Paula Radcliffe on racing, records, recuperating
This week marks the 10th anniversary of Paula Radcliffe's world-record-setting London Marathon performance, a time of 2 hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds. It's a distinction she holds dear. When officials enacted a retroactive rules change that would have nullified the mark because male pacemakers were in the race, Radcliffe -- with considerable outside support -- successfully lobbied to keep it intact, even though she held (and still holds) the second-best time, as well.
The record hasn't been seriously challenged in recent years. But though it lives on, Radcliffe is facing her own athletic mortality. Last year at this time, the British star still harbored hopes she could compete in the London Olympics to make a final attempt at the only honor that has eluded her. It was not to be. Pain in her long-problematic left foot forced Radcliffe to withdraw the week before the race, and recovery from August bone graft surgery has proven complicated. Radcliffe remains unsure if she'll ever run competitively again, but she told espnW she'd settle for being able to run for pleasure.
Radcliffe, 39, and her husband and coach, former runner Gary Lough, have two children. She spoke by phone from their home in Monaco. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
espnW: That day, in April 2003, when you crossed the finish line, did you feel you'd run your best race, or could you have done something differently and gone faster?
Radcliffe: No, the conditions that day, the shape I was in, I was able to make the best of everything and get the most out of myself that I could. That was one thing I remember being conscious of in the closing stages, even though I knew I was probably going to break the record, I wanted to keep pushing as hard as I could right to the finish to make sure that I broke it by as much as possible, so hopefully it would stand for a while. I've maybe been in better shape since, but not when a race fell, so not at the right time. I remember there was a bit of wind, but not too bad and a good course with a lot of support for me. All those things came together and helped me.
espnW: Years later there was a big debate about whether or not that record would stand. Why was it so important to you that it did?
Radcliffe: (Laughing) Because I worked really, really hard for it and I genuinely don't believe I was assisted by the guys. I think I was racing them. It wasn't my decision to put them in the race -- that was the race organizers'. I never ran behind them at any point, I ran alongside them. I think I would have done the same in any race that day. It creates problems to retrospectively change a lot of things. If you look back on it, the whole reason the guys were in the race in the first place was because the London organizers wanted the record there, they didn't think I could do it on my own, and a lot of previous records had been set in mixed races, so they essentially wanted to make it a mixed race. But because of TV, they didn't want a whole bunch of guys in there messing up the TV pictures for the women's race. To change the records at that point, when so many national records, world records, had been set in mixed races, was going to make it very messy. And certainly to go back and change the rules nine or eight years after the fact and say all of these races aren't going to stand because they were run with men was just going to be unfair, and stupid.
espnW: As you said, the men were there as a means to an end, but was there a competitive pleasure or edge for you in testing yourself alongside men?
Radcliffe: Absolutely. I definitely felt that I was in a race with them, not that I was just running with them and being assisted by them. I remember being glad when we kind of killed off one guy because he wasn't able to continue, and I remember thinking, "That's one beaten, now I'm just concentrating on the other one," and I remember being genuinely annoyed because [me and another pacemaker] had run together and he was given a time a second quicker than me, because he must have finished slightly quicker than me over the final couple of hundred meters.
espnW: What is the benefit of having women-only races? Is there a place for both, or would you always want to see top women in mixed events?
Radcliffe: I think there is a place for both, and I think it's probably right that they do have the separate records. It depends a lot on the runner. Some people can push themselves as hard, or almost as hard, on their own as they can in a race, and others just can't push themselves unless they are in a race and have people around them. And I think the nature of road racing is that predominantly, the races are mixed. So to start separating them tends to make it so that the women can't have the same experience as the guys in terms of the atmosphere, in terms of the courses, at a lot of the big events. They do have their place, women's only, but part of the draw and the attraction of road races is the fact that you have 38,000 or 39,000 people taking part in this race on the same day, and being a part of that whether you're male or female is part of the attraction. If you start separating that, you risk diluting it.
espnW: What difference does it make in your daily life not to be able to run as you please?
Radcliffe: Probably most of all the fact that I want to be able to share it with my kids, and not being able to do that is quite hard. It's always been much more to me than just my career, it's something that is a part of me, something that I enjoy doing, and it's not been a chore or a job to go out and do that. So when I think of different cross-training things I would do to make up for it, they don't, really.
espnW: What have you been doing to stay fit?
