Tyneside, UKIt was meant to be a comeback show for Paula Radcliffe but Kara Goucher gatecrashed the party on Tyneside this morning as the American delivered a decisive blow to the British world Marathon record holder to win the Great North Run half marathon in north east England in 66:57.
It’s not that Radcliffe ran badly – she finished second in 67:53 – just that Goucher had a superb run, delivering a shock to the Briton as she produced the fastest half marathon in the world this year and the fastest ever by an American, her time quicker than Deena Kastor’s 67:34 US record from Berlin last year.
The World Championships 10,000m bronze medallist had never run a half marathon before, but when she began to pull away from Radcliffe in the seventh mile she literally never looked back. If she had she would have seen Radcliffe slipping further and further behind as not looking over her shoulder proved to be a winning tactic.
“I just ran on how I felt,” said the 29-year-old. “I didn’t realise I was pulling away from Paula and thought she was right there all the way. I felt great until the last two miles when I kept thinking ‘I mustn’t look back because she will know I am hurting’. I kept expecting her to go past me.”
By then, though, Radcliffe was more than a minute behind, her aim of making a winning return to racing after 21 months out of the sport in tatters. “I knew I was in shape to run under 70 but I wasn’t expecting to get dropped as well,” she said.
“I had seen Kara’s results but I was surprised she was running that fast. It wasn’t that I was running slowly, just that she was going really well.”
Goucher: ‘I really didn’t know how fast I was running’
Indeed, she was. As debuts go, this was one of the best. Goucher not only ran the fastest ever half marathon by an American, but her times at 15km (47:36), 10 miles (50:59) and 20km (63:33) were also quicker than any US athlete has run before.
Goucher was as amazed as anyone. “The furthest I’ve ever raced before was 10k,” she said. “My coach [Alberto Salazar] told me to run 5:10s and to stay with the leaders as long it wasn’t under 5:05s.
“I didn’t even know what the US record was – it’s just a shame this won’t count,” she added, referring to the downhill nature of the course which debars it for official records. “I really didn’t know how fast I was running.”
If she’d checked her watch she would have spotted two smooth sub-five minute miles between the sixth and eighth markers where she began to leave Radcliffe in her wake.
The Briton had started in familiar fashion, quickly adopting her usual racing position at the front of the field. Within 30 seconds she was already a stride ahead of her rivals and by the time she led them over Newcastle’s famous Tyne Bridge there were only three with her - Goucher, Hungary’s Aniko Kalovics who eventually finished third, and Kenya’s Jane Muia.
Wearing the usual dark shades and long socks, Radcliffe soon made it clear this wasn’t going to be a tentative comeback. She took them through the first couple of miles in 5:10 and 5:11 – just 20 seconds slower than when she set the world’s quickest ever time 65:40 in 2003.
But Goucher was already looking strong as she matched Radcliffe stride for stride and together they clipped off a 5:03 third mile as Kalovics and Muia started to struggle. From then on it was just about these two. Radcliffe had said she was keen to get back to racing, and Goucher was certainly giving her a race.
By six miles (30:58) they were well clear, and Goucher put 10 metres between herself and Radclife with a 4:57 seventh mile. This was new territory for the American, but she was already putting the world Marathon record holder under severe pressure.
Goucher added a 4:49 eighth mile and within another mile her lead of just a few seconds had stretched to 15. Back in Newcastle, the Red Arrows (a Royal Air Force display team) were leaving a trace of multi-coloured vapour high above the Tyne Bridge, but down the road towards South Shields Goucher had created her own trail as she left the world’s best behind.
So sure had the British public been that Radcliffe would win the crowd were calling out to the race leader, “Go Paula, great job!” mistaking her for their golden girl. “I felt bad,” said Goucher. “I mean, I don’t even look like her.”
She dropped down the steep slope to the north east coast for the last mile to the finish with victory already in her grasp, and crossed the line in 66:57 to announce her arrival among the world’s road racing elite.
“I really just wanted to compete and didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I thought I could be second or third, but I also thought I might be 10th. I just didn’t know.”
Radcliffe recovered a little in the final stages and crossed the line 56 seconds behind with Kalovics third in 70:17 and Muia fourth. She may not have been back to her blistering best but Radcliffe’s time is still the third quickest in the world this year and for her this was a good stepping stone towards the Beijing Olympics next year.
“I’m disappointed not to win the race because that’s what I wanted,” she said. “I’m missing a bit of leg speed but other than that there’s nothing really missing. Winning was my aim but it’s not like this was a total disaster.”
Lel outsprints Wanjiru for men’s upset
There was disappointment for the men’s favourite too as the World record holder Sammy Wanjiru was beaten by his compatriot Martin Lel in the last 200 metres of a hard fought duel between the two Kenyans.
Lel, twice the London Marathon winner, hung onto Wanjiru’s tail for much of the race and then unleashed a devastating finishing kick to win in 60:10, his fastest ever over the half marathon. It’s a tactic he’s employed successfully in London and one he’s been honing for his upcoming assault on the New York City marathon in a few weeks’ time.
“With just a mile to go I was already happy,” said Lel. “I knew I had a good sprint in me. Because I have been working on it in training.”
“Wanjiru is the world record holder and I wanted to test myself against him,” Lel continued, “to test my speed. I knew if I was there in the last mile I would win.”
Wanjiru, who led for much of the race, was only eight seconds behind in second while the reigning champion Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa was third in 62:37, more than a minute and a half slower than his winning time last year.
After a quick opening (4:19 for mile one) the race followed a similar pattern to the women’s with Wanjiru leading Lel, Ramaala and the 2004 winner Dejene Berhanu of Ethiopia through the early miles at a comfortable pace: 4:35 at mile 2, then 4:37, 4:36 and 4:47 to the five mile mark.
But soon the two Kenyans had the race to themselves as the pace picked up through miles five to eight – 4:28 at six, 4:21 at seven and 4:23 at eight.
Wanjiru, whose world record from earlier this year stands at 58:33, had clearly started within himself – but Lel is a class athlete and it was he who began to edge ahead as they passed 10 miles in 45:40.
The elder Kenyan surged down the slope to the sea front but couldn’t shake off his young challenger. With quarter of a mile left Wanjiru tried to kick. Lel wasn’t to be beaten – the 28-year-old has been here many times before and it was he who had the decisive sprint finish.
“I beat Wanjiru in Lisbon last year and knew I could do it again,” he said. “My next target is to be ready for the New York Marathon and this was just a test. It is excellent to know I have the speed.”
Told of Haile Gebrselassie’s brand new World record, he said. “I’m not sure that’s something I can break. I’ve never really run that fast a marathon.”
As for the women’s marathon record holder, Radcliffe’s plans are still undecided. “I don’t know,” she said. “We’ll have to sit down and think about what we’ve learned before we decide what to do next.”
After today, Goucher may have some decisions to make too.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF