I like athletics. I like photography. So it felt only natural that in this, the second in a three-part blog series on Paula Radcliffe’s retirement, I should put together a handful of pictures to illustrate the highs and lows of one of the greatest distance runners in history.
Back in the good ol’ days, when chocolate bars used to sponsor major athletics events, Radcliffe scooped her first major title when winning the junior race at the 1992 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Boston.
“I’m not looking to make a living out of it,” Radcliffe said during the early stages of her career. “I just want to do my best and still enjoy it. I want to keep on enjoying it, keep on improving, get as much out of it as I can and put as much back as I can.”
In the early nineties, Radcliffe’s year would often start with a run at the Durham International Cross Country, the precursor to the Great Edinburgh Cross Country. Her first victory there came in 1994, one month after turning 20.
Having finished seventh in the 3000m in her World Championships debut at the age of 19, the distance moved up to 5000m for the next edition of the World Championships in 1995 where Radcliffe finished fifth.
One of Radcliffe’s big goals in the first half of her career was to win the senior world cross-country title. After finishing out of the top 15 for a few years in a row, she took a big step up in 1997 to finish second; the first of three consecutive podium finishes at the event.
Radcliffe’s finishing positions at global championships were improving on the track too: seventh in 1993, fifth in 1995 and fourth in 1997. She won her first IAAF World Championships medal when finishing second in the 10,000m in Seville in 1999.
When it comes to the Olympics, lady luck was never on Radcliffe’s side. The closest she came to making the podium was in 2000 when she finished fourth in the 10,000m after leading for the majority of the race.
Being constantly out-kicked on the track led to Radcliffe working hard with Max Jones and Gerard Hartmann in the winter of 2000-2001. Her running mechanics improved immeasurably and she became one of the most efficient runners around. Her last-lap times came down from 67 to 61 seconds.
The hard work during the winter paid off and at the start of 2001, she achieved one of her big career goals when winning the world cross-country title in Ostend.
But back on the track, Radcliffe was once again out-kicked of the medals at the 2001 World Championships. Her tactics were different than before, her finishing speed was quicker, but the outcome was the same. It was time to focus on the roads.
Later that year on home soil, Radcliffe won her second world half-marathon title. It was becoming clear that when she was on the roads, Radcliffe was in her element. A move up to the marathon was imminent.
When making her marathon debut in London in 2002, the commentators thought Radcliffe had gone off too quick. And then she sped up. The result: a resounding 2:18:56 victory, the fastest marathon debut in history and just nine seconds shy of the world record.
The marathon training paid off on the track too, and in 2002 Radcliffe won Commonwealth 5000m gold and European 10,000m gold, the latter with a European record of 30:01.09, despite atrocious conditions.
Radcliffe returned to London in 2003 to defend her marathon title. In between then, she had set a world record of 2:17:18 in Chicago. But in the British capital she improved that mark by almost two minutes with what is, quite simply, one of the greatest performances in athletics history.
‘That’ day. An increased dose of anti-inflammatories to help treat an untimely injury just two weeks before the 2004 Olympic marathon had an adverse effect on Radcliffe’s digestive system in the days leading up to the race and she was effectively running on emtpy. “Before the injury, she was in better shape than when she set the marathon world record,” says Hartmann. “How she got as far as 23 miles in Athens, I’ll never know.”
Twelve weeks after her heartbreak in Athens, Radcliffe did what she does best: running, racing and winning. In an incredible comeback in New York, Radcliffe triumphed in 2:23:10.
Radcliffe achieved another one of her life-long ambitions in 2005, winning gold at the IAAF World Championships. Her winning time of 2:20:57 smashed the championship record.
The Olympic curse struck again in 2008. Now aged 34, Radcliffe had fractured her femur just a few months before the race. Keen to gain some sort of redemption after what had happened in Athens, Radcliffe lined up for the marathon in Beijing under the belief that the injury had healed enough. But the race aggravated the injury and she finished 23rd after re-fracturing her leg during the race.
After Beijing, Radcliffe needed redemption and she knew where to find it: in New York, the scene of her comeback four year prior. She won once again, her third victory in the Big Apple. It remains the final marathon victory of her career.
In recent years, Radcliffe has joined the BBC commentary team. Her informed observations and no-nonsense approach has led to her becoming a huge fan favourite.
But this weekend she won’t be in the commentary box. She will be lining up for the London Marathon one more time. “I’ll just be trying to do myself justice,” she says. “I want to be able to really create those memories to keep with me.”
Memories of a final race in what has been an incredible career.