Paula Radcliffe recalls her 'impossible' London marathon record run

Ten years after the race, Paula Radcliffe's 2003 marathon time remains unbeaten and an extraordinary sporting achievement

On 13 April 2003, Paula Radcliffe set a world record in the London marathon that was dubbed unbeatable. London's then race director, and former 10,000m world record holder, Dave Bedford described her time of 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds as "the greatest distance running performance I have seen in my lifetime, it ranks in my mind with the impact of Bob Beamon's long jump in 1968." Beamonesque … And as her physio would describe it, simply something else – like travelling to Mars.

Radcliffe's achievement sent reverberations around the world. Not only had the Briton beaten her own world record of 2:17.18 set the year before in Chicago – knocking a minute and a half off the efforts of the previous holder, the formidable Catherine Ndereba – but she had sliced off almost two minutes more. Those margins of improvement were, at the time, simply unimaginable.

A decade on and no woman has come within 2½ minutes of that run. Radcliffe still dominates the all-time records list and her name appears beside the three fastest marathon times in history.

On that spring day in London, as the world watched in awe and Radcliffe sprinted past the finish line, the press gathered to make sense of what had just taken place. It was noted that her time qualified her to compete in the men's marathon at the upcoming world championships in Paris, and she was quizzed on her use of aboriginal emu oil – a product 400m Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman had extolled – to heal the wounds caused by a freak accident running into a child on a bike during a training run in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Radcliffe's run was hailed as one of the greatest athletics world records of all time, the IAAF's scoring tables were brought out and pored over comparing her time to other records in varying disciplines. To this day, no male marathon runner has managed to run an equivalent time (according to the tables they would have to run 2:03.27, a pace which eluded the great Haile Gebrselassie, while the current men's world record from 2011 stands at 2:03.38 by Kenya's Patrick Makau).

Radcliffe however maintains that the achievement never really sank in. "Looking back you think, 'Oh actually that was a really big deal at the time,'" says Radcliffe now. "But I was so ready to run that and believed that was what I'd do that day that it wasn't a massive big shock or a surprise," she says. "From the start we all said we mustn't set a limit on it. That was our motto at the time: no limits.

"The only time I really knew exact times was somewhere along the Embankment, [former Olympic silver medallist] Peter Elliott came alongside me because he was on the BBC camera bike and Gary [Lough, Radcliffe's husband and coach] had told him to shout to me. He said: 'Gary says if you hurry up you can get under 2:16!' In my head I answered: 'Screw Gary, I'm going as fast as I can.'"

Lough, meanwhile, was in an event car with Radcliffe's support team, listening out for checkbacks over the radio. Alongside him sat Gerard Hartmann, the physio who had spent seven weeks working with Radcliffe in Albuquerque in the buildup . "I remember we got to 10 miles and Ray [Radcliffe's then agent] started saying, 'Woah, hold on, she's going to blow out, she's going to drop out at 18 miles,'" recalls Hartmann, who adds that he had already seen her run 24 miles at altitude in 2:15 and believed she could even run faster. "I said, 'No, she's going to run 2:15 or faster.' And they all just looked at me like bullshit, no way. I said, 'Ray, she's in that shape'. 'No,' he said, 'that's suicide pace.' And I was actually indignant. Around 15 miles she was running a 5:11 or 5:12-mile pace, I think anyone who didn't know how fit she was would have been thinking, 'Jesus, this is a risk, she's gone way too hard.'"

With 800m left to run Radcliffe began to calculate. It dawned on her that she could break 2:16 if she crossed the line in under three minutes. She had doggedly run 26 miles at lightning pace – but still managed to sprint the distance in an incredible 2mins 25secs. At the finish she recalls being pleased, but not euphoric. "I was still thinking I can run quicker than that, I can train harder," she says. "I remember Dave Bedford saying he never thought he'd see anyone come near that time for a while. And I remember thinking, 'Well, that's not right, I'm going to come back and beat it next year.' I really did think I would."

