As Paula Radcliffe prepares to run her final competitive marathon on Sunday in London, she laughs as she remembers a conversation with the then race director, Dave Bedford, in those moments of happy delirium following her world record in 2003.
“He said to me: ‘I am never going to see anything like that again,’ and I was thinking: ‘That’s not right, I can run faster next year.’”
She never did. Instead came the sorrow and suffering of the Olympic marathon in Athens in 2004. Radcliffe’s record still stands as one of the most imposing in athletics. Could it have been bettered? Radcliffe says she “genuinely thinks” she could have gone faster “but then in 2004 everything fell apart”.
Gerard Hartmann, the physical therapist who worked closely with Radcliffe and her coach and husband, Gary Lough, in her glory days, goes further: he is convinced she could have gone quicker than her world record of 2:15.25. “Three weeks before Athens she ran a tempo run of 24.4 miles in 2hr 15min at altitude,” he says. “That was better than a similar run she had done before London. We knew she was in 2:13.45 to 2:14.10 form. She was in unbelievable shape, the peak of her career. That was when the rose had fully blossomed – and then she got injured.”
Meanwhile Andrew Jones, the sports scientist who found that Radcliffe’s VO2 max (the maximum volume of oxygen an athlete can use) was a staggering 70 ml/kg/min as a 17-year-old, a number that rose further in her career (elite female athletes are usually around the mid 60s), admits he was staggered by how fit she was during her prime years.
“It was absolutely clear with her fitness, and the physical shape she was in, she was going to be breaking world records,” he says. “On her test before she ran 2:15.25 her blood lactate didn’t rise above resting values until she was running at 18.5km per hour, which is just slightly outside five-minute mile pace. No other female to my knowledge has ever had that kind of physiology, so it is not surprising she was capable of running what she did.”
In the “10-15 years” that Jones tested Radcliffe there was something else that was unusual about Radcliffe: her running economy improved every year, which meant the energy cost on her body in covering a particular distance was less each time he tested.
“In part that was down to her meticulous preparation,” says Jones. “Although on the basis of every test we did she would then slightly alter her training in order to improve further.”
Like many people who have observed Radcliffe close up, Jones also points to her unbelievable competitiveness and refusal to quit. “When we are testing on the treadmill we ask people to tell us when they feel they have about a minute left to run,” he says. “Paula would be clearly as exhausted as most athletes ever get but would signal she wanted to keep going. And this would keep going and going. She would rather have gone off the back of the treadmill than be stopped. She would push herself beyond what seemed possible.”
Twelve years on from her world record, Hartmann is happy to lift the lid on her training regime – which included up to five hours of running a day, four hours of massage, physio or strength work and two hours of sleep in the afternoon.
“The thing about Paula was that everything was geared to high-octane performance,” he says. “When you look at a formula one car coming into the pits you have four or five people synchronised. It was no different with her. Before she’d warmed down from an interval training session, she’d have taken her bottle with her protein and amino acid chain into her system. When she finished the ice bath would be waiting. Recovery mattered as much as training.
“When we were in Font-Romeu there were often other British athletes staying in the high altitude training centre just 250m away from Paula’s apartment, including her best friend, Liz Yelling. But in the four-week period where Liz would be there Paula might arrange to meet Liz only once down in the coffee shop. That’s how focused she was.
“Nobody ever encroached on Radcliffe’s apartment. It wasn’t like a friend would call at the door and 20 minutes later someone else would be having a chat. I would say the athletes at that level, the real winners like Paula, have the ability to block everything. Even if her house back home was burning down, she’d block that out. If there was a death in the family, she’d block that out until the marathon was over.”
However, as she prepares to take her final bow Radcliffe says she has no regrets at not running even faster. “The longer it stands I appreciate a lot more than I did,” she admits. “I might have gone into 2004 in a little better shape but couldn’t capitalise on it in a race, whereas in 2003 I could. Over the marathon distance – probably a lot of distances – I got close to running as fast as I was capable of doing.”
Bedford, who still puts together the elite fields at the London Marathon despite stepping down as race director in 2012, believes that, if it was not for her long-standing foot injury, Radcliffe would be competitive even today. “Even now at this late age , if she was free of injury – and clearly she is not – she would still be the best,” he says.
Radcliffe, though, has other thoughts on her mind as she prepares for her last hurrah – trying to enjoy herself as much as possible and stemming the tears as she runs down The Mall. “I spent most of my career crying, didn’t I?” she says, smiling. “I have done enough crying.”
This article was written by Sean Ingle, for theguardian.com on Friday 24th April 2015 21.59 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010