“It’s not quite revenge,” Paula Radcliffe says as she prepares herself for one last concentrated tilt at the London Marathon on Sunday. “But it’s almost as if, OK, this race is on my terms. I will run London once more. Even if it’s not at the speed I would like I’ll still be doing this marathon for me. It feels right because of all the good things that have happened to me in London and, also, because there were so many times when I couldn’t run the race while injured. The one that hurt, especially, was London 2012 when I had to pull out of the marathon.”
Radcliffe is such a vivid interviewee that it does not take long for her to describe a series of memories which are nostalgic and brutal, euphoric and painful. She has not run in London since 2005, when she won the marathon for a third time, but the race is a rich part of her life. Before she reaches the sporting glory and physical agony of 2003, when she set a women’s world record of two hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds, in a seemingly “impossible” time which has not been threatened since, Radcliffe evokes the poignant meaning of the London Marathon to her.
“It’s still that special day,” the 41-year-old says. “I remember going down to watch my dad run it all those years ago. Those memories are really clear. I remember being on the start and getting the tube to different points on the course. I remember Ingrid Kristiansen coming by [Kristiansen won the first of her four London marathons in 1984, when Radcliffe was 10]. I remember getting really mad with my dad because he stopped to eat his mini-Mars bar and have the drink we’d taken for him. I was saying, ‘C’mon, dad, all these people are passing you …!’ But he did OK. My dad’s fastest time was around three hours 40.”
Radcliffe laughs when asked if all her family are coming to watch her on Sunday. “Yes – even though, especially since the achilles started to go wobbly, I’ve tried not to make a big deal of it. But my mum and dad will be there, my sister-in-law and mother-in-law, and obviously [her husband] Gary and the [two] kids.”
It’s in keeping with Radcliffe’s often tortuous career that this year’s buildup has again been fraught with “panic” and “worry” about her fitness. “I had about six weeks when I came back from Kenya when I couldn’t run at all,” she says. “I was really starting to panic. But the last couple of weeks I’ve been able to run every day and build up gradually. This morning [in Monaco last Friday] I got up to an hour and 50 minutes so it’s going in the right direction.
“Normally, I would not run this far this close to the marathon. But I had to find out what I could endure and if my achilles could stand up to it. It feels OK. I’m still not fit but I can get through the marathon and enjoy it and hopefully, with a little muscle memory, it’ll come good.”
Radcliffe almost allows herself to get swept along by her enthusiasm. “When you get close to race day there’s that anticipation and excitement – it’s the same whatever level you’re running at because the marathon is like a festival. It’s going to be special even though I am under no illusions that I will be competitive in any way.
“This is the last one where I’m trying to prepare properly. In the future, if I feel like jumping in and jogging round, I might do that. I honestly don’t know how far my foot is going to hold up this time. But I don’t want to sacrifice being able to run for the pleasure of it, to share that with the kids, for the sake of another marathon.”
Radcliffe will clearly not risk any further long-term impact on her already damaged left foot – and her natural competitiveness is curbed by uncertainty. “I really don’t know how I might do. I won’t be with the elite women. I’ll be with the elite club runners – just behind the elite men. So I’m just going to run, enjoy it and try not to get carried away. I want to get through the first half feeling good and then I can push on towards the end – hopefully.”
She picks out four Kenyan women to follow closest on Sunday – Edna Kiplagat, who won last year, Florence Kiplagat, Priscah Jeptoo and another former winner in Mary Keitany. “They are the favourites and they were all training well when I was over in Kenya.”
Radcliffe has always been outspoken against doping – and she thinks carefully when asked if the controversy around doping in Kenya had affected that country’s best runners? “I don’t know if it’s had an impact. You think it would but when that story broke I was in New York and it seemed as if the Kenyans weren’t that fazed. They didn’t seem that bothered. But then I think they were affected by the unfairness. A couple of Kenyans were caught and a lot of people started thinking all Kenyan runners were doping – which isn’t true. It is an issue that needs to be faced. And the standards of testing need to be improved, as it does in Ethiopia and in many parts of the world where there’s not the same depth of testing we get in Europe or the US.”
Does she believe most of the top Kenyan athletes are clean? “Um …” Radcliffe pauses. “I don’t know at the moment. I think the majority are but I also think there is a problem there. They are realising this and starting to look at it and do something about it. But it’s not just a problem in Kenya. It’s a problem everywhere.”
