By Bob Phillips
2nd January 2019
Paula Radcliffe – What Might She Have Done for 10,000 metres ?
It’s an interesting thought that Paula Radcliffe once upon a time ran the fastest 5000 metres of 14:57.65 at the European Championships and also the 2ndfastest of 15:03.44 – without ever having competed in that event at the meeting. The two performances were, in effect, one and the same because they constituted the first and second halves of her 10,000 metres triumph in Munich in 2002. The actual 5000 metres race in Munich lasted rather longer than either of Radcliffe’s efforts, as 15:14.76 sufficed for Marta Dominguez, of Spain, to win the title, and even Sonia O’Sullivan was not as fast as Radcliffe when she won in 1998 (15:06.50).
In the autobiography which she wrote with David Walsh, and which was published in 2004, Paula says that when she talked beforehand with husband Gary Lough and coach Alex Stanton about the way she would run the Munich 10,000 there was unanimous agreement that she could break 30 minutes. Nine days previously, in Manchester, she had done wonderfully well in the Commonwealth Games 5000, leading almost the entire way – well, how else would she run ? – and finishing little more than three seconds outside the World record. On that occasion there had seemed no doubt she could have beaten the record had she needed to, but maybe the greater satisfaction for both the enthralled crowd of 38,000 or so and for Paula herself was that at last she was winning a gold medal in her ninth major championship track final. A time of close to 14:20 seemed perfectly feasible, rather than the 14: 31.42 she did on the night.
The World record at that juncture was 14:28.09 by Jiang Bo, of China, in 1997, though if the event had already become standard when the Chinese women were at their best in 1993 then the record would have been about 14:02 if you equated it to what they achieved for 3000 and 10,000 metres that year ! More than a quarter-of-a-century later 14:02 is still a distant target.
The 1998 European 10,000 metres had been one of those bitter experiences for Paula. She had led until the last lap, but then (quoting from her book) “as they went past, I tried desperately to find something else, arms flailing, shoulders rising, head bobbing frantically as I disappeared into the quicksand”. The laboured style wasn’t much changed four years later in Munich as the arms still flailed and the head still bobbed as if she was a crazed marionette, but the effect was rather different. The rain poured down, banishing many of the spectators on the open back-straight to their homes or hotels to watch on television, while we more fortunate souls under cover were personal witness to one of the finest of all distance-running achievements on the track.
Her opponents (all 28 of them) were soon strung out far behind, though 11 of them still set personal bests. Fernanda Ribeiro, of Portugal, once the finest woman 10,000 metres runner in the World, dropped out. Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan, in defence of her title, resisted the longest and broke her national record but was still more than three-quarters of a minute down in 2ndplace.
Paula’s time of 30:01.09 beat by 13 or so seconds Ingrid Kristiansen’s European record of 16 years earlier achieved on one of those balmy Scandinavian summer evenings which remain forever in my memory. No Olympic Games or World Championships race had ever been run faster. Only that other-Worldly 29:31.78 by Wang Jun Xia from 1993 remained beyond reach – or was it really ? Just as we had conjectured a faster 5000 metres time in Manchester, then it seemed perfectly logical over our steins of beer in a convivial Munich bar later that evening back in 2002 to suppose that Paula could have run 29:40 or even better if the rain had remained a steady drizzle and not gathered momentum to become a drenching downpour.
A startlingly graphic photograph in Paula’s book captures the occasion perfectly, depicting her in shadowed outline against a shimmering silver backcloth of track and infield both inundated, but in the text she gives no clue as to whether she thought that she could have run much faster, merely regretting that she missed breaking 30 minutes so narrowly. I was reminded of a conversation with her some several years before when she had come up to the BBC Radio press-box and we had been reflecting on yet another of her medal near-misses. I had ventured the somewhat radical opinion that Wang Jun Xia’s 10,000 metres time was perfectly beatable. Paula was clearly of the contrary view but was far too polite to show anything more than disbelief on her face.
History, I suppose, has proved me right … but the record is still only 29:17.45, and had Paula Radcliffe not been diverted into a marathon career which brought her both the delights of a still standing World record and a World title but also the despair of Olympic failure I just wonder if she might have even run a 10,000 metres time which would have remained equally as unattainable by others.
Paula Radcliffe at the major track and road Championships:
1993– WCh 3000 7th. 1995– WCh 5000 5th. 1996– OG 5000 5th. 1997– WCh 5000 4th. 1998– ECh 10,000 5th. 1999– WCh 10,000 2nd. 2000– WCh Half-Marathon 1st, OG 10,000 4th. 2001– WCh Half-Marathon 1st, 10,000 4th. 2002– CG 5000 1st, ECh 10,000 1st. 2003– WCh Half-Marathon 1st. 2004– OG Marathon dnf, 10,000 dnf. 2005– WCh Marathon 1st.