Source: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images Europe)
Source: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images Europe)

© Copyright – 2015 – Athletics Illustrated

After several years engaged in a tableau of injury frustrations, which included risky foot surgery two years ago, the world’s greatest marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, stepped back into the limelight one last time. She raced, it appeared, to make peace with the ending to her illustrious athletic career while displaying gratitude towards her fans.

Radcliffe’s coda was brought full-circle by her entering what is possibly the highest profile marathon in the world – the 2015 Virgin London Marathon – a race where during the early 2000s she was the mesmerizing motif. She dramatically set a mammoth world record on the course during the 2003 edition by finishing the event in the time of 2:15:25, nearly two minutes faster than her previous world record and more than three minutes faster than the great Catherine N’dereba’s best, who in 2001 held the record at 2:18:47. Radcliffe won London two other times in 2002 and 2005.

Sunday April 26th, she returned with class and her competitive prowess in-tact; after all the event is still a race and she treated it as such by – at the age of 41 – finishing in the time of 2:36:55, good enough to perhaps finish top-10 or even win smaller scale marathons; by the way, they are almost all smaller scale. Her performance was good enough for 20th place amongst a highly stacked field of today’s best marathon runners; she was the first non-elite and first master. In London Radcliffe proved that you can take the marathon runner out of the race, hence her foot injury, but you can’t take the race out of the marathon runner.

Radcliffe told Athletics Illustrated, “This marathon was such an emotional and moving and humbling day that I will treasure forever.” This is quite the statement coming from Radcliffe as she has plenty to treasure from a career where she accomplished the highest of highs.

She told the BBC that she wore sunglasses to hide the emotion a little. She also told them, “I came into this race unprepared and hoped the magic of the London Marathon would help me and I’m sure it did.”

Imagine if she was better prepared.

Radcliffe is still the marathon world record holder 12 years hence, with that seemingly impossible 2:15:25 performance. She also owns the second-fastest time of 2:17:18 and the third-fastest at 2:17:42, which should be enough for the pundits to consider her the world’s greatest marathon runner ever – no question. She also owns the sixth-fastest time in history with her 2:18:56 from London 2002 and a 2:20:57 from Helsinki in 2005. Three more times she ran in the 2:23s.

She is a three-time champion of the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships from the 2000, 2001 and 2003 events. She won the prestigious New York City Marathon three times in 2004, 2007 and 2008 and won the Chicago Marathon in 2002.

She is more than simply the greatest marathon runner in history. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she was outspoken about drug cheats, to the point of demonstrating with a placard at the IAAF World Track and Field Championships that took place in Edmonton in 2001. She protested Russian Olga Yegorova’s participation in the 5,000m final. Yegorova had tested positive for EPO however, was permitted to compete in the event due to a technicality. Yegorova and six other Russians were later suspended for testing positive yet again, this time during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Radcliffe was correct in her suspicions all along.

As a runner, she was also great over shorter distances and in cross-country.

Long before she stepped foot on the hallowed roads of the Virgin London Marathon, she was amazing over cross-country. She was a great track athlete as well and ran at the highest level on the roads.

She currently owns the fastest road 10K of 30:21, from the World’s Best 10K race that takes place in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her 10,000m best currently stands as the sixth-fastest in history – at the time, it was number two behind China’s Wang Junxia, with her mind-bending time of 29:31.78, which continues to stand as the world record today. Junxia set the record in Beijing back in 1993; it is a surreal time and perhaps an impossible feat.

Radcliffe won the IAAF World Cross Country Championships twice as a senior and once as a junior. She earned a silver medal three times, including over the short distance event at the same meet where she had won the long distance race during the Osten, Belgium meet in 2001, the same year that the celebrated Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele did the same.

Sadly, the world cross-country championships are on the wane. Currently the worlds are wholly dominated by two countries, Kenya and Ethiopia, therefore interest outside of those two countries is at an all-time low. One solution to save cross-country racing at the world level would be to bring it into the Winter Olympic Games, an idea Radcliffe endorses.

On December 2013, Radcliffe joined the IAAF Global Seminar on cross-country running in Belgrade, Serbia. She, along with IAAF Vice-President Lord Sebastian Coe – also an Olympic medallist as well as Kenya’s Benjamin Limo, Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan – a two-time champion at world cross and former champion from the US, Craig Virgin. They discussed ways to bring world cross-country to global prominence again. Inclusion in the Winter Games was discussed. Lord Coe is campaigning for the presidency of the IAAF with the addition of cross-country in the Olympics as a possibility, but it is not up to the President, but the International Olympic Committee. However, having Coe and Radcliffe endorse the matter is the support the move would require.

Radcliffe runs with a unique style. She is tall in comparison to many of the top distance women at 5’ 8” and she runs with a distinct bob of her head. Her form over her running career became very efficient, but most fans focussed on her head movement. From her toes to her shoulders she became a textbook example of technical smoothness. In 2003, when she set that marathon world record, she continued to run with efficiency late into the race, where most runners begin to fail. Her head bob may have actually helped in forward propulsion.

There are more important things in her life at this time than running, for example she is a mother of two, Isla and Raphael who were born in 2007 and 2010 to Radcliffe and her husband, former Irish 1500m runner, Gary Lough. In 2004 she released her autobiography, My Life So Far.

But on Sunday, she stepped out onto the cool, damp streets of London with 37,500 others, Radcliffe was back into the fray one last time to finish her career on a positive note in competitive marathon running, by providing her fans and supporters with a good performance and closure. She was cheered boisterously and was provided with a Lifetime Achievement award by the London organisers. She competed well. Radcliffe can now step away and make peace with her career and the way that it ended: under her control and done with class and with her running prowess in-tact.