After the winner photographs Radcliffe began to suffer the effects of the exertion. Lough said she looked so pale he was compelled to raid his mother-in-law's handbag for some make-up for her cheeks. Meanwhile the Briton passed blood in a portable toilet and cradled her battered body through the press conference, rocking backwards and forwards to ease the pain of her stomach cramps. Later, she stuffed herself full with greasy chips and Coke; a rare occasion to feast on junk food.

As the result sank in, Lough's phone began to ring incessantly, and life changed forever. Everyone wanted to know how Radcliffe had achieved the impossible. How could an athlete who ran with an awkward style have beaten the grace and finesse of the East Africans? Simple, says Hartmann, ranking Radcliffe's pain threshold as greater than any athlete he had known. During her most prolific years the Irish physio lived with Radcliffe for weeks at a time, providing daily sessions to counter the 150-200 miles she was covering each week. The statistics alone are mind-boggling. "I've worked with 63 Olympic medallists and there was nobody, from Haile Gebrselassie to Kelly Holmes, who on the treatment table could ever take that level of pain. She would hurt me rather than me hurt her. She would actually break me down because I'd have to go so deep into the sinews, I would have to ice my thumbs afterwards I was in such pain."

"Paula Radcliffe drained the living daylights out of me," he says, describing how he would travel for 13 hours from his home in Ireland to Radcliffe's French training base in Font-Romeu, high up in the Pyrénées, only to be greeted at the door with a shout from Lough to say, "Gerard, you're 15 minutes late, Paula's waiting on the table." There was no: "Hello Gerard, do you want a cup of tea?" "I'd left my house at 6am to get there for 7pm and I'd barely got in the door and she was waiting for me on the table for a straight two-hour session … Paula would extract that last ounce that wasn't even there out of you. That's what made Paula so good." During that period Hartmann gave over so much of his time to Radcliffe that his other athletes began to grow resentful. "Kelly Holmes once gave out to me," he says, "she said: 'Gerard you're not accessible because you're working too much with Paula.'"

The results, however, spoke for themselves. "She went to Mars, and beyond. She delivered performances that I don't think physiologists thought were possible," says Hartmann. But after the many exposés of the last three decades, "impossible" in athletics had become all too often interpreted as drug-addled. While in Britain Radcliffe may not have been doubted – she had famously held up a sign saying "EPO cheats out" at the 2001 World Championships and was an outspoken voice on anti-doping – others did, a fact that Hartmann readily accepts.

"I can see why people think that record cannot be clean," he says. "I work with international athletes who ask me all the time, "Radcliffe must have taken drugs, you cannot run that fast, it's impossible." And I always say I have 100% proof and confidence there is no doubt in my mind … I've lived with Paula. You know athletes, you can get a sense of it … Paula would check everything, in restaurants if she got up to go to the loo she would make sure Gary sat by her drinks in case anyone spiked anything, it was one of her big worries where would the bottles be stored the night before a race – could they be contaminated? That 2:15.25 is copper-sealed, a pure record. I can't say that about all the records out there, but I can put my hand on my heart and say it is the purest record out there and the best record."

Can Radcliffe herself explain why no one has come close to it? "No, not really. I did train really hard, but I think there are people out there more talented than me. I don't know. I can't explain it. I thought it was going to happen with Mary Keitany [two-time London marathon winner and the third fastest runner of all time]. Maybe it's because people are racing each other more than racing themselves." What does she mean? "That mental way of never letting off the gas, even when you've got the race won, that probably did push me to it because there was never a time where I thought, 'I'm up here, I can relax back,' it was always: 'keep hitting it as hard as you can.'

"I think also the fact that I did all of those tiny things – and people say, 'Oh you're so injury prone', well yeah, I am now because of how much my body took over those years. But there were a number of years where it took a huge amount and did not break down. People say they don't like being locked away in a training cage, but I was actually happy living like that."

In a race that controversially included eight male pacemakers, Radcliffe recalls consciously pressing so that she never sat behind the male runners, always running alongside so that no one could claim she had been carried. In 2011, though, the IAAF did try to annul her world record because men had taken part, but the notion was dropped – especially when Radcliffe forced them to compare footage with Gebrselassie's then world record run, in which she alleges he had been shielded from the wind by his pacemakers.

