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Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe is likely the greatest marathon runner of all time. She currently owns the world record of 2:15:25, as well as the second fastest time of 2:17:18 and the fastest women’s only marathon time from her debut effort, which was 2:18:55. At that time (2002) that performance was the second fastest marathon in the world to Kenyan, Catherine Ndereba’s 2:18:47. Radcliffe owns four of the five fastest marathon times in history.
She wasn’t always a marathon runner though. Radcliffe medalled a total of seven times at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships and thrice she won gold in that event. She also won silver in the 10000 metres at the 1999 IAAF World Track and Field Championships and owns Commonwealth Games gold in the 5000 metre event.
Radcliffe also owns the world record for the fastest road 10k from San Juan, Puerto Rico’s, World’s Best 10k, where she won in 30 minutes and 21 seconds and has twice won the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships. Her 10000 metre personal best is 30:01.
She is nearly as well-known for her anti-doping stance as she is for her magnificent running career. At the 2001 IAAF World Track and Field Championships in Edmonton, she protested Russian Olga Yegorova’s participation in the 5000m final. Yegorova had tested positive for EPO however, was permitted to compete in the event due to a technicality. She and six other Russians were later suspended for testing positive again, this time at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
In Edmonton, Radcliffe sat in the stands with a placard that read, “EPO Cheats Out”. At that time she said, “I don’t regret for one moment what I did in Edmonton. I wasn’t seeking personal publicity. I was making a stand to root out EPO from athletics. I only wish more athletes had joined the protest. They (IAAF) assured me, though, that they were determined to take positive action as quickly as possible.”
Radcliffe, now a mother of two, is busy raising her kids, while staying involved with the sport, which includes some coaching, advising, television commentating and of course running.
Christopher Kelsall: Your parents being runners and having involvement with your club, did you get a chance to run with them while growing up?
Paula Radcliffe: Yes. I started out joining in with my dad and running with him. I continued doing the odd run with him until I was about 15. Then either he or mum would often come with me on the bike.
CK: Do you remember the day, where it dawned on you that this is it, I am going to pursue running?
PR: I always knew it was something I wanted to do, enjoyed doing and would continue doing. I probably first thought it was something I had a chance of a career at after I won the world junior cross country championships in Boston in 1992.
CK: You literally have a lifetime of training and racing experience behind you, any chance you will be motivated to seriously coach others?
PR: Yes, but my kids are also a priority so I don’t want to have to spend long periods away from them. I already mentor a number of athletes.
CK: Do you have career aspirations once the kids are older? Would you stay connected with the sport?
PR: Absolutely. I will always be connected to the sport and am still a runner! I am doing some commentating work and have ideas to work in the sport, most likely in anti-doping to give back to a sport which has given me so much.
CK: Isla is six years old now, yes? Does she have any concept of your running career yet?
PR: Yes, both she and Raphael understand that Mummy runs and she knows how hard it was last year for me to miss the Olympics and then not even be able to run for a long time. She keeps asking now when I will race again and comes often to training or the gym with me. This morning she was helping me with hill reps and did part of the cool down with me. It is important to me that they take part in sport and are active, but it is totally up to them to choose the sports they enjoy. At the moment Isla does tennis, swimming, biking, rollerblading, dance and running!
CK: That’s impressive. How deep did you get into training lore? Were you a (Frank) Horwill or (Peter) Coe fan? Or did you prefer to turn off the mind and just enjoy the process?
PR: Early on I pretty much just did what my coach sent me. I generally just ran to see how quick I could go rather than getting into any training lore, though I know my coach read up on lots of things including Coe, Lydiard and Horwill as well as generally asking lots of questions. Later on I felt that I had learnt what works for me and generally stuck to that although was always picking up new things to try out.
CK: What did a typical training week look like for you when racing and when not?
PR: Before a race I would take two days complete rest for a big race and 1.5 for a less important race. The sessions would also be shorter and easier the week of a race. In normal training I worked to an eight day schedule with the eighth day a complete rest day. The rest was split into five double days and two days with a longer run and just a gym/weights session in the afternoon. There would be four workouts including the long run, a tempo run, road and track workout.
CK: You mentioned somewhere that Zatopek, although he may not cut it today, in your opinion was one of the all-time greats. Having the luxury of hindsight his training was not to today’s standard. Do you think he would be a competitive runner now?
PR: I think he had the basic guts and talent and talent for hard work to make it in any times. Obviously today his training would be far more refined and the equipment superior so he would be a lot faster, but he definitely had all the necessary basic attributes to win and run fast.
CK: The sport appears rife with athletes who managed just a few marathons at their very highest level. Catherine Ndereba, Paul Tergat, Khalid Kannouchi and Haile Gebreselassie are a few examples. What do you think of the notion that marathon runners have a very limited number that they can finish at a world-class level?
PR: I think if you train hard enough to maximise your potential at the marathon and run to max., then you have a limited number of top marathons in you, but I think that number varies athlete to athlete.
CK: Renato Canova has been on record saying that performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) do not work on East Africans, because for example EPO creates greater blood viscosity. What do you make of his comments on that?
PR: That is a sweeping generalisation that cannot be correct. There have been East Africans caught taking EPO so obviously they felt it could help them. I think sadly it must help everyone to differing levels and if they make their blood too viscose then obviously it is dangerous. Cyclists have spoken of how they combine the EPO with transfusions to stop the blood getting too viscose and to try and fool the blood passport. However Renato is right when he says that often when you are in great shape your hematocrit is often lower than it might be when you are less fit.
CK: In light of the recent rash of positive tests in Jamaica, Turkey and a few in Kenya, how close do you think we are from having punishment from a first offense as a four-year ban, which you have advocated for?
PR: I think we have always needed a minimum of that, if not lifetime bans. We need to make the risks greater than benefits to potential cheats. Right now the deterrent is not strong enough. Cheats should be banned, fined, have to repay monies. Plus sanctions for the entourage and providers and countries where there is reasonable doubt it is institutionalised in anyway.
CK: What do you think of the idea of a disciplined athlete having to undergo regular schedule testing while serving suspension and footing the bill for those tests?
PR: That makes perfect sense, however the issue is that once they have cheated, even if they return clean, has their body still retained some long-term benefits of the doping regimen?
CK: Interesting. I am unaware, is there scientific information indicating that athletes retain a long-term benefit from doping?
PR: There is some that I am sure I have read about how an athlete’s body composition and muscle balance changes and some positive effects remain. Like you can get into great shape and then it is easier to get back to that later due to muscle memory and tone etc.
CK:What are your thoughts on banning member nations?
PR: I agree that this step needs to be considered, particularly when the numbers caught in a certain country are high and where there is clear suspicion that the federations know what is going on and either support it or deliberately turn a blind eye. Obviously some innocent athletes will lose out here but we have to have a bigger deterrent threat against doping than what currently exists.
CK: You seem almost equally world class at cross-country, 5000 and 10000 metres and the marathon. Do you think if you continued with the 10000m, you would have improved to match your marathon?
PR: I will never know now! However I feel that when I ran 30.01 I was in sub-30 shape, the weather and lapped runners accounted for at least a couple of seconds. So I wasn’t that far off over 10km anyhow. My foot problems just made it hard to get into spikes in later years and in 2004 Gateshead, I was in great shape, but the wind was too strong and I ran that race all alone.
CK: Do you follow the sport closely now? If so, do you see potential talent coming up to challenge your 2:15 in the near future?
PR: Records are always there to be broken and the natural evolution of the sport is such. I worked very hard for that record and obviously would love it to last but there will always be potential talent with the goal of beating it.