Paula Radcliffe wins the 2003 world half-marathon title in Vilamoura (© Getty Images)
We continue our series focusing on the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships with a spotlight on British distance runner and three-time champion Paula Radcliffe.
Paula Radcliffe may be defined by her incredible accomplishments in the marathon but there is little doubting the significance the half marathon played, and more specifically the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, in her success over the iconic 42.2km distance.
A little over six weeks after the bitter disappointment of finishing fourth in the 10,000m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the British distance runner opted to enter her first IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in the Mexican port city of Veracruz.
Just two weeks earlier, Radcliffe had impressed on her half marathon debut running a European record of 1:07:07 at the Great North Run – a performance which hinted at her exciting road running potential.
Yet it was to be her display in blazing temperatures in Veracruz, where she secured her first global title, which was to set in motion the next and most memorable chapter of her career.
“I enjoyed the race so much and was very proud to win a global title,” says Radcliffe of her victory 18 years ago. “It reinforced in my mind the decision we had made to move towards the roads.
“From here I knew that I raced better and felt stronger on the roads, combined with the disappointment in Sydney it helped to solidify our plan to move to the marathon with a long term plan to race a marathon in 2002.”
It was a switch that proved an unequivocal success as Radcliffe went on to snare seven World Marathon Major victories, the 2005 world marathon title and today she is still the owner of three of the four fastest marathon times in history.
Yet Veracruz was not the end game for her IAAF World Half Marathon story as she went on to claim wins in the 2001 and 2003 editions, but to start her 21.1km journey we need to go back to those Sydney Olympics.
Despite running a 10,000m personal best of 30:26.97 in Australia, Radcliffe was outgunned on the final lap and had to settle for fourth. Possessing a natural strength and endurance, the Briton wondered if she might enjoy her greatest success over longer distances.
“I wanted to race more on the roads, erase the disappointment of Sydney with some fun racing, so I decided to go to the World Half,” she adds.
Having performed well in similarly hot conditons - when winning 10,000m silver at the 1999 World Championships in Seville – she was unfazed by the boiling hot conditions she faced in Veracruz.
Sticking diligently to a hydration plan in the days leading up to the race, it was her intention to stay in the lead group for the first half before pushing the pace from there.
In a supreme showing for an athlete so lacking in experience over the distance, she was true to her word. Leading the field through 10km she slowly turned the screw with her nearest pursuer Susan Chepkemei of Kenyan dropping off the pace with around five kilometres to go.
The Briton crossed the line in 1:09:07 – some 33 seconds in front of Chepkemei -- for a dominant win that would shift the whole direction of her career.
“After the track it (the pace) seemed steady to begin with but later I was definitely working hard but also really enjoying it,” she adds. “I recall thinking how much more in control I felt than I did on the track.”
Radcliffe returned some 12 months later for the 2001 edition on home ground in Bristol a red hot favourite to defend her title. Earlier that year she had added a second global title with victory in the long course race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, although she was once again left gutted on the track after failing to execute her tactical plan at the World Championships in Edmonton, finishing fourth in the 10,000m.
“I was very motivated,” she says of competing in Bristol. “I was extremely disappointed in Edmonton, more so as I felt I hadn’t run my race well there. This was my chance to make amends. Also I had ticked off in Ostend (at the World Cross Country Championships) one of the achievements I wanted to have before moving to the marathon, this was another step towards the marathon and I really wanted it to go well.”
Keen to control the race and lower her personal best for the distance – in what was only her third ever competitive outing over 21.1km – she achieved her goals despite racing in windy day in the English city.
At around two-thirds distance, Radcliffe surged hard with only Chepkemei and the 2001 World 10,000m champion Berhane Adere able to live with the pace. The Ethiopian was first to crack and following another acceleration from the Briton at around the 15-kilometre checkpoint, Chepkemei’s challenge also wilted.
From that point on Radcliffe’s advantage steadily grew as she was roared on by a passionate home crowd.
“The support was really great,” Radcliffe recalls. “The streets of Bristol were full, the organisation was great and even on the more remote parts of the course there were still people cheering and supporting us.”
She stopped the clock in 1:06:47 – to chip 20 seconds from her PB – just three seconds shy of the world best time.
“I felt that up until then I hadn’t really raced a half for a time, so I wanted to revise my PB closer to what I felt capable of,” she adds. “I worried the wind would be too strong but in the end was very happy to run a personal best and get the victory.”
Radcliffe returned for a third crack at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in 2003 to be staged in Vilamoura, Portugal.
Earlier that year the endurance superstar had obliterated the world marathon record (mixed-gender) with a sensational 2:15:25 in London but an injury issue in May and later a collapsed lung forced her to skip the World Championships in Paris. By the time she returned to competition later that year she was detemined to make her mark.
“I came out and raced the autumn roads season with a vengeance,” she explains. “I wanted to run fast and win a third title.”
Two weeks prior to the World Half-Marathon Championships, Radcliffe has blitzed to a stunning 21.1km PB of 1:05:40 when winning the Great North Run. Yet while on Tyneside she picked up a stomach bug and was on antibiotics in the countdown to Vilamoura.
While expectations were high she could attack Elana Meyer’s legal world best of 1:06:44, the illness coupled with the intense Algarve heat denied her such a mark. On track for something special at halfway she significantly slowed in the second half but nonetheless destroyed the opposition to stop the clock in 1:07:35 and recorded the largest women’s victory margin in the history of the championships (of 1:27) as Adere took silver.
“I knew people would be expecting me to run hard, since I had just run 65:40! So I planned to go hard from the start and they let me go. In the second half I really suffered but managed to hold it together. The course was nice and flat but there wasn’t much shade at all and I felt the heat far more than I had done in Veracruz. I definitely didn’t feel as strong as I had in the Great North Run, which was most probably down to the heat and the lingering effects of the bug and antibiotics.”
Some 15 years on from her third and final IAAF World Half Marathon Championships victory, Radcliffe insists the race still holds the same attraction and relevance it always has.
“They are very special championships, the half marathon is a unique and special event that is fun to do,” she explains. “There is a particular camaraderie amongst the runners and racers too. Today the event runs alongside a mass race. Thus the racers get to benefit from a very special atmosphere and the mass runners get to share in all the experience.”
“The event is special in its own right or to be used as a build up to a major marathon. The half marathon needs to be respected, just like the marathon, but you can also have a lot of fun with it and learn the trade of distance road racing.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF