In addition to seven men under two hours, five minutes, and four women under 2.20 – in both cases, more than the aggregate for all last year’s marathons – the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon last Friday landed the considerable coup of having world record holder Paula Radcliffe as a race commentator.
As well as being an athletic high achiever, Radcliffe is an intelligent, socially aware and articulate woman, so viewers not only got coherent commentary, with excellent use of English (she speaks fluent French and German too), but also insight into racing and training, coupled with astute judgement about the participants.
A member of the marathon back-up team was at the famous UK sports-oriented Loughborough University at the same time as Radcliffe 25 years ago, and said he always got the impression that she was, “her own woman. She knows what she wants, and she’s smart enough to know how to go about getting it. That’s why she was so successful”.
There is a somewhat unusual example of that self-assuredness, which goes back to an embarrassing incident at the World Championships in Edmonton 2001. Radcliffe herself is the first to admit that she lacked a searing sprint, the likes of which her Ethiopian rivals (in particular) used to use to outkick her at the end of a race. When they did so again in the 10,000 metres in Edmonton, relegating her to fourth place, her husband Gary Lough chose the very public arena of the (televised) trackside to yell at her that she hadn’t launched her long drive for home early enough, as they’d planned.
Lough’s mother, watching back at home in Northern Ireland got him on the phone immediately, delivering the considered opinion to her son, “ Gary, you’re an ….hole”. The relish with which Radcliffe told this story for months afterwards to anyone who would listen was a source of some amusement to the world’s media; and much regret to the chastened Lough.
Radcliffe of course has long forgiven Lough his indiscretion, saying that that is just his character. “It was the wrong time and the wrong place. It was before I went into the mixed zone (where the athletes meet the media post-event), and I knew I had to keep it together, which is hard enough when you feel you haven’t done well. But that’s what he’s like; he’s never had any filters for whatever kind of situation he’s in. What you see is what you get, whether it’s behind closed doors or not. He never thinks, maybe I should wait five minutes. He just gets on with it”.
Since I have seen Lough on a couple of occasions when this faux-pas has been aired, I would venture that Radcliffe has had ample revenge. And Lough has fulsomely made amends elsewhere. Because from the time when injury ended his own international career (he ran 3.34.76 for 1500 metres), and he started to augment coach Alec Stanton’s input, he was critical to her success. To cite a minor but impressive example, convincing her that after her world record 2.17.18 in Chicago 2002 she could run 2.16 or better in London 2003. As you all know, she ran 2.15.25, a mark which threatens to survive as long as it has existed.
On that score, well schooled in the ways of PR exaggeration, when the London Marathon organisers chose (again) to try and ambush Dubai’s success with an ill-timed press release last week, quoting Kenyan Mary Keitany saying she thought she could break Radcliffe’s record in April’s London race, Radcliffe drily observed, “She’s obviously said every word of that, hasn’t she?” ie, NOT. “But it’s rebounded on them in this case,” she continued, “because journalists trying to get in touch with me, I’ve said sorry, I’m in Dubai”.
A list of Radcliffe’s accomplishments would take up a couple of pages here, but there are certain races which stick out for her; from the 20 plus years at the top following her first major victory, in the world junior cross in 1992. “The world record in 2003, of course; 2001, Ostende (when she finally won the senior world cross after years of seconds and thirds); Munich (the European 10,000 metres in a fraction over 30mins on a flooded track); Manchester (her Commonwealth 5000 metres victory in 2002); Helsinki (the World Championship marathon in 2005), New York (Marathon, 2004)”.
That New York victory just two months after the lowest point of her career, the blow-out in the Athens Olympics persuaded her that had she not had a haematoma, only discovered and aspirated just days before the Athens race, she might well have crowned her career with that elusive Olympic gold. Not being able to train properly was the final nail in the Olympic hopes.
“The biggest problem was the stress. I’ve never coped well with anti-inflammatories, so food was passing straight through me. I just didn’t have the fuel, and you can’t run a marathon like that. I hit the wall big-time, and that’s the only time it ever happened to me. On a rational level, I achieved a lot more in the World Champs, the European Champs and on the roads. I achieved more than I ever dreamed of; and I wouldn’t swap any of that for the Olympics”.
Of course, there was another salutary incident in Edmonton 2001, when Radcliffe led a contingent of distance runners, holding up a placard in the stadium saying, ‘EPO Cheats Out!’. This was to criticise the inclusion of Olga Yegorova in the 5000 metres, when the Russian had failed a dope test but got off an a technicality. The incident with Yegorova hardened her resolve to assist in toughening dope testing wherever she could. And regular meetings with IAAF anti-doping personnel both opened to her eyes to the inadequacies of testing, and to the few people, who were serious about addressing the issue. The upshot is that if Radcliffe has anything like a day-job, it is her work with the Athletics Integrity Unit, based near her Monaco home, but as she points out, “completely separate from the IAAF”.
It was that connection to the AIU, her growing family (Isla, 11 and Raphael, seven), and her BBC commentary obligations which persuaded her that she didn’t have time to coach/advise Mo Farah on his career switch to marathoning. But it is something that appealed to Lough, who is currently spending five weeks in Ethiopia with Farah, whose career shift has put him on a collision course with undisputed world number one marathoner, Eliud Kipchoge, and multiple gold medallist and world record holder, Kenenisa Bekele in the London Marathon in April.
While applauding her husband’s decision, characteristically Radcliffe doesn’t shrink from giving an honest and doubting opinion about Farah’s chances of reproducing his track success on the roads. “Gary has always been close to Mo, and it gives him something else to do. Neither of them are under any illusions that it’s going to be anything like the success Mo’s had at five and ten (thousand metres). He’s on a journey, ticking off his goals. The marathon is a little bit a natural progression. But he’s not done and cooked on the track; he could have carried on.
“Maybe success has made him stale. It’s difficult to get motivated; this is a new challenge. Maybe he thought it was going to be easier. He’s said himself he’s found it a lot harder training for the marathon, even after that taster in 2014 (an inconclusive 2.08.21 in London, four minutes behind the winner, Wilson Kipsang). That was a rude awakening.
“He had longer at the top than most people have, but he’s going to have his work cut out. It’s going to be tough; and like Kenenisa and Haile, he’s going to have to change the way he runs. He’s got that track runner’s long, loping stride and high kick-back. He’s not that efficient for a marathon runner”.