She did not know it at the time but that day in London was to be Radcliffe's career peak. She would never run as fast again, she did not go on to compete at the world championships that summer as had been expected and – most famously and cruelly of all – she would never go on to win the Olympic medal she so craved.

She did, however, leave a lasting legacy. Hugh Brasher, son of London Marathon co-founder and Olympic gold medallist Chris, took over as race director this year and remembers the day that women's marathon running changed forever. "It heralded a boom in women's running that has carried on since," says Brasher former chief executive of Sweatshop. "Immediately sales of women's running shoes increased dramatically, even to the extent that the most popular models were sold out for months.

"Suddenly Paula had made it acceptable for women to be out running in the streets. She started a women's running revolution."

"Paula Radcliffe has put Britain on the map," agrees Hartmann. "She set a record that's so far out there, and it's already 10 years old, that record could become 20 or even 25 years old. That tells you everything you need to know. And hopefully with the clampdown in drug testing there won't be an athlete who can go near it. There's no clean athlete who can go near that in the next 10 years."

Radcliffe is more philosophical. "Much as I'd like it not to be, it will be beaten. That's sport. It's there to be shot at. I don't think I'm someone who has way more talent than everyone else in the marathon. Somebody is going to come along and beat it. But I do think they've got to be prepared to hurt in order to push themselves that hard." This weekend she will both celebrate the anniversary and cherish the memory. While from her commentary position for the BBC she will be watching keenly, one eye on the clock.


Anna Kessel

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Paula Radcliffe eyes only a personal victory in final London Marathon
Paula Radcliffe will end her top-level running career at the London Marathon but injuries mean she is grateful to be there at all

Sean Ingle

25, Apr, 2015 @9:00 PM

Article image
Paula Radcliffe warns Mo Farah not to waste brief moment of brilliance
The women's marathon world record holder, Paula Radcliffe, has urged Mo Farah to make the most of his remarkable form

Anna Kessel

20, Apr, 2013 @10:19 PM

Article image
Paula Radcliffe will not compete in London Marathon

Paula Radcliffe has confirmed she will miss the London Marathon for the fifth consecutive year since winning it in 2005

Anna Kessel

08, Apr, 2010 @9:00 PM

Article image
London Marathon champion undaunted by return of Paula Radcliffe

Liliya Shobukhova, the defending London Marathon champion, said she was not concerned about competing against Paula Radcliffe

Anna Kessel

13, Apr, 2011 @8:31 PM

Article image
Paula Radcliffe deserves rousing send-off in 2015 London Marathon
One of the greatest female distance runners in history has the final race of her competitive career; #thankyoupaula is least she has earned

Sean Ingle

19, Apr, 2015 @3:28 PM

Article image
Paula Radcliffe in training for her swansong in 2015 London Marathon

The world mararthon record holder, Paula Radcliffe, has resumed trained after injury and is aiming to compete in the 2015 London Marathon

Sean Ingle

02, Feb, 2014 @11:05 PM

Article image
Paula Radcliffe predicts marathon classic and sees threat to her record
Paula Radcliffe, who has held the women’s world marathon record for 15 years, thinks one of Mary Keitany and Tirunesh Dibaba may break it at the London Marathon

Sean Ingle

20, Apr, 2018 @9:26 PM

Article image
London 2012: Paula Radcliffe camp says door not closed on Olympic dream

Paula Radcliffe will monitor her fitness over the next 24 hours before deciding whether to run the marathon at the London Olympic Games next Sunday

Anna Kessel

28, Jul, 2012 @10:55 PM

Article image
Paula Radcliffe defiant on doping doubts and ready for London Marathon
The female marathon world record holder is pleased to be running again, albeit not at an elite level, and says doubts of her achievements are ‘horrible’

Sean Ingle

20, Jan, 2015 @10:00 PM

Article image
Paula Radcliffe reveals how close she was to missing London Marathon finale
Paula Radcliffe has revealed just how close she came to missing her London Marathon farewell on Sunday because of an achilles injury and longstanding problem with her left foot that flared up while training in Kenya in February

Sean Ingle

22, Apr, 2015 @5:56 PM