in a ploy to beat the fast-finishing Ethiopians at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton and while the gamble nearly paid off, Radcliffe finished out of the medals for the third time out of the four major championships she contested over 10,000m. Cram rhetorically asked in commentary ‘how many more agonies do we have to go through with Paula?’ as Gete Wami pipped Radcliffe for the bronze medal by eight-hundredths.

Edmonton galvanised the marathon was the event where Radcliffe could really excel and the preparations began in earnest. Radcliffe retained her world half-marathon and cross-country titles en route to her debut at the 2002 London Marathon but, as was typical throughout her career, the build-up didn’t go without the odd hitch. A bothersome knee injury threatened to force Radcliffe out but a rigorous programme of treatment from her physio Gerhard Hartmann, the linchpin figure during Radcliffe’s golden years, put her back on track.

Radcliffe immediately found her niche on her debut and Cram accounts her lack of fear at the distance for propelling her to those super-fast times a decade ago. “A lot of people have done the marathon and have run it quite conservatively. You need a bit of time to get to know the event but I think she was very, very confident about her abilities and she wasn’t scared of it at the beginning.”

The way she ran her debut was far from conventional but Radcliffe’s all-out aggressive approach didn’t surprise Cram in commentary: “Paula isn’t ever going to do anything by half and the way she took it on at the start showed she wasn’t going to experiment.” Radcliffe cut loose from a pack including head-waiter Derartu Tulu, the winner of the world and Olympic 10,000m titles, after six-miles and ground out an attritional pace the streets of London had never seen from a woman before. There was no chance Radcliffe would be outsprinted this time.

Radcliffe had no intentions of chasing records but her winning time of 2:18:56 was a mere nine-seconds shy of Catherine Ndereba’s record and a negative split of 67:52 was the clearest indicator she could one day become the world record-holder. Cram, however, wasn’t too surprised by Radcliffe’s winning time: “Obviously 2:20 at that point was still a cracking time and the benchmark but I don’t remember being that surprised by it at the time. I think we all thought this is where she’s really found her forte and we’re going to be in for a great three or four years.”

The greatest run came a decade ago this month. A world 10km record in the build-up of 30:21 demonstrated Radcliffe was in prime condition and whereas she felt out the first few miles in 2002, her pace right from the gun in 2003 was of an unrelenting nick. “I remember she ran through the third mile in under five minutes (4:57) and I was thinking ‘oh gosh, Paula this is crazy!’ and you were expecting at some point she would start to struggle at maybe 16-18 miles and it just never happened.”

In fact, Radcliffe got faster. After passing halfway in 68:02, she began to churn out a succession of sub-5:10 miles after averaging between 5:10-5:20 in the first half which was still comfortably under world record pace. Radcliffe was on her way to decimating the record she set in Chicago a few months earlier of 2:17:18 but even towards the closing stages, Cram and Brendan Foster were still erring on the side of caution in commentary.

I remember Brendan and I kept looking at each other in commentary and we didn’t want to commit (to making a finishing time estimation) because there was another five miles to go and anything could happen.

I remember it wasn’t until the last two miles we thought this is really going to happen and despite what happened the year before, what she did in 2003 and the manner of how she did it was just off the scale.

She was speeding up and I don’t think anyone had ever seen a woman perform like that. We’ve often seen the men come through and get stronger as the race goes on but no woman up to that point had run like that.

From a purely running perspective, that was the best performance I’ve ever commentated on.”

Former AW editor Mel Watman said he would have told you you were crazy if you suggested to him in the 1950s a woman would one day finish a marathon in one piece, let alone beat Peters’ world record and even in 1983, the year Cram won the world 1500m title and women were starting to contest championship marathons, 2:15 was still viewed as an implausible time for a woman.

I don’t think 2:15 was on the cards. 1983 was the first year we had the marathon at the World Championships and we had some great runners around such as Grete Waitz but she wasn’t as good on the track as Paula and if you use Grete as a benchmark, you probably would have thought sub-2:20 was possible.

If you equated the men’s world record to the women’s world record, you would probably say you could knock five or six minutes off the existing record so something around 2:18 would have been possible in twenty years but I wouldn’t have said 2:15.”

