Paula Radcliffe’s 2015 London Marathon Time in Context

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On Sunday, Paula Radcliffe ran the 2015 London Marathon in what she has stated will prove her last competitive race. Despite an Achilles injury hampering her preparation for the event, Radcliffe completed the 26.2 miles, in a time of 2 hours 36 minutes and 55 seconds. Thanking the crowd and those runners who, she admitted, had sacrificed their own races to run alongside her, she said:

‘I came into this race unprepared and hoped the magic of the London Marathon would help me and I’m sure it did.  Down the last mile I thought “I don’t care about the time”, I just wanted to thank as many people as I could. I knew it would be emotional and it was so emotional. I nearly lost it at Birdcage Walk but the crowds bowled me over, I wanted it to last forever. It was so special. I’m really going to miss it.’

Radcliffe hadn’t raced competitively since the Vienna City Half Marathon in April 2012, an exhibition of sorts which pitted her in a staggered battle against Haile Gebrselassie; and before that the 2011 Berlin Marathon, which took place in late September. The Berlin Marathon itself marked a return to action after nineteen months, in which Radcliffe had suffered knee troubles and also become pregnant and given birth to her second child. A foot injury ultimately forced her to pull out of the 2012 London Olympics.

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Paula Radcliffe was a very good but not great athlete on the track, narrowly missing out on medals at Olympic Games and World Championships throughout the 1990s, competing predominantly over the distance of 5,000 metres. Her highest achievement on the track came at the end of the decade, as she moved up to the 10,000 metres, and took a silver medal in that event at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, Spain. This was a feat she couldn’t quite match over 10,000 metres at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, and at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Canada: twice challenging, on both occasions she finished fourth.

While becoming more consistent in the realm of cross country running, Radcliffe’s transition to the marathon began in earnest with successive attempts at the Great North Run in 1999 and 2000. Finishing third in 1999, the following year she won the half-marathon race, setting a new European record over the distance with a time of 1:07:07. Her success afforded her the opportunity to participate in the 2000 World Half Marathon Championships, held in Veracruz, Mexico. Radcliffe came away with the gold, and triumphed again in 2001 as the championships moved to Bristol, England.

Her debut in the marathon proper came in April 2002. Competing for the first time in the London Marathon, Radcliffe was victorious in the race in a time of 2:18:56. This was the second fastest marathon ever run by a woman. Later the same year, at the Chicago Marathon in October, Radcliffe went faster still, setting a new world record with a time of 2:17:18. This broke Catherine Ndereba’s previous best of 2:18:47, set at the same event in 2001.

Continuing in the same vein on into 2003, at that year’s London Marathon, Radcliffe broke her own world record, achieving a remarkable time of 2:15:25. This world record remains intact today. Radcliffe’s own times aside, the nearest anyone has come to it is the time of 2:18:37 managed by Mary Keitany in London in 2012.

In 2002, Radcliffe had also retained her World Cross Country Championships title, and attained a gold medal over 5,000 metres at the Commonwealth Games and a gold medal over 10,000 metres at the European Championships. And in 2003, she finished first in the Great North Run and in the World Half Marathon Championships in Vilamoura, Portugal. She went on to win the New York City Marathon in 2004, 2007, and 2008; won a gold medal in the marathon at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland; and won the London Marathon for a third time in 2005, in a time of 2:17:42. Her results in Chicago in 2002, and in London in 2003 and 2005, give Radcliffe the three fastest times ever accomplished by a female marathon runner.

By contrast, the men’s marathon world record stands at 2:02:57, set by Dennis Kimetto last September on the fast, flat course in Berlin. While the men’s marathon has a relatively long history, serving as a fundamental part of Olympic competition since the revival of the Games in Athens, Greece in 1896, the women’s event was only added to proceedings upon the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The Boston Marathon, established in 1897, was a forerunner, featuring women from the middle of the 1960s – Bobbi Gibb in 1966 is credited as the first woman to complete the race; and Kathrine Switzer ran with a race number the following year – although it was 1972 before women were officially authorised to compete. Incidentally, Gibb’s time in 1966 was 3:21:40.

