Soft footfalls grow louder in twilight, a runner approaching,
heard but not yet seen. A wide, green soccer pitch is ringed by a
handful of gravel paths, small pine trees and, much farther in
the distance, the cold gray peaks of the Pyrenees, looming over
the French village of Font-Romeu, a resort more than 5,900 feet
above sea level about 10 miles north of the Spanish border. The
steps become louder, crunching small pebbles into the dirt. At
last a woman floats through a hole in the tree line; she is
exceedingly slender, with hair the color of summer straw, and she
nods her head ever so slightly with each delicate stride, looking
more like porcelain than granite.
Appearances lie. Paula Radcliffe, a 28-year-old British distance
runner, is among the most fearless athletes on earth. "She is the
toughest person that I have ever known in our sport," says U.S.
distance Olympian Deena Drossin. Two years after a bitter Olympic
disappointment, Radcliffe has become one of the best runners in
history and has simultaneously engaged her sport's policy makers
in a public battle over the eradication of performance-enhancing
drugs. She is that rarest of competitors, one who performs
superbly while passionately trying to correct her sport's
injustices. Think Curt Flood or Steve Prefontaine. "I had planned
to wait until I was finished running to devote myself to the
doping issue," says Radcliffe, "but it's my performances that
make people listen to me, isn't it?"
Her next competition is Sunday in the Chicago Marathon. After a
remarkable spring and summer, in which she was dominant at
distances ranging from 5,000 meters to the marathon, Radcliffe
seems poised to run an epochal race. Catherine Ndereba of Kenya
will also be running in Chicago, and her world record (2:18:47),
which Radcliffe missed by just nine seconds in London last April,
seems to be in jeopardy. "Paula is on a mission right now," says
Gerard Hartmann, a 42-year-old Irish physical therapist who has
worked with dozens of world-class runners but almost exclusively
with Radcliffe over the past nine weeks. "She wants to put the
marathon world record completely out of sight."
A record in Chicago would close a chapter in Radcliffe's life
that began painfully on a cool night in Sydney, with fickle winds
swirling inside the Olympic Stadium. For nearly a decade she had
been among the best distance runners in the world. Lacking a
sprint finish, she usually seized control of a race far from the
end, trying to kill off the closers. Time and again, however,
Radcliffe was outkicked. At the Olympics the result was more
discouraging. Radcliffe led the 10,000 for more than five miles
at Olympic-record pace, only to be passed late by Ethiopia's
Derartu Tulu and Gete Wami and Portugal's Fernanda Ribeiro. "I
was totally gutted, physically and emotionally," says Radcliffe.
"I had run so hard, and I still couldn't beat them."
Hard work and the pure joy of running had long sustained her.
Radcliffe began running with her family at age six. Five years
later she joined the Bedford and County Athletic Club, about an
hour's drive north of London, and began training under Alex and
Rosemary Stanton, who remain her principal coaches. As the team
ran on the grassy trails in a nearby park, Alex Stanton noticed
immediately that she was different. "Everything she did was
flat-out," he says. "One tough cookie, that girl."
She imposed a fierce will on every facet of her life. When she
entered prestigious Loughborough University, a professor
suggested that she could make high grades if she studied 40 hours
a week. "So that's what she did," says Radcliffe's husband, Gary
Lough, a former 1,500-meter runner from Ireland who met Radcliffe
at Loughborough. "Eight hours a day, five days a week." Radcliffe
earned first honors with a degree in European Studies, a
combination of business and French and German, both of which she
In Sydney that strength cracked. Inside the Olympic Stadium a
crestfallen Alex Stanton found Hartmann and said, "Gerard, what
can I do? I feel like I've failed my girl."
Together they made changes in Radcliffe's training regimen to
improve her explosiveness. "She has phenomenal endurance and
staggering ability to withstand pain," says Hartmann. "What she
lacked was the ability to inject speed into a race." She
continued to run long (145 miles per week) and hard (maintaining
a pulse rate approaching 200 beats per minute) in training but
also began doing plyometric bounding and leaping sessions and
simple drills. These new wrinkles made Radcliffe stronger than
ever heading into spring 2002. In April she made her marathon
debut, and her 2:18:56 was all the more stunning because of her
gradually quickening pace: She ran the first half in 1:11:05 and
the second in 1:07:51.
On Aug. 6 in Munich, nearing the end of a summer in which she ran
personal bests at 3,000 and 5,000 meters, Radcliffe slogged
through a rainstorm to win the 10,000 at the European
Championships in 30:01.09. Radcliffe went out in 14:57 and rarely
slowed. "She kept running hard lap after lap, and you just didn't
think it was possible to keep going," says Sonia O'Sullivan, a
former world champion at the distance, who finished second. The
only woman who has run faster is Wang Junxia of China, who was
clocked at 29:31.78 at the Chinese Games of 1993. Though Wang
never tested positive, her time is so tainted by suspicion of
doping that Track & Field News lists Radcliffe's as a
"non-Chinese world record."
Shortly after her Munich 10K, Radcliffe was the subject of an
article in the French sports magazine L'Equipe that was loaded
with innuendo about possible doping but was entirely
unsubstantiated. Radcliffe wept to her husband and mother over
the article, outraged but defenseless. "It's the hardest thing
in the world to prove you didn't do something," she says.
The situation was thick with irony. At the 2001 world
championships in Edmonton, where Olga Yegorova of Russia was
allowed to compete in--and win--the 5,000 meters despite a
positive test for the banned performance-enhancing drug EPO (the
test was successfully challenged on procedural grounds),
Radcliffe scrawled a sign that read epo cheats out and held it
up in the front row of the stadium during the preliminary heats
of Yegorova's race. "I felt like I had to stand up and do
something," Radcliffe says. "Edmonton made a mockery of the
entire doping situation."
Most successful distance runners (as well as cyclists) are
presumed guilty of something. And now Radcliffe has spent time
on the accused side of the issue. "That," she says, "hurts
terribly." She was invited to attend a meeting of the antidoping
commission of the IAAF (track's world governing body). "She felt
a sincere frustration, and we appreciated her feelings," says
Arne Ljungqvist of Sweden, chairman of the commission.
Radcliffe responded to the L'Equipe piece by asking the British
track federation to release the results of her last 10 drug
tests (it did; all were negative) and then authorizing the
release of her blood tests taken before last fall's world
half-marathon championship and the London Marathon. (Both were
clean.) Now she goes further. She wants her own current blood
and urine samples frozen for analysis when more sophisticated
testing becomes available. Some athletes have supported her, but
none have made such a sweeping offer. "It all seems so
distracting," says O'Sullivan. "It's enough for me to get myself
to the starting line."
It is not enough for Radcliffe. She must be fast and honest and
someday proven clean. High in the mountains, the sky darkens as
she finally slows her training pace. A ride home is offered, and
declined. Radcliffe will jog instead. She takes no shortcuts.