So often the bridesmaid, Paula Radcliffe finally became the bride this afternoon when she won her first global championships title after a fascinating women’s marathon through the streets of Helsinki.
The 31 year-old Briton set a new world championships record of 2:20:57, more than five minutes outside her 2003 world record, to give Britain its first gold medal of these championships and its first ever marathon title in a global championships. It is also Britain’s first medal of any colour in this event at either a world championships or an Olympic Games.
Radcliffe has finished fourth, fifth, second and fourth in World championship distance finals, was fourth in the 2000 Olympic 10,000m final and famously dropped out of the Olympic marathon last summer when she was the overwhelming favourite.
But this afternoon, in conditions so different from the Athens heat last summer, she led from start to finish in true Paula Radcliffe style, slowly but surely wearing down her rivals over the 42km course before pulling away from Romania’s Constantina Tomescu and Kenya’s defending champion Catherine Ndereba in the second half of the race.
"It was hard out there but I enjoyed it quite a bit too," she said. "Last year I had a lot of problems but this season I just made sure I was healthy coming into Helsinki and just concentrated on what I wanted to do.
Ndereba ran a beautifully judged race to win the silver in 2:22:01 and lead her country to the World Marathon Cup title ahead of four-time winners Japan. Tomescu took the bronze after twice bravely trying to stay with Radcliffe and once even pushing on the pace herself.
But in the end the Briton’s front running was just too tough. Radcliffe decisive move came with more than 15km of the race still to run when only Tomescu and Ndereba were within touching distance.
Running in shades despite the grey, drizzly conditions, she adopted her customary position at the head of the pack as soon as the athletes moved out of Senate Square in the heart of Helsinki, headed through Market Square and down towards the harbour front.
There was little surprise about Radcliffe’s tactics. Front running is her way, the way she has won three London marathons and set two marathon world records over the last three years. Fatally, it was also her tactics in the Olympic final last year when she failed to finish so disastrously.
From the beginning it was clear this was going to be different. For a start the weather was perfect = no blistering heat here, but English-style rain and wet roads. Radcliffe must have trained in just such weather thousands of times.
After just five minutes she had opened a 20-metre gap on the majority of the field, leaving a splintered trail of runners behind her. Initially only Japan’s Yumiko Hara, the Nagoya winner, stayed with her, but slowly others moved close. Ethiopia’s Asha Gigi regained contact and these two took shelter behind the Briton as she led along Helsinki’s harbour front.
Ndereba was padding along at the front of the chasing pack of 12 some 25 metres behind, and gradually she led Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu so often Radcliffe’s nemesis on the track in an attempt to close the gap.
Radcliffe led through 5km in 16:47, around 2:21 pace, with Gigi and Hara in close attendance. Ndereba, Tulu, Tomescu, China’s Chunxiu Zhou and three other Kenyans, Helen Kimutai, Beatrice Omwanza and Rita Sitenei Jeptoo, reduced the gap to about 10 metres after 9km.
After skirting the water front of Menkannonue, Radcliffe led them through 10km in 33:23. Her 10k split during her world record run in London in 2003 was 30:54, so here she seemed to be running well within herself. The chasing group now down to five was still three seconds adrift, while another Kenyan, former London and New York marathon winner Tegla Loroupe, was in a third group another 24 seconds back.
As the runners would through the park surrounding the Olympic stadium for the first time Radcliffe maintained her steady pace. After 14km Tomescu made an effort to join the group and soon Radcliffe had three on her tail.
Appearing to sense the danger she upped the tempo to take them through 15km in 49:54. Tomescu, looking stronger and stronger, moved alongside the Briton. She is known as a front runner but until winning last year’s Chicago marathon had tended to fade in the closing stages. Now she was actually forcing the pace. It was too much for Gigi, who dropped back to be caught by the Kenyans as Tomescu and Radcliffe ran stride for stride.
The Romanian broke her national record when finishing second to Radcliffe in this year’s London marathon but she’d never run at this pace before. Gradually it began to tell as Radcliffe wound up the pace again leading through 20km in 1:06:16. By now Ndereba had dragged Kimutai back to Tomescu as Radcliffe pushed on again to lead by 10 metres at the half way mark 1:09:50 her gradual increase in pace meaning she was now on course for a sub-2:20 time.
At this point the Kenyans still looked fresh while Tomescu appeared out of it. Incredibly, just five minutes later she recovered, striding back past the Kenyans and on to Radcliffe’s shoulder. For the Briton, being caught once is rare, being caught twice unthinkable. She’d put in her fastest efforts of the race and still the Romanian had clawed her way back.
Together again, they strode over the blue 25km mat in 1:22:48 with Ndereba now alone in third place. Further down the field the fast race was taking its toll with a gap of nearly three minutes to tenth place.
Suddenly, after just under 90 minutes of running, Radcliffe kicked again up a small incline. Tomescu, who had been checking her watch regularly as if late for an appointment, immediately fell behind. Surely she couldn’t come back a second time.
Radcliffe, now in familiar nodding style, had finally killed off her challengers. The gap to Kimutai in fourth was more than a minute as she passed 30k in 1:39:22, nearly three minutes outside her world record pace but 11 seconds ahead of Tomescu and 16 clear of Ndereba who caught the Romanian for the second time shortly afterwards.
Radcliffe was now in wholly familiar territory and, as the sun broke out for the first time in the day, drying the Helsinki cobbles, she slowly extended her lead. She was 28 seconds ahead of Ndereba at 35km and 45 ahead of Tomescu.
All of them were suffering though the last 5km had been the slowest at 16:53 and after two hours the strain began to show in Radcliffe’s face and neck. Perhaps that 10,000m final she ran a week ago was beginning to have an effect. Luckily, Ndereba was struggling too and all Radcliffe had to do was hold it together over the final section of the 10km loop and into the stadium.
She was slowing (the 5km to 40km was 17:06) but not enough to lose. Grimacing hard, she dug deep to climb the last small hill lined with crowds and sweep into the stadium. Only a smattering of fans had made their way there to greet her but many of them held British flags.
Twelve months ago she was left in tears beside the Marathon to Athens course, stricken by stomach problems and hampered by injury. This year she crossed the line in bright sunshine, a broad grin finally breaking out after 42km of incessant, grinding pace.
She finished just as Ndereba entered the stadium, stopping the clock at 2:20:57, a championships record by nearly three minutes and just over two minutes quicker than Emil Zatopek ran to win the marathon here at the 1952 Olympic Games. When Norway’s Grete Waitz won here at the inaugural world championships 22 years ago she was more than seven minutes slower.
"At the last water station someone said you’re 50 seconds up, just enjoy, it," said Radclifffe. "A big ‘kiitos’ to the Finnish crowd that supported me through the whole race."
Behind Ndereba, Tulu was closing fast on Tomescu making up nearly two miniutes in the last five kilometres to miss a medal by just 11 seconds. Radcliffe applauded them home before setting off on her long-awaited lap of honour, a world champion at last.
10th IAAF World Championships, Hesinki 2005 Women Marathon
5Km 281 Paula RADCLIFFE 16:47
10Km 281 Paula RADCLIFFE 33:23:00
15Km 281 Paula RADCLIFFE 49:53:00
20Km 281 Paula RADCLIFFE 1:06:16
21Km 281 Paula RADCLIFFE 1:09:49
25Km 281 Paula RADCLIFFE 1:22:47
30Km 281 Paula RADCLIFFE 1:39:22
35Km 281 Paula RADCLIFFE 1:56:14
40Km 281 Paula RADCLIFFE 2:13:22
10th IAAF World Championships, Hesinki 2005 Men Marathon
5Km 247 José RÍOS 15:19
10Km 246 Julio REY 30:22:00
15Km 554 Robert CHEBOROR 45:33:00
20Km 901 Getuli BAYO 1:00:59
21Km 629 Jaouad GHARIB 1:04:17
25Km 246 Julio REY 1:16:32
30Km 629 Jaouad GHARIB 1:31:45
35Km 629 Jaouad GHARIB 1:47:00
40Km 629 Jaouad GHARIB 2:02:57