Radcliffe covered the second-half of her world record in 67:23, a time which wasn’t beaten in a half-marathon race in 2003 and Radcliffe’s performance was the fastest by a British runner that year, regardless of gender.

However, Cram believes there’s still a disparity between how she’s perceived by the athletics fraternity and the general public. “Sadly there’s a bit of that,” he says ruefully when asked if Radcliffe is remembered as the runner who failed to finish the Olympic marathon in Athens. “The public, of course, are driven by who wins the gold medal,” he adds, which doesn’t do much to alter the public’s perception of the sport beyond the paradigm of the Olympics.

The matter is the Olympics comes around on a particular day once every four years and if for whatever reason you’re not right, there’s nothing you can do about that. It’s a shame, particularly with the Olympic marathon because the best marathon-runners don’t always win it.” Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen, both former winners of the London Marathon, can also relate to this.

If you don’t win the Olympic Games you might not quite get the same adulation like Mo Farah had but I think within the sport, you wouldn’t find too many people who wouldn’t put Paula right at the top of the list of the greatest female distance-runners of all-time. Even her 1500m time is reasonable and going through 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m to the marathon, it’s very hard to find athletes with the same breadth of performance.

I think Paula’s real brilliance will be understood after she’s retired and people start to look back.”

The last two seasons have seen an upsurge in the volume of women running sub-2:20 marathons but while the East Africans, who took some time to get to grips with the event, have arrived en masse, the record remains a speck on the horizon. Only Liliya Shobukhova has come within three-minutes of Radcliffe’s landmark record and only by the narrowest margins after winning in Chicago in 2011 in 2:18:20.

The name of Tirunesh Dibaba, who was due to make her debut this year before a calf injury flared up, has been suggested as someone who has the ability to challenge it but Cram isn’t wholly convinced it will come under threat any time soon. “Of the current crop, you have to look at somebody like Dibaba and think she’s got that ability to run a sub-30 minute 10km bearing in mind Paula ran 30:01 which gives you that comfort zone when you’re running in the marathon.”

However, factors beyond track credentials are equally crucial when gauging an athlete’s marathon potential, as Cram explains. “It’s a case of getting the timing right and getting the work in and being ready to do it but can Dibaba do the work, the mileage and all the hard work that you require and it seems as though she can’t.

It’s about your body and the intensity of the workload over a period of time. You can have the track ability but if you can’t add all the other aspects to it, then you’re not going to be able to run 2:15.

She’s been a bit more fragile and she’s had injury problems over the past three or four years and that’s not going to help her so we might have to wait for somebody else to come along.

There are one or two who might be capable of doing it but to go out and do the training and getting through that process and going into the race with the mental fortitude required to attack that sort of time, I’m just not sure we’ll see anyone do that for a while.”

As published in Athletics Weekly on April 18

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Where does Radcliffe rank among the all-time greats?

A staple topic of conversation among athletics fans is the discussion of the greatest of all-time in any event and this weekend seems a pertinent time to discuss the ‘GOAT’ in the women’s marathon. Comparing athletes from different eras can be akin to that of applies and oranges and the marathon has the added complication of the fastest marathon-runners not always winning (or even contesting) the major events and vice-versa but despite these difficulties, here’s my run-down on the greatest women’s marathon-runners of all-time.  

1. Grete Waitz (Norway)

Waitz had never raced a half-marathon or even trained beyond 13-miles before her marathon debut in New York in 1978 but her name was soon to become synonymous with a marathon she won no less than a record nine times in the next ten years.

The Norwegian was the true pioneer of women’s marathon-running. On her debut, she improved the world record from 2:34:47 to 2:32:30 which she eventually lowered to a still world-class 2:25:29 and this was in the days before warm-weather trips and stints at high-altitude comprised the regular make-up of an athlete’s training. Indeed, Waitz still worked full-time as a geography teacher in 1978 and her evening meal the night before her debut consisted of a shrimp cocktail followed by a filet mignon, such was the paucity of scientific knowledge in marathon-running at that time.

Waitz, who won the inaugural world marathon title in 1983, passed away after a six-year fight to cancer in April 2011. Her legacy was to inspire many of the current generation of elite marathon-runners as well as helping to bring women’s distance running away from the periphery to the mainstream at both elite and club-runner level.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:24:54 (1986)
  • Big city marathon wins – New York 1978-80, 1982-86, 1988, London 1983, 1986
  • Major championships honours – world champion 1983, Olympic silver 1984

2. Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain)

Rather like Waitz, Radcliffe lacked the raw change of pace to outsprint her rivals for global track titles but her victories at the World Cross Country Championships and World Half-Marathon Championships demonstrated her potential at the marathon.

