Having caught up with Paula Radcliffe in London, Berlin and her Rift Valley training camp, we reveal a psychological portrait that shows why the marathon queen could, finally, take the podium at this summer's Games.
She’s older and wiser, but those competitive fires still burn fiercely. In travelling to Iten, in Kenya, she put herself at the centre of global distance running. She shared the roads with her Olympic rivals and reveals that mind games became a part of everyday life. “I run past Mary Keitany quite often, and I’m always seeing Florence [Kiplagat] too,” she revealed at Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Centre. “You wave as they pass, they wave back, all very relaxed. But 200m before you pass, and 200m after, the pace goes up, you try to look easier, smoother. That’s how it works.”
Entering the last two Games, Radcliffe was under the glare of the British media. They built her up, witnessed her fall and, in places, helped knock her down. But London will be different. While she still attracts attention, the bulk of the expectant frenzy has been directed towards Jess Ennis and Mo Farah, lessening the burden on her. “I feel very happy and relaxed,” she said in January. By mid April, despite having endured a miserable season debut in Vienna, she was enjoying the relative absence of interest: “In an ideal world there’s just me, running and family. For me, that is fantastic.”
Radcliffe’s list of injuries, illnesses and misfortunes reads like a medical student’s revision list. Her missed opportunities have been even more painful and public. But every knock-down has seen her get back up, stronger and ready to fight. In a world where sportspeople’s moaning has become a background irritant, she’s never asked for a moment’s pity. “I would never moan about running, because it makes me happy,” says Radcliffe. “It’s as simple as that. When I retire from competitive athletics, I’m still going to go out running. It will remain a huge part of my life.”
There remains a view of Paula Radcliffe, particularly among people who have watched her run, rather than listened to her talk, that she is a two-dimensional character; that there’s little scope for anything in her life beyond running. While this was probably never quite accurate, since the arrival of her children, Radcliffe now more than ever has the perspective-giving benefit of a life outside running to save her from the pressure cooker of over-focus.
“Being a mother is something that was always going to be very important to me,” says Radcliffe. “If you’d gone back and asked me as a small girl, ‘Where do you see yourself when you’re 38?’, I’d have said, ‘I’d love to have two kids, a boy and a girl.’ And that was what mattered. I’d certainly have said that ahead of, ‘I want to have won an Olympic medal.’ So I’m grateful that I’ve got them and that they’re healthy. They’re what matters the most, way more than anything in sport. I appreciate how lucky I am.”
The events of recent years have, Radcliffe admits, made her feel vulnerable. But her time in Iten, going ‘back to basics’, has seen it flood back at just the right time. “All the runs are on trails, apart from my mile reps, which I prefer to do on the road,” Radcliffe revealed in Kenya. “You can’t wrap yourself up in cotton wool, you have to take risks, and that has benefits. Being in Iten really improved my confidence. I only expected to be running once a day and I ran twice, comfortably. I pushed hard and it worked out, and that gave me a huge boost. The trails are full of holes and lumps and bumps, and I was running hard on them. I gave it every chance for something to go wrong, and nothing did. If I survived that, I can survive anything.”
Speaking fluent French and German, and with a first class degree, Radcliffe has always been blessed with intelligence. What’s been added to this is the wisdom of experience that allows her to relieve some of the pressure by taking a broader perspective. Her disappointment in Vienna, for example, where in April she ran her slowest ever half marathon in 1:12, was swiftly put into context. “I was ill, and while it’s not great, it’s one of those things. It’s not like being injured, because it’ll be less disruptive and go far sooner,” she reflected afterwards. “You have to look at the bigger picture.” Come the intensity of the London Games, this wisdom of her experience will clearly give her an advantage when it comes to keeping a cool head.
Anyone who thinks Paula will be happy to jog along taking her bow on London’s streets this summer is sorely mistaken. Earlier this year, she did something she hasn’t done before: she left her family behind and headed out to Kenya to train alone and without distractions. “It’s a huge thing – we all say we make lots of sacrifices but I don’t really feel like I’ve made any sacrifices in my career until this point,” she told RW during her time in Kenya. “And this has been it: leaving the kids behind, that’s been the hardest thing for me. It’s because it’s Olympic year. I wouldn’t have done it any other year.”
“What I do try to do, and maybe more now than ever, is to listen to my body, and try to make sure I’m fully aware of how it’s feeling whenever I’m training – and especially when that training’s getting to a particularly tough stage,” she says. In races, she has learned to be master of her own mind by using a strategy known as ‘disassociation’ to keep her focused, but not weighed down by the importance of events. For Radcliffe, this involves counting in her head from one to 100. By the time she has completed this process three times, she knows a mile has gone by. “It helps me focus on the moment and not think about how many miles I have to go. I concentrate on breathing and striding, and I go within myself.”
…and still believing
Radcliffe has a precise idea of what she needs to win 2012 marathon gold. She’s avoided talking about beating specific athletes – notably Mary Keitany, who seems destined to start as favourite after her recent 2:17 in London – but she reckons what she has in her own legs could be enough. “I’m not in 2:15 shape anymore, and I’m not going to be again, that’s obvious,” she admitted last year in Berlin. “But if I get to 2:18 or thereabouts, that would give me a real chance.” Since then her belief has been bolstered with sessions in Iten. The disappointments of Vienna have been left behind along with the illness responsible, and in the buildup to a race where psychology plays a key role, the message is clear: Paula Radcliffe is ready to fight all the way.
Paula’s Olympics story so far…