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Berlin, GermanyWhen the Chinese women’s distance running squad raided the medals vault at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, they took gold at 1500, 3000 and 10,000m but found the safe door to the Marathon firmly closed. Now, 16 years later, and back in Germany, China finally has its first Olympic or World champion at the distance of either sex.
Bai Xue, who ran her first Marathon at the age of 14, and who, remarkably, was making her 11th appearance over 26 miles 385 yards, at just 20, said that there was only one word – “joy” - to describe her feelings. “I feel it is a great honour for me to win this gold medal on the last day of the championships,” Bai added.
It was China’s first women’s gold medal in a World Championships running event since that unforgettable year in which Liu Dong won the women’s 1500m, Qu Yunxia the 3000m, and Wang Junxia the 10,000m. Wang did go on to win the World Cup Marathon, in San Sebastian, that year but, at the World Championships, China’s only competitor failed to finish.
Gracious enough to acknowledge that she triumphed in a weakened field, Bai said that she still had much to learn. “I am very happy to win this championship but also I think I was a little bit lucky because the top runners were not here,” she said. “I still have a lot to improve to compare with these top runners and catch up with them.”
Going into the race, Bai felt none of the anxiety which had accompanied her into the Olympic Games back home last year. Competing in the 10,000m in Beijing, she finished 21st. “As for the Olympic Games, it is a very bad memory,” Bai said. “Athletes are sometimes in good form and sometimes in bad form. And sometimes they don’t know why.
“I think one of the very important reasons was that it was at home, a once in a lifetime competition. Mentally, there was a lot of pressure and maybe it was simply that there was too much expectation. But, when I came here for my first appearance in the World Championships I was expecting many of the top runners and I was just telling myself to relax.
“My preparation for the Olympic Games was not very good, I was not in good shape, and afterwards I felt very bad. But all the people around me supported me very well and I was encouraged by them. Gradually I got back my form. I had very good training before coming here and I think that, when I arrived, I was mentally very strong.”
Recording 2:25:15, Bai did not even have to come close to her personal best of 2:23:27, set last year, to win. It would no doubt have been different had the cream of the event not been missing. Paula Radcliffe, the World Record holder, Catherine Ndereba, the World champion, Constantina Tomescu-Dita, the Olympic champion, and Irina Mikitenko, the World Marathon Majors series champion, were all missing.
That said, the field nevertheless contained 12 women with sub 2:25 personal best times. It was, therefore, hardly a soft touch.
So a new star is born, albeit one long accustomed to the Marathon, despite her tender years. Now the youngest World champion in her event, she had clocked 2:37:07 at 14. “I ran a marathon race in 2003,” Bai confirmed. “It was not for competition, the coach just wanted me to see what the race was like.”
Another incredible statistic – Bai was running her fifth marathon in a year and her third in 2009 (13th in Nagoya, 7th in Dailan). Until today all of Bai’s marathons had been contested in Asia, her best result being victory in the 2008 Beijing Marathon (not the Olympics).
“After I won the Beijing Marathon in October 2008 I was not in very good shape but, from February this year, I started very good training,” Bai said. “This is my third Marathon this year, and my first two show very bad results, but those Marathons were not really for competition reasons. They were mainly for tests or training reasons.”
In a lead group of three, Bai made her move for victory inside the last two kilometres. “At the 40km point, when I threw my cap away, I thought I had already secured a medal,” she said. “That was very good for me in my first appearance in these championships. I was feeling so well that I thought I could now work for the gold.”
Of the course and weather, Bai added: “The course was very flat, although there were a lot of turns. But, if you have similar training before the championships, that is ok. As for the weather and humidity, I think in my country it is even more humid and warmer at this moment, so it was not a problem at all.”
Leading China to the three-to-score World Cup title, held in conjunction, Bai said that this enhanced her experience here. “It was very important to win the World Cup as we missed it by only a few seconds the last time in Osaka (when Kenya won with 7:35.02 and China placed second with 7: 35.52). This time we were very determined.” And none more than she.