Inspirational Woman: Paula Radcliffe MBE | Marathon World Record Holder

Paula Radcliffe

Paula Radcliffe first set a World Record when she won the 2002 Chicago Marathon.

In 2003 she repeated the feat in front of a home crowd during the London Marathon. Running a time of 2:15:25, her World Record would stand for 16 ½ years.

Fiercely determined and with laser-like focus, Paula trail-blazed her way into the history books creating a legacy that would stand the test of time. From incredible comebacks to a career jam-packed with achievements – it’s perhaps easiest to say:

23-time medal-winner, eight-time marathon winner, three-time World Record-breaker, 16 ½ year World Record holder and the second fastest female marathon runner of all-time. That’s just half the story.

What was your approach to goal setting?

I used to write down at the beginning of each year, ever since I was 12 or 13 and my coach advised me to, goals for the year ahead. Some of those were sporting goals and some of those were life goals. Some would roll over and some would get ticked off. That would kind of be a rolling work in progress. I guess I don’t physically write it down anymore, but I still go through that process of thinking where am I going this year, what’s the general direction?

Some would get achieved throughout the year and some I’d look back at to refresh myself and realise what I was aiming for. It’s more the personal ones; how I’m going to live my life, how I’m going to treat other people – that kind of thing that you check in through the year. The ones from a sporting perspective, day in day out, you’re working towards them.

You are an eight-time marathon winner, which sounds exhausting. How did you do it?

Being suited to the marathon is really important. I was lucky I think that my body and mind were very suited to running the marathon. I loved the challenge of it. The battle against yourself, against your body, the road, the distance and the other people. I loved all of that. I liked being away in training camps and working hard for long periods of time. I think I was very lucky that I got to do something I enjoyed doing, and still do today, but not to the same level. 

To be able to put it in perspective for a marathon runner is important. To be able to say this is a goal and this is what I’ll work towards. But at the end of the day, it is sport. So as long as I give it my best shot, that’s something really important to remember. Whatever we do, if we do give it our best shot, we feel better about it, generally, achieve more and get more out of it.

In the beginning, I never thought about the record. I just wanted to see how good I could be, how quick I could run, what was the best that I could do. It’s important to pick goals that you’re passionate about because then you’re going to invest a lot more energy into them, you’ll be motivated to overcome the setbacks and the bumps in the road which is going to happen on the way to achieving anything worth achieving. 

So after I had set that in Chicago, I wanted to try and win it back to England, in the London marathon. Again, I worked all winter trying to get that to come about. First of all, it was really special to do that in London with all the support I had. Some people say London is not the quickest course but I think as a British person, that extra boost you get from the crowd kind of rules out any slow areas of the course if there are any. For me, I think it was a quick course. 

Was there a moment you were shocked at how good you were?

The first marathon that I ran was a little bit of a shock because you never know. There have been some really great athletes who on paper should make amazing marathon runners but never quite make the transition and there have been other people who aren’t predicted to be great marathon runners but when they turn to the marathon, they are. So I always say, you never know until you try it. I think that was a nice surprise. I hoped I’d be good at it, I thought I could be, but I didn’t know until I ran the first one. I guess the other one was that World Cross Country back in 1992. I think, a lot of luck went my way. It was one of my goals for that year but I’d finished 15th the year before. My coach and I had worked all year towards that cross country and trying to run splits that the winner had run the year before. And then when we get to Boston it snowed and was on a really up and down course. 

I didn’t run anywhere near those splits but I do love running on the snow and I think that helped me. I ran really well that day, so I think that solidified in my mind that I could make it as a professional athlete. That was just before I went to University, and I thought I’d give myself the time while at University to try and make it and if all goes to according to plan I’d have a couple of years after to try and make it as a professional athlete.

How does it feel to break a world record? 

First of all, going back to breaking it, it probably came about quite gradually. I think I’d always known that the marathon would probably be my best event and I’d always wanted to do one. But then when I ran my debut in 2002 it was really just about exploring the marathon, seeing what it was like, getting to know it, experimenting a little bit and almost going in with nothing to lose. I didn’t plan to run to splits or run for times or anything. It was only when I turned into the Mall that I realised I’d missed the world record at the time by nine seconds.

That reinforced immediately in my mind that I could get the World Record if I really went for it. So I worked towards Chicago in 2002 with the aim first and foremost, of winning the race because I was up against the current world record holder at the time. 

I was lucky in that, both of those things happened. Probably one as a result of the other so I won the race because I went for the time as well. I guess the cool thing about the marathon, is that if you’re a fair way up on it, you know for at least a couple of miles if not 5 km that you’re going to break the world record. So it’s not like that sudden shock realisation when you cross the line. You kind of have a build-up and time to get your head around and appreciate it a little bit more.  

So after I had set that in Chicago, I wanted to try and win it back to England, in the London marathon. Again, I worked all winter trying to get that to come about. First of all, it was really special to do that in London with all the support I had. Some people say London is not the quickest course but I think as a British person, that extra boost you get from the crowd kind of rules out any slow areas of the course if there are any. For me, I think it was a quick course. 

 What are your thoughts on holding the World Record time in a marathon for 16 years?

I thought I could run quicker and I certainly didn’t expect it to last 16 ½ years from then, 17 years since when I first set it in Chicago. But I think the longer I had it, the more it started to feel like it was mine. To begin with, you kind of think I’ve only got it for a little bit. The longer I had it, probably the more attached you get to it. And it becomes a bigger deal in other people’s minds. That’s what I’ve found since it was broken. I knew when I saw Brigid Kosgei run the Great North Run, prior to Chicago, that she was in the kind of shape that would smash the world record. I was kind of expecting that to happen there anyway.

It’s weird everyone watching you as if you’re going to fall apart or you’re not going to be the same person afterwards. It is kind of weird. I was sitting next to Dave Bedford when it was really certain she was going to break it. He just looked at me and said: “you know you’ll be exactly the same afterwards, it’s not as big a deal as everyone makes it in to. I think that’s absolutely true and it’s always going to be my personal best.  

7. What has been your ‘stand out’ moment?

The first one was really special, my last one in 2015 was really important and a huge highlight in my career because it was personal for me, the battle to get back to be able to run London one more time after my foot surgery. So that journey, actually getting there and seeing how much support I’d got, running in the mass race there as well, so kind of appreciating that side of the London marathon, that was a real highlight. Obviously, London in front of the home crowd was amazing. 

And I think winning the World Cross Country as a senior too because I’d won it as a junior back in 1992. I’d set a goal to work towards winning the senior title. It took me nine years – I had a lot of seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths. So to finally do that was really important and helps you understand the meaning of perseverance. 

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for gender equality (particularly for women in sport), what would it be?

I have a son and a daughter. I try to bring them both up just to be the best person that they can be and not to expect special treatment either because they’re female or because they’re male. It’s about how good you are and being the best person for the job. I think I was very lucky in athletics; I never felt like I couldn’t do something because I was female or that opportunities were closed off to me because I was female, but I do appreciate that I was very lucky. I was in the western world, doors weren’t closed to me and I pretty much did have access to just as much as a boy would do growing up in my sport. 

There have been many campaigns to encourage more women into sports & exercise. What would your advice or tips be to get more women moving?

When we talk about equality it’s about equal access, equal opportunities rather than just being 50/50. I think the media has a big role to play in the promotion of women’s sport. 

In athletics, it’s very fair and very equal, but there are sports like football and tennis that aren’t – and there’s a lot of work to be done there.

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