The way I see it, Paula Radcliffe is to British running what Jeannie Longo is to French cycling (the Brits will see it the other way around): a living legend who’s been there forever, who’s won everything and who won’t age, to the greatest despair of the younger generation of athletes who could not hold the candle to her. She’s not just part of the landscape, she is the landscape for long distance runners.
Just imagine. Her 2003 marathon World Record in London is north of 3 minutes better than the second best time for a women’s marathon, and it has been holding since then! As a comparison, the ten best times for men’s marathons all fit within a 90 seconds range. Oh, and just for fun, the same year she set this historic record, she also set the World Record for women’s 10K on road in Puerto Rico, this record still holds 13 years later. Yep, that one too. Cherry on the cake, in 2003 (same year again!) in Newcastle, she also set the World Record for a Half Marathon. It hasn’t been ratified by the IAAF (the world’s athletics ruling body) because the Great North Run goes slightly downhill. The record held for 11 years anyway.
But it didn’t start that well for her. When she took up running at 7, she was anaemic and asthmatic (and she still is because asthma doesn’t just go away). Way to go! It didn’t prevent her to join the elite before her twenties despite multiple asthma crises and other injuries, running distances between 1500m and half marathon. She then went on winning so many medals nationally and internationally that I gave up on counting them in the Wikipedia article. But it wasn’t enough so she decided to give a go to marathon running in 2002. On her first competition on that distance, she immediately set a record for a women’s only race. Later the same year, Paula set a new World Record for the distance. Easy Peasy. And of course, there’s 2003, the year she set her 3 World Records, 2 of which still hold. Alongside all that, she also went 4 times to the Olympic Games (1994 to 2008) and when she ended her career in 2015, her times were still good enough to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio!
What did you expect? Of course she became a legend! So much that when she runs, her bib doesn’t have a number printed on it but her first name. When she ran her last marathon in London last year, the crowd chanted “Paula! Paula!” for 42.195 km. And because I’m a dick, I’ll end with my favourite moment of her career, when Denise Lewis tried to interview her on the same day, but Paula’s marathon pace was faster than the journalist’s sprint pace (despite her being an elite heptathlete in the past), which left the journalist breathless after the shortest interview of her life. A moment to watch and watch again on the BBC.