While some athletes struggle to make the transition from the shorter road-racing distances, Radcliffe immediately found her niche over 26.2-miles. She ran the second fastest time ever of 2:18:56 on her debut in London in 2002 followed by a world record of 2:17:18 in Chicago.

She was at the height of her powers in 2003 when she lowered the world record down to 2:15:25. Her record hasn’t been remotely threatened since it was set a decade ago and the magnitude of Radcliffe’s performance was such that her time was faster than anything set by a British man – including two-time Olympic fourth-placer Jon Brown – that year!

Her lack of Olympic medalware has been thoroughly documented but Radcliffe filled her major championships void in 2005. Against an Olympic-calibre field at the World Championships in Helsinki, Radcliffe ran the fastest ever time in a championships of 2:20:57 which was faster than when her idol Emil Zatopek won the Olympic marathon in the Finnish capital in 1952

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:15:25 (2003)
  • Big city marathon wins – London 2002-03, 2005, New York 2004, 2007-08, Chicago 2002
  • Major championships honours – world champion 2005

3. Catherine Ndereba (Kenya)

After finishing sixth on her debut in Boston in 1999, Ndereba finished no lower than second in a marathon again until New York in 2006 when she placed third.

Such impeccable consistency meant she was aptly monikered ‘Catherine The Great’ in the United States where she’s been a perennial figure on the road-racing circuit since the mid-1990s. Ndereba, who splits her time between Pennsylvania and Kenya, won a record four Boston Marathon titles and became the first woman to break the 2:19-barrier during this seven year period.

Her relationship with the Kenyan Federation wasn’t particularly acrimonious. She was omitted from the team for the Sydney Olympics despite winning Boston in the build-up but Ndereba finally made her championships debut at the age of 31 at the 2003 World Championships which she duly won. She then became the first athlete to win two world marathon titles in 2007.

Ndereba also won Olympic silver medals in 2004 and 2008 and despite a tactical faux pas in the latter when she didn’t realise eventual champion Constantina Dita escaped from the pack, the Kenyan has won more than enough silverware to prove her repertoire includes being a superb racer as well as one of the fastest runners of all-time.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:18:47 (2001)
  • Big city marathon wins – Boston 2000-01, 2004-05, Chicago 2000-01
  • Major championships honours – world champion 2003, 2007, Olympic silver 2004, 2008, world silver 2005

4. Rosa Mota (Portugal)

Rather like Waitz, Mota was a novice when she made her marathon debut at the 1982 European Championships in Athens but her gold medal in the very first championships marathon women contested was the start of an unparalleled career in the major events.

At a time when most of the world’s leading long-distance runners hailed from Europe, her trio of continental gold medals was a meritorious achievement. Her winning margin of seven minutes and twenty-one seconds at the 1987 World Championships in Rome is by far the largest in history and she remains the only woman who has both world and Olympic marathon titles to her credit.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:23:29 (1985)
  • Big city marathon wins – Boston 1987-88, 1990, Chicago 1983-84, London 1991
  • Major championships honours – Olympic champion 1988, world champion 1987, European champion 1982, 1986, 1990, Olympic bronze 1984

5. Ingrid Kristiansen (Norway)

Kristiansen still merits a top-five ranking despite the sparsity of major championship medals. She missed the inaugural World Championships through pregnancy and she admits, in hindsight, the Olympic marathon in 1984, where she finished fourth, was the one race in her career she wished she approached differently. The conditions in Rome and Seoul convinced her to focus on the newly-introduced 10,000m at major championships while plying her trade in the autumn and spring road-racing circuit instead.

