ChicagoIn a sense, fans of distance running must be somewhat relieved that Paula Radcliffe's 2002 season came to an end yesterday under the sunny skies of Chicago's Grant Park. We were beginning to run out of adjectives to describe what may well be remembered as one of the finest seasons of running ever witnessed.
But when the 28-year-old distance phenomenon, donned in white gloves, fly-eye shaped sunglasses and her now famous knee-high socks broke the tape in 2:17:18, the time had come once again to begin digging for superlatives.
As the Briton ran to the line, jaws were dropping, and heads were shaking incredulously, as there simply isn't much to say when witnessing the destruction of a world best by nearly a minute and a half. Records are made to be carefully and precisely chiseled away at, not demolished.
Yet it seemed apropos. After a string of major titles on the track, a successful defence of the World Cross Country title, world-leading performances from the 5000m on up, and the fastest debut marathon ever with the second-fastest performance ever, it was after all, just a matter of time.
"This year means so much to me because it's all gone so well," she said after the race. "I've been able to prove that I can be successful in all three -cross country, on the track, and in the marathon."
The last day of her unparalleled season did begin with a hint of anxiety, but the feeling apparently didn't last too long.
"I was nervous during my warm up," she said. "My legs felt very heavy."
That heaviness was cured by 5:18 and 5:14 opening miles, a significantly faster opening than in her London debut. But unlike London, where she ran alone, yesterday she had a battle on her hands. Defending champion Catherine Ndereba of Kenya wasn't in the race because Radcliffe was predestined to win. Nor was Japan’s Yoko Shibui, who ran with the highly-touted duo through the first 20km.
Running just a few strides ahead of the Kenyan and young Japanese, Radcliffe surged with a brisk 5:09 for the 12th mile, too much for Shibui, who would be relegated to racing for third. "It got tougher then, and I lost contact with them."
Ndereba, running a more comfortable 13 seconds back at 20km, steadily made up ground. Powered by a 5:05 15th mile, the fastest of the race, she was just four seconds behind 5km later. Radcliffe responded with her fastest split, a 5:06 in the 19th mile, building a 16 second advantage at the 30km mark, a lead that proved insurmountable. Radcliffe was now back in familiar territory, racing alone.
With victory all-but-assured, Radcliffe ignored some slight muscle cramps and the windy conditions which give this Midwest city it's nickname, forging ahead with a 5:09, 5:11 and a staggering 5:10 in the 21st, 22nd and 24th miles.
The only question remaining was how much would she chop from Ndereba's standard. It would be the largest record-reducing margin since her idol and confidante Ingrid Kristiansen lowered Joan Benoit Samuelson's world best mark in 1985 by one minute 37 seconds. Remarkably, only 21 men in one of the finest marathons of the year reached the finish line in front of her.
"I felt very strong throughout," she said. "After what I had run in London, obviously my confidence was boosted, and I knew I could run faster."
But her competitors have the similar thoughts in mind. While Ndereba and Shibui, second and third respectively, were impressed by Radcliffe's display, they are not about to concede a permanent throne to the Briton.
"It was fast," understated the 23-year-old Shibui, whose 2:21:22 bettered her own previous best by nearly two minutes. "But if I work a little harder," she added, speaking through an interpreter, "and train a little harder, I can get there too."
Ndereba, whose 2:19:26 is the fourth fastest performance ever, showered compliments on the conqueror of her world best, and admitted that she expected big things from her competitor's second marathon.
"I respect her very much," the Kenyan said. " I knew she was going to fly."
But can she close the gap that Radcliffe so powerfully created?
"I'm not yet totally exhausted," Ndereba said. "I know I can do it."
While she clearly now deems herself a marathoner, Radcliffe indicated that 2003 might be a year for the others to work on narrowing that gap.
I have to see how my body recovers, then I will decide on another marathon," she said, suggesting a stronger focus on the track in 2003 and beyond. "It's still very important to me to win a world title on the track, and an Olympic title."
But first comes a time for respite.
"Thank God," Radcliffe said. "I get a holiday now."
And the rest of us can take a break too, from our search for superlatives.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF.