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It’s the buzz of racing that I miss: Paula Radcliffe


Paula Radcliffe. Photo - AFP

For anyone else it would have been all over. After a decade of high-mileage pounding, the cartilage in her left foot had simply worn away and everyone accepted that Paula Radcliffe's days of glory had come to an end.

Everyone, that is, but Paula herself. After complicated surgery on her foot just two years ago, the world's greatest woman marathon runner slipped out of the headlines and slowly and methodically planned her comeback.

Now, at the age of 40, the tall willowy mother of two and seven times big-city marathon-winner, will be back on the road in September in a 10k race in the English city of Worcester.

"It will give me a chance to see how my fitness is developing," Paula says. "If the foot is OK, I will set my sights on the 2015 London Marathon as my last big race. Winning that again would be a wonderful way to bow out."

Anyone who knows Paul has no doubts that she will give it her best shot. Mara Yamauchi, the second fastest UK women's marathon runner after Paula, says: "She has this incredible ability to overcome physical pain and push herself to the limit. If physically her body is up to it, I think mentally she can produce amazing performances when it matters, whatever the odds."

And the odds in this case will be pretty steep. Paula hasn't run a marathon since finishing third in Berlin in September 2011. Her foot injury forced her to withdraw from the London Olympics when the pain became too much for even Paula to bear. After a complex operation, surgeons warned that she might never run seriously again, let alone compete at the highest level, and indeed it was ten months after surgery that she could even manage a gentle jog.

Soon afterwards her relentless determination once more kicked in and she was back on the roads, churning out training runs of up to two hours — and the 2015 London Marathon was firmly in her sights.

She says both the London and New York Marathons are dear to her heart — she has won three times in each city — but London is particularly special. Hundreds of thousands of spectators cheered her to victory in 2002, 2003 and 2005, and a world record of 2hr 15min which has not been challenged for almost 11 years.

"I think sentimentally I would like to run for the last time in London where I started my marathon career, especially as I wasn't able to do the Olympics," she says. Paula won the world marathon title in 2005 despite being plagued by foot problems for years. "I can cope with the pain but the foot wasn't working efficiently and I just wasn't running as well as I should."

Cheshire-born Paula comes from an athletics background — her grandmother was an Olympic silver-medallist. Paula took up running at seven to follow in the footsteps of her father, a keen amateur marathon runner.

She joined an athletics club at the age of 11 and had her first international success by winning the world junior cross-country championships in the snow at Boston in 1992.

She was world open cross-country champion in 2001 and 2002, a marathon medallist at the 2005 world championships, Commonwealth games and European championship gold medallist.

Now there was no stopping Paula Radcliffe. She won marathons in London and New York City and was awarded the MBE for breaking the world marathon record in Chicago. But fame came at a price. Suffering from exercise-induced asthma from the age of 14, her relentless drive for marathon success took a heavy toll on her body — she was out of most of the 2006 season through injury.

In 2007 she suffered a stress fracture of the lower back, and the following year injured her hip, broke her left leg and fractured a toe. And every time she came back to top-class competition far sooner than expected. Married to her coach, Northern Ireland athlete Gary Lough, Paula — who has a first class degree in languages — says that if she hadn't become an athlete she might have been an international
businesswoman.

She says the highlights of her career have been setting the marathon world record, winning her first London Marathon and a Commonwealth gold.

And the worst? "Probably the Athens 2004 Olympics when injury forced me to pull out of both the marathon and the 10,000-metres. That was a real blow. It took a long time to get over it."

At home, Paula admits that her favourite TV programme is MasterChef. "I think I can cook but my seven-year-old daughter Isla says that I can't!

"I tend to make things up as I go along. I do chicken or salmon with pesto and crushed pine-nuts or seared tuna. That's the sort of stuff I like... "In our house the roles are often reversed. For instance I'm very good at DIY and if anything goes wrong with the car or the house I sort it out, while Gary works out all the decorating schemes and chooses the furniture and colour co-ordination!" One of the hardest-working

athletes in sport, Paula looks back on her career and says: "If I think about where I thought I would be when I was 40, I count myself pretty lucky to have had the career I've had.

"At the moment, despite the setbacks and the long lay-off, I'm still training and progressing but I'm taking things gradually towards what I hope to do this year and next. "It all really depends on the efficiency of my foot and whether I can ask it to do just one more major marathon. I just hope that when I eventually finish racing it will be on my terms."

In the meantime, she is increasing her training — she recently joined British runners in Kenya, taking advantage of the high altitude to boost her fitness level. Having been out of action for so long, Paula admits that she craves the excitement of lining up for a competitive race. "It's the buzz of racing that I miss," she says. "Whatever you do, you can't replace that."  

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