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Home ground gives Radcliffe title defence a boost

Home ground gives Radcliffe great hopes for title defence
Steven Downes for the IAAF
5 October 2001 - Bristol - When defending champion and local heroine Paula Radcliffe lines up here for the 10th IAAF World Half-marathon Championship here on Sunday, she will at least have one less thing to worry about: EPO testing.

Radcliffe is hardly a controversial character, but at the IAAF World Championships in Edmonton in August the runner courted the headlines by leading a public protest to call for stricter testing controls for erythropoietin, or EPO, a blood-boosting drug believed to be in widespread use in endurance sports, including running.

The World HalfMarathon in Bristol represents a breakthrough, since it is the first sporting event staged in Britain to have such blood testing. The move has come as a result of co-operation between host federation UK Athletics, UK Sport, the IAAF and Swedish drug testing management specialists.

“I’m really glad that agreement has been reached for this to take place in Bristol,” Radcliffe said. “It shows the IAAF and athletics in the UK are serious about their fight against doping.”

With that matter put to the back of her mind, Radcliffe will be able to concentrate on the 13.1 miles of tarmac that lies between her and a second world half-marathon title.

Radcliffe had long been branded a perpetual bridesmaid for her exploits at 10,000 metres on the track - she won world silver in 1999 - and at cross-country, where before this year she had collected three place medals.  But never the gold.

But she credits her victory at Veracruz last year, at the previous World Half-marathon, her first victory at global level since she won the junior title at the 1992 World Cross-country - as importantly helping to rebuild her self-belief.

“I am definitely more confident this year,” said Radcliffe. “Winning the World Half-marathon really helped.”

Buoyed with that confidence, Radcliffe finally nailed the “bridesmaid” tag in the glutinous mud of Ostend in March, when she surged past Ethiopian rival Gete Wami to win her first senior World Cross-country title.  She has been in record-breaking form ever since, although the Edmonton World Championships saw her beaten by three Ethiopians into fourth place at 10,000m. Nevertheless, last month Radcliffe broke her own British 5,000m record on the track and then, less than 48 hours later, went out to equal Liz McColgan’s world best for a 5km road race, leading home 20,000 women in just 14min 57sec.

Then, on September 30 in her last competitive work-out before Bristol, Radcliffe knocked 22sec off the course record over nearly 4km in a regional club road relay event. The achievement was made more significant since the previous record-holder was none other than Ireland’s double European champion, Sonia O’Sullivan.

Moving up in distance to the 21 kilometres of the half-marathon - with half an eye on her debut at the full marathon in London next April - holds no fears for Radcliffe, 28, a European languages graduate from Loughborough University and occasional translator for the IAAF magazine.  “My strength has always been my stamina,” she says.  Radcliffe’s European half-marathon record, 67min 07sec was set in last autumn’s Great North Run, already ranks her fifth on the world all-time list. But she has scientific evidence to suggest that she is capable of going quicker still.

Physiological tests on Radcliffe after she returned from a high altitude training trip just before winning the World Cross title suggested that while she was in good shape for running an eight-kilometre cross-country race, she was in even better form for the one-hour-plus of hard effort demanded by the half-marathon.

“I’ve never tested anyone with readings as good as Paula’s and I’ve never seen any published anywhere that compare,” according to Andy Jones, an exercise physiologist who works as a consultant to UK Athletics.

Jones’s analysis work looks at three areas - running economy, lactate thresh old (which measures how quickly a runner tires), and VO2 max, the runner’s oxygen capacity.

“Paula is outstanding. She hardly produces any lactate, she has a very high VO2 and is the most economic runner I have measured,” Jones said.

Jones believes that Radcliffe has yet to find her best event. “The longer it goes, the greater the margin she has over others because she is not using great energy,” he says.

Radcliffe also has the support and encouragement of her biggest idol, former world champion and world record-holder Ingrid Kristiansen. “She was one of the greatest distance runners of all time,” said Radcliffe. “She won the world titles on all surfaces and at that point she was the best distance runner in the world.

“I am also moving into my late 20s, which is the peak time for middle-distance runners because you get stronger as you get older. I have come here in the best shape I can be.”

Radcliffe still hankers after emulating Kristiansen, by having success on track, country and on the roads. “I think a complete distance runner should be able to win on all surfaces and I’d like to prove I can do that. Everyone says I can’t win on the track but I think it’s just a matter of time.”

In Bristol, Radcliffe’s most serious rivals will, as ever, come from Africa:

Elana Meyer, South Africa’s 1994 World Half-marathon champion, Kenya’s Susan Chepkemei, silver medallist behind Radcliffe in Veracruz a year ago, and Berhane Adere, one of the Briton’s Ethiopian conquerors over 10,000m in Edmonton.

But on home soil, one thing about Radcliffe’s performance on Sunday is certain: she will give her all.