Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 17 Aug 2002 08:52:01 -0400

An Impressive P.R.


Looking for a new hero among the elite of running? They're harder to find than they used to be. The exotic names aren't easy to remember (let alone pronounce or spell), the turnover at the top has never been faster, and the talk of big money and powerful drugs has cooled some runners' interest in running's stars.

If you still seek heroes, though, you'd have to go a long way to find a better one than Paula Radcliffe. She represents the best of the sport. She's one of the best competitors, to be sure, but she also seems to be one of our best people.

I say "seems to be" because I've never met the 28-year-old British woman and haven't even seen her run except on TV. I almost got to watch the best of her track races in person this summer, but my hoped-for trip to the European Championships didn't come off.

The European race broke a pattern for Radcliffe. In her last two major track championships, 2000 Olympics and 2001 Worlds, she'd led both times but finished one place away from a medal each time. She had medaled in the 1999 World 10,000, with a silver.

In Europe's big race, Radcliffe led by so much that no one could have outkicked her. "P.R." set a PR of 30:01.09. To almost everyone except the official record-keepers (who recognize a highly suspicious Chinese time), that's the REAL world record for women.

Now she has won major titles for track, on the road (World Half-Marathon, 2000 and '01) and in cross-country ('01 and '02). Her marathon last spring in London (2:18:56) is the fastest in a women-only race -- and sticklers say it's another REAL world mark.

Paula Radcliffe refutes many assumptions about today's top runners:

-- A runner must specialize; a marathoner isn't fast enough to compete at the shorter distances. P.R. set her 10,000 "world record" less than four months after setting her marathon "record," which came a few weeks after a World Cross-Country win. And she'll run another marathon (in Chicago) two months after the fast track 10K.

-- A front-runner can't win a big track race. The European race was big. No Africans were there, it's true, but Olympic medalist (in the 5000) Sonia O'Sullivan was -- and she trailed P.R. by 46 seconds while still setting an Irish national record.

-- A runner can't race fast in a championship field, where the aim is to win. In the European race, P.R. wanted nothing to do with the tactical (read: slow) racing that usually marks (or mars) such events.

-- A non-African (or in the marathon, add Japanese) can't compete. P.R. is European by birth and heritage. Yet she has run faster than anyone in the world at widely separated distances, and has taken on the world and won in head-to-head racing.

-- A woman can't set a road record without help from men, who provide incidental pacing and wind-blocking if not the arranged type. The women had no such help in London, where they started earlier. P.R. still came within nine seconds of Catherine Ndereba's record set in a coed field.

-- A "clean" runner has no chance. P.R. isn't just clean but loudly and visibly so. She has spoken, organized and even demonstrated on the issue of stiffening testing and running the cheats out of the sport. She is a woman of principle, which is the best reason of all to make her your hero.

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