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