Gibb and Switzer were met with resistance, but they were part of a group of women setting a new precedent in marathon running. France’s Marie-Louise Ledru is considered the first woman to have run in an officially sanctioned marathon race, which she accomplished at the Tour de Paris Marathon in 1918. Britain’s Violet Piercy was the first woman officially timed over a marathon distance, and therefore held the first women’s marathon world record: a time of 3:40:22 which she set on a disputed date sometime in the autumn of 1926. According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, Piercy’s record stood for almost thirty years, until it was bettered by Mary Lepper of the United States, who ran 3:37:07 in Culver City in December 1963. The world record was improved across the 1960s in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, and West Germany; before in September 1971, Elizabeth Bonner beat the record she already held and in the process became the first woman to run a marathon in less than three hours. Her record time, set at that year’s New York Marathon, stood at 2:55:22.

Again, according to the IAAF – who maintain a barely tenable distinction between records set in mixed and women-only races; and whose criteria have sometimes been challenged, particularly by the independent Association of Road Racing Statisticians – Grete Waitz became the first woman to go under two and a half hours for a marathon, running a time of 2:27:33 at the New York Marathon in 1979. Her Norwegian compatriot Ingrid Kristiansen held the world record from 1985 until 1998, when she was surpassed by Kenya’s Tegla Loroupe. Loroupe broke her own record at the Berlin Marathon the following year; twelve months later Naoko Takahashi of Japan went better still; and then it was Ndereba’s turn before the record passed into the firm possession of Radcliffe.

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The women’s elite race in London on Sunday was won by Ethiopia’s Tigist Tufa, in a time of 2:23:22. In tenth place in the elite standings, Rkia El Moukim’s time of 2:26:33 was just over ten minutes quicker than Radcliffe’s – who was entered as part of the ‘Club, Charity, and Ballot’ segment of the race. Three British women ran at the elite level: Sonia Samuels finished in a time of 2:31:46; Emma Stepto in 2:35:41; and finally Rebecca Robinson in 2.36.51, just four seconds ahead of Radcliffe’s finishing time.

Emma Stepto is especially worthy of mention because, having just turned 45 years of age, she is eligible to challenge at the masters level for the over-45 women’s marathon record. The British over-45 women’s record is currently held by Joyce Smith, who set the time of 2:32:48 back at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Stepto only began running competitively in her 30s, and has a personal best in the marathon of 2:32:40.

Now 41, it is certainly conceivable that Radcliffe could break this record in a few years were she fit and willing. Whatever, her time on Sunday of 2:36:55 placed her at the head of all other female club runners: Breege Connolly was the next best, with a time of 2:37:24; and third in this field came Jenny Spink, in 2:37.35. All of these athletes were well inside the qualification standard set for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, which for the women requires a time of 2 hours and 42 minutes.

With Radcliffe competing in London without an ideal period of preparation, it may even be wondered whether she could feasibly make a return to the top level of the sport. Again, her past victories in London and Chicago were achieved in times of 2:18:56, 2:17:18, 2:15:25, and 2:17:42 – and of course, racing at such a high standard, it takes incredible effort to shave even seconds, never mind minutes, from a time. Radcliffe’s three successes in New York came with times of 2:23:10, 2:23:09, and 2:23:56.

In the loosely elaborated celebrity standings, referred to during the BBC’s coverage of the marathon on Sunday, Radcliffe – a debatable member of the cast – was the clear victor. She was followed by James Cracknell, Olympic gold medallist in the coxless four rowing in 2000 and 2004, now 42 years old, who managed a time of 2:50:43; and by Jenson Button, the 35-year-old Formula One driver, who broke his previous best of 2 hours and 58 minutes to finish in 2:52:30.