Radcliffe reserves her disdain for Justin Gatlin, the former Olympic champion sprinter who continues his comeback after two doping suspensions. She reacts calmly when asked how Nike, one of her sponsors, reacted to her criticism of the company after they offered Gatlin an endorsement deal. “They were fine. I’ve never hidden my views on doping. Nike knew that when they took me on. My comments were probably a view lots of people shared.
“But it’s a view held more in Europe. In the US there’s this feeling that he has served his time and he can come back. It’s true but I don’t feel he is repentant. I feel he is laughing at people a little bit. I think it sends a message that says, ‘Oh, it’s OK to cheat. You serve your time and you come back and we’ll still give you a nice sponsorship deal.’ I think that’s sad.”
Tyson Gay, another American sprinter who tested positive and was banned for a year, was dropped by Adidas. Is she angry that Gay is now sponsored by Nike? “That’s a little different,” Radcliffe suggests. “My understanding is he changed his coach and all those athletes run with Nike. I think it’s a group thing rather than an individual sponsorship deal. I have less of a problem with Gay because he seems repentant. He has admitted it and given information. But I feel Gatlin is laughing at people.”
Should Gatlin, Gay and all convicted dopers be banned for life? “I’d prefer that. I understand that can’t be enforced legally but it’s an honour to take part in our sport. It’s not a human right so if you break the rules you should not be able to come back.”
Radcliffe has made a very different comeback from a foot injury which not only ruined her London Olympics but left her fearing that she might never jog or even walk again without pain. “It’s been a massive improvement. From June 2012 it was April 2013 before I could do any kind of running … and that was run for a little and then walk. I did five kilometres of that. It was a breakthrough because until that point I’d been struggling to even walk to pick up [her daughter] Isla from school. Walking to her school was painful. Now, just to run and to enjoy it seems almost like a gift.”
The nature of her injuries, as well as her age, mean that Radcliffe will never come close to the sporting “miracle” she produced in 2003 when running the women’s marathon in two hours 15 minutes. “I went into the race with this motto of ‘No Limits.’ I just wanted to see how fast I could run. My only aim was to hit every mile-split faster than 5.13. Peter Elliot [the former Olympic silver medallist] was on the BBC camera bike while Gary was on the lead truck. When I got to Embankment, Peter shouted: ‘Gary says if you hurry up you can break 2:16.’”
Radcliffe snorts in amusement at her husband’s characteristically blunt intervention. “My reaction was, ‘Piss off, I’m trying as hard as I can here.’ But as I turned into the Mall there was a clock with 800m to go and I remember thinking: “OK, if I run that in two minutes 30 I can be well be under two hours 16.”
She describes the pain after her record-breaking run, and Gary’s response to her pale and shivering state, in acute if amusing detail. “I had so much pain. My stomach had been cramping badly since the 18-mile marker. I pushed through that but when I finished I was in the worst agony. I was doubled over and that’s when my mum nearly punched Gary. He went up to her and said: ‘She looks like shit, have you got any makeup?’ My mum said [Radcliffe puts on the voice of an indignant mother]: ‘That’s my daughter and she’s just done something incredible.’ Gary said, ‘She still looks rubbish’.”
Radcliffe laughs dryly for she celebrated her 15th wedding anniversary with her infamously unromantic husband last week. But she is more serious when asked if she could savour the magnitude of that run? “I did savour it. But it’s definitely something I appreciate more with time. I can be training now and I think: ‘My God how did I do that?’ I couldn’t do it now because my body can’t stand that kind of training. But when you’re in the last mile and you’re running a world record in London your mind does work. As much as I wanted to push on I was very conscious of appreciating it and creating memories so I can look back and remember what it felt like.”
If Radcliffe’s injury allows her to complete Sunday’s race, does she expect this to be another marathon she will relish in the years ahead? “I think so – especially as I won’t have forgotten the panic over my achilles. I just want to enjoy it and see a different side to the marathon. It’s special to run it with everyone and I’ve never done that. I was always part of the women’s race going off on our own. I’ll be able to savour the mass start and enjoy the whole atmosphere. I’ve reached a point where I’m actually looking forward to it.”