She did this with great success and the Norwegian is the only woman who has won the Boston, London, Chicago and New York marathons which are largely viewed as the Grand Slams of marathon-running. Even though Radcliffe looks set to surpass this longevity record, nobody has yet held the world marathon record for as long as Kristiansen as her ground-breaking 2:21:06 mark from the 1985 London Marathon stood until 1998.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:21:06 (1985)
  • Big city marathon wins – Boston 1986, 1989, London 1984-85, 1987-88 Chicago 1986, New York 1989
  • Major championships honours – European bronze 1982

6. Joan Benoit Samuelson (United States)

Her career at the very highest level was abbreviated by injuries but Samuelson assumed the mantle of the world’s leading marathoner from Waitz in the mid-1980s. Despite undergoing knee surgery just three weeks before the US Trials, Samuelson comfortably qualified for the team before taking a gun-to-tape victory in the inaugural Olympic marathon on home-soil ahead of Waitz, Mota and Kristiansen. The manner of her victory was laudable given the calibre of opposition and her winning time of 2:24:52 would have even won the men’s marathon at the 1956 Olympic Games.

The last hurrah at this level came the following year in the Chicago Marathon. Samuelson overcame a bad patch mid-race to clock the second fastest time ever of 2:21:21 to defeat Kristiansen and Mota again and this time stood as a US record at the turn of the millennium.

While her elite career lacked longevity, Samuelson still competes at a level many British male club-runners would envy. Just one month before her 54th birthday, Samuelson ran 2:51:29 for 26.2-miles in Boston last year.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:21:21 (1985)
  • Big city marathon wins – Boston 1979, 1983, Chicago 1985
  • Major championships honours – Olympic champion 1984

7. Naoko Takahashi (Japan)

The notion of a woman running sub-2:20 for the marathon was viewed as an inconceivable concept even just twenty years before Takahashi became the first to achieve this feat in 2001. Her world record, as well as her Olympic gold medal from 2000, has earned her David Beckham-like fame in her homeland where marathon-running is almost an institution.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:19:46 (2001)
  • Big city marathon wins – Berlin 2001-02
  • Major championships honours – Olympic champion 2000, Asian Games champion 1998

8. Mizuki Noguchi (Japan)

Noguchi’s career followed a very similar trajectory to Takahashi’s. After winning the Olympic title in 2004, Noguchi went to the German capital the following year where she improved Takahashi’s Asian record to 2:19:12 which still ranks sixth on the world all-time rankings.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:19:12 (2005)
  • Big city marathon wins – Berlin 2005
  • Major championships honours – Olympic champion 2004, world silver 2003

9. Tegla Loroupe (Kenya)

At four-foot eleven and forty kilograms, Loroupe is diminutive even by women’s marathon-running standards but the Kenyan was renowned for an indomitable resolve and raced with the heart of a lioness. This was apparent when she claimed her second New York Marathon title in 1995 the week after the death of her sister Albina, who was Loroupe’s perennial source of encouragement in a patriarchal society which strongly discouraged women from competing in sport.

Despite requiring back surgery in 1997, Loroupe broke Kristiansen’s iconic world record in Rotterdam the following year, becoming the first woman to break the 2:21-barrier with 2:20:47. She improved her record by four seconds in Berlin but for all of her record-breaking exploits, the lack of silverware prevents Loroupe from claiming a higher ranking.

The world record-holder was favoured to claim the Olympic gold medal in 2000 but a bout of food poisoning left her weakened on race-day. She still finished inside the top-15 and somehow found the strength to place fifth in the Olympic 10,000m final later in the Games but these performances weren’t representative of her true ability.

Loroupe was guilty of over-racing in her hey-day and her schedule in the late-90s would be unthinkable for most of today’s current elite and this is likely to have contributed to her rapid decline but her performances in the 1990s helped to place Kenyan women on the running map after decades of invisibility.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:20:43 (1999)
  • Big city marathon wins – London 2000, New York 1994-95, Berlin 1999
  • Major championships honours – none

10. Katrin Dörre-Heinig (East Germany/Germany)

Dörre-Heinig was a prolific racer who amassed no less than twenty-four career victories from her forty-four marathons. The highlights included an unprecedented hat-trick of London Marathon victories in the mid-1990s as well as three successive top-five finishes in the Olympic Games. She surely would have achieved a fourth if it wasn’t for the Eastern Bloc boycott of the 1984 Olympics.

Career achievements

  • Personal best – 2:24:35 (1999)
  • Big city marathon wins – London 1992-94, Berlin 1994
  • Major championships honours – Olympic bronze 1988, world bronze 1991, World Cup champion 1985, World Cup bronze 1987