I have mixed feelings about the final chapter of Paula Radcliffe’s running career, writes Chris Broadbent. Now 40, the marathon world-record holder recently took part at Worcester City 10K as she builds up to her marathon swan song in London next April.
She clocked 35:49, which is a fairly respectable time for a club runner. But for someone set to go down as one the sport’s all-time greats, someone who redefined the boundaries, it was comparatively pedestrian. She was also only the third female, headed by 19-year-old 10k debutant Jenny Nesbitt and Birmingham-based Nicola Sykes.
Clearly, there are few people who love running as much as Paula Radcliffe. Her sheer passion for the sport is the cornerstone for her monumental achievements. No-one trained as hard and no-one competed as fiercely because no-one cared quite as much as she did.
That’s why there is probably no British athlete held in such admiration or affection by the running community than Paula Radcliffe - and I include Olympic gold medallists in that assessment. So who am I to question her prolonging her career even though she is way past her best? She loves to run. So why not?
It certainly doesn’t stop the rest of us running when age starts to chip away at our abilities, why should it be any different for Paula? Fair enough. But it doesn’t mean I didn’t wince a little when I saw her time in Worcester was nearly six minutes slower that the peak Paula managed. It’s nearly a minute a mile. At the top end of the sport, that’s huge.
Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie is another 40-something who continues to compete when his better days are behind him. The diifference is that the twice Olympic champion is still a force to be reckoned with and is capable of major road race wins.
Some sports lend themselves to the old stagers showing some of their old skills on the legends circuits, even when decades past their peak. People love to see old footballers, tennis players and golfers showing they can still curl a beautiful free-kick, slice the perfect backhand or loft an accurate iron. Athletics – like boxing – is not one of those sports.
There is very little to enjoy about seeing formerly great athletes getting much slower. Back in 2007, I was in Osaka, Japan working at the World Athletics Championships. One afternoon, I was bored in my hotel room flicking the TV remote before heading to the stadium for the evening session. I stumbled across a local channel that had – quite brilliantly – reunited American legends Carl Lewis and Mike Powell for a rematch of their classic long jump final at the 1991 World Athletics Championships.
It took place in Tokyo – the last time the championships had been in Japan – and saw the duo push each other to world record distances. Powell still holds the record with 8.95m from that competition. I couldn’t understand a word of what the presenters were saying, but then neither could Lewis or Powell. I was quite excited. But then they started running and jumping. No longer was nine metres under threat, the pair of them were unable to leap six metres. Quite simply, they were two middle aged men planting themselves in a sand pit. It didn’t make a great spectacle at all.
In my mind’s eye, I could picture them as demi-gods, sleek, muscled and poetic in their movement. At their best, they were the very definition of human athleticism in its finest form. Watching the TV that day, Tokyo might have been light years ago, never mind just 16 years prior.
When Paula toes the line at London next year, it will be similarly difficult not to fondly cast the mind back to her still-astounding world record run of 2:15.25 on the same streets in 2003. Yet, she will be nowhere near the athlete she was then. She will also be beaten by runners who have no hope of ever reaching the heights Paula did. She will also probably run her slowest ever marathon. I hope Paula enjoys what is left of her running career, I’m just not sure I want to see it.