Radcliffe ready for glory bid
Duncan Mackay for IAAF
Paula Radcliffe usually makes a success of everything she does - four A-grade A levels, a first class degree in European studies and one of Britain's best ever female distance runners - so she has every reason to feel optimistic that she can finally win the World Cross Country Championship title in Vilamoura on Saturday.
The 26 year-old Briton has been arguably the most consistent cross country runner in the world during the last few years. She finished second in Turin in 1997, when she was beaten by Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu, and Marrakech 1998, losing out to Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan in a sprint to the line. She was third to another Ethiopian Gete Wami in Belfast last year after going for bust to win gold.
Tulu, O'Sullivan and Wami are all due to line up against Radcliffe in the 8 km race. But she is full of confidence after another excellent build-up and, surprisingly for someone brought up on traditional English cross country courses, looking forward to the fast course and fine weather she is likely to encounter in Portugal.
Her meticulous preparation has meant that, once again, she will arrive at he World Cross Country Championships in the best possible shape. Five weeks of altitude training in Albuquerque and a week with the British team in Portugal have given her more confidence than usual.
"Is this the year? I hope so," Radcliffe says. "The build-up has gone as well as anything I've ever done before. The terrain will make it more like a track race than in Belfast last year and that should suit me better. I prefer it to be firm under foot."
She has always been successful on the country. A world junior champion in 1992, when she beat Wang Junxia - who went on to become the most celebrated of Ma Junren's army of Chinese world record breakers - Radcliffe secured her first senior title in Ferrara, Italy, in December 1998 when she was crowned European champion.
But it was her silver medal in the 10,000 metres from the World Championships in Seville last summer which shines brightest on the mantle-piece of the home in Loughborough she shares with her training partner and manager Gary Lough, who she marries on April 15.
After coming so close, on many occasions on the track (she had been fifth, fifth and fourth at previous editions of the Olympics and World Championships)Radcliffe was delighted to finally win silver. She won her medal the hard way too, setting a brutal pace in searing conditions for most of the 25 laps before Wami sprinted away, 300 metres from the line, to claim gold. Radcliffe's plucky effort also caught the imagination of an estimated eight million television viewers watching in Britain.
When Radcliffe returned home she found her postman struggling to deliver hundreds of letters to her front door. "It surprised me how people reacted to my run," she says. "I was taken back with the amount of letters I received.
"I don't know why people were so captivated by it. Perhaps because I was on the track longer than some of the other British team members. But it was probably because I made it look worse than it actually was. I always look more tired than I really am when I'm running!"
That silver medal has elevated Radcliffe to Britain's most popular woman sports star, ahead of the heptathlete Denise Lewis and the golfer Laura Davies, and at the end of 1999 she was voted Britain's female athlete of the year. She has a string of lucrative sponsorship deals, including adidas and the breakfast cereal manufacturer Kelloggs.
Her hunger has not been sated by her Seville success. Indeed, her appetite is bigger than ever and she even plans to run the 4km race on Sunday as she strives to replicate O'Sullivan's double in Marrakesh two years ago.
But, of course, her main target is the Sydney Olympics and 10,000m gold there. "Seville gives me the confidence that I can do it," she says. And, few who know Paula Radcliffe doubt that when this high-achieving young woman sets her sights on something that she will eventually succeed. Starting with the World Cross Country title on Saturday.