What started as a wretched weekend for British athletics ended in triumph as Paula Radcliffe not only retained her world half marathon title in front of her home fans, but ran the second fastest time in history.
Her time of 1:06:47 was just four seconds off the world best. The first seven finishers set personal bests with the silver medal going to Kenya’s Susan Chepkemei in 1:07:36 and Ethiopia’s Adere Berhane finishing third in 1:08:17.
“The only runner I was really worried about was Adere,” said Radcliffe, “I knew from Edmonton that she had a good kick. I wanted to get away and once I was in the lead I was confident, although I died a bit running into the wind. I am a bit disappointed not to have got the world best, especially as it was so close. But I feel really at home on the roads. I know that it is the best surface for me.”
There was no doubt about the Briton’s intentions from the gun, as she dashed to the front shadowed by Japan’s Mizuki Noguchi and Takako Kotorida, and they had the field strung out within the first mile.
Wearing long socks and sunglasses – to cope with anything the English weather could throw at her – Radcliffe was content to let her Japanese rivals, scuttling alongside her with economical strides, do the hard work in the early stages of the race. Meyer and all the other favourites were comfortably enveloped among the lead pack of 13 runners.
At 5km, reached in little more than 16 minutes, Noguchi held a narrow edge over Radcliffe, with Morocco’s Asmae Leghzaoui in third. But the pace (about 5:05 per mile) began to tell, and as the runners approached the Clifton Suspension Bridge for the first time, Kenya’s Joyce Chepchumba was among five runners who dropped off the leading group.
With 29 minutes on the clock, just near the halfway point, the group was down to six: Radcliffe, Noguchi, Adere, the Kenyans Isabella Ochichi and Chepkemei and Meyer of South Africa.
Radcliffe cast a glance back at her rivals as the runners passed through the redeveloped areas around Bristol’s docks, and would have noticed how relaxed Berhane, who missed out on a gold medal at 10,000m on the track by just 0.04 seconds in Edmonton, seemed just a metre or so behind.
The 10km checkpoint was reached in 31:59 with Noguchi still narrowly in the lead and Leghzaoui and Ochichi beginning to drop off the pace. With 37 minutes gone, Chepkemei moved briefly into pole position, which spurred Radcliffe into making the decision not to risk a sprint finish but to break away with two thirds of the race still to go.
Radcliffe surged hard just before the clock showed 40 minutes and only Adere and Chepkemei could stay with the Briton.
Head down and pumping her arms, Radcliffe strained every sinew trying to drop her two East African rivals. By now, despite a stiff headwind, the tempo had increased to five minutes per mile, impressive given the conditions. Surprisingly, Adere was the first to crack, and quickly lost 10-15 metres on the first two. But Chepkemei hung on grimly as the Briton continued trying to open up an unassailable lead.
Approaching the dockside for the last time, Radcliffe’s face was a picture of determination, but the Kenyan was not ready to give up. Behind, Noguchi caught the tiring Adere to briefly move into the bronze medal position.
The decisive point of the race came at 15km (47:44 ) when Radcliffe accelerated again and began to pull away from Chepkemei. With 49 minutes on the clock, she had a gap of about 15 metres and with every agonised stride, and cheer from the hugely supportive crowd, the Briton’s advantage grew.
With her nearest rival 12 seconds behind, Radcliffe knew that she would not have to fight it out in a sprint finish, but rather to maintain the powerful rhythm that had put paid to her opponents over the last few miles of the course.
Now the question was how much she could take off her own European record of 1:07:07.
Despite her tiredness, the Bedford runner pushed on to stop the clock at 1:06:47 and become the second-fastest woman in history.
As David Beckham saved the day with a last-minute goal for England, Paula Radcliffe showed the nation what British sport should really be all about.
Nick Davies for the IAAF