Radcliffe: I can [use] the elliptical, use the NordicTrack machine, I can bike, I can walk and now I'm just starting back to what I would call shuffle-jogging. I wouldn't call it running, more just getting my foot stronger, getting it used to going through that range. I have a lot of stiffness and a lot of scar tissue that needs to be broken down.
espnW: Do you ever feel self-conscious about it on the road, like, "Here I am, a world-record holder, shuffle-jogging?"
Radcliffe: (Laughs) Yeah, you kind of think, "Oh my God, what am I doing?" But you just have to look at it as a means to an end. It's not like I'm trying to use it as training and realistically think I'm preparing for a race at this point. I'm just trying to get my foot more mobile and healthy and take each day as it comes, doing what I can with it to get it back to something like a normal foot for everyday life first.
espnW: I'm sure it's second nature to you to set goals. Is a marathon still a realistic goal in your mind, to run one more?
Radcliffe: Yeah, at whatever level, though. I haven't really said I have to come back and be able to run one competitively. I think to be able to take part at some level is a kind of goal out there, but a much bigger goal is being able to get healthy and enjoy running and do things normally with the kids. It's not like at this stage I have to get back to prove anything. It's just that I would just enjoy and be happy to be able to get back to the point where I can run for me and for pleasure and maybe take part in a race for that.
espnW: Is your first step in the morning, getting out of bed, still tough? Does it still hurt?
Radcliffe: Yeah, it does at the moment, because I guess the scar tissue kind of seizes up. When it's cold it's more likely to hurt when I walk on it, so the first couple steps are pretty stiff in the morning and if I sit down during the day, it's going to be stiff then. But I don't think it's going to be like that forever. It is improving slowly.
espnW: Do you enjoy being around the sport even though you can't participate, or is it too hard to be on the sidelines?
Radcliffe: I'd obviously like to get back because it's something I miss, but I don't find it really painful to be there. I'll be [at the marathon] this year in London commentating for the BBC. I was at the European Indoors and commentated on the world cross-country [championships]. It's something I would watch anyway if I were at home. I enjoyed trying something different and staying in touch. But I'd still rather be running it.
espnW: You've always been very outspoken on doping issues. Now that we're several months past the Lance Armstrong cataclysm, what does the anti-doping landscape look like to you?
Radcliffe: It was shocking and disappointing and saddening that it could be that bad. I don't think anyone really understood quite how institutionalized it was. The fact that it could all come out and give cycling an opportunity to clean up and other sports as well -- cycling took the brunt of it, but by no means were other sports innocent around this. It has woken people up to that, and in the long run, I think that will be a good thing. It's just something everyone has to work toward, all the federations, people taking part, countries and governments -- there's a lot to be done in improving testing, sanctions, making it a criminal charge to be in possession and to use doping substances, and for the coaches and those supplying them to have some come-back as well.
espnW: In your own sport, there have been visible efforts to do more testing on East African athletes, especially Kenyans. Was that overdue?
Radcliffe: Absolutely. It has to be a level playing field and the testing process has to be fair and equal and up 'til now it hasn't been. It shouldn't be that we're singling out Kenya, either, because more testing needs to be done in all of East Africa, parts of Asia, some parts of Russia as well. We have to make it so that wherever you are and wherever you're from, you are going to be tested to the same level. At some point we have to look at the (national) federations as well, where they're given a short ban or a fine if they go over a certain number of athletes testing positive. Nine times out of 10, the athletes probably don't go out and do this on their own. They're being provided or pushed that way either by managers or coaches or institutions or federations. A lot of times, these are very young athletes who have been started on this path.
espnW: Have the London Games left behind a legacy in terms of facilities and participation to the level you'd like to see?
Radcliffe: Honestly, I'm not sure. In terms of the facilities being there, yes, but is there the organization around them, are those being used and opened up by people as much as they could be? In athletics, the numbers of children going in to take part in track and field have not gone up massively and are still declining on a club level. The number of road runners is going up, but the amount of people taking part in track and field isn't, and clubs are really struggling. I would like to see something across all sports to encourage people to be more active. Sport is good for you at the end of the day whatever level you take it to.