Marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe aims to get families running
Jenny Lee chats to the one of running's all-time greats, Paula Radcliffe,about her marathon world record which has stood for 15 years, her marriage to Larne-man Gary Lough and her new career in television
SHE may have hung up her competitive running shoes, but world-record marathon holder Paula Radcliffe is still a highly motivated, determined, physically and mentally strong individual.
She is also still a big crowd-pleaser, as seen when she took to the roads of Belfast as a special guest competitor in this month's Novosco 10k Grand Prix race. There were numerous chats, waves and selfies along the way, reflected in her finishing time of 42:35 in the women’s race which was won by Gladys Ganiel (North Belfast Harriers) in 37:00.
"It was a lot of fun," says the 44-year-old, who was delighted to take part in the event and combine it with taking her children Isla (11) and Raphael (seven) for a visit to their grandparents in Ballygally.
The former world champion now lives in Monaco with her husband and former coach Gary Lough, who was born just outside Larne and competed himself at an international level in the 1500 metres, before injury in 1996 made him concentrating on coaching.
The pair met at the University of Loughborough, where Radcliffe studied modern languages. Although reputed to have an abrasive style of coaching, Radcliffe is grateful for the help she got from Gary, who is currently coaching double Olympic champion Mo Farah.
She firmly believes that the fact they were married was a positive, rather than an impediment to the couple's professional success.
"It's really important in a coaching relationship to be in-tune with the other person and have complete trust and Gary and I had that already. What we really had to do was put the ground rules in place to make sure you weren't taking work home with you every night – but when the kids came along that was quite easy as their needs take over the minute you walk through the door," she says.
Despite being diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma at the age of 14, Radcliffe never let the condition hold her back. A former world champion in the marathon, half marathon and cross country, on the track she has been European champion over 10,000 metres and Commonwealth champion at 5,000 metres.
Radcliffe has suffered a number of injury setbacks in her career – the most upsetting resulted in her pulling out of London 2012 Olympics at the last minute due to an undiagnosed stress fracture. Two decade of high-mileage pounding had eroded the cartilage between the bones in her foot – she has since had titanium screws implanted.
"It doesn't look pretty, but it works fine now," says Radcliffe, who still runs every day "to clear my head" and is passionate about passing on "a joy of running" and a message of "keeping fit and healthy" to both her own children and future generations.
"It's really important for me to encourage the current generation to be fit. I've a couple of ideas I'm trying to get off the track, like an initiative to get families running together. Running is a great sport for the entire family, not just for the physical benefits, but for the psychological benefits – it helps self-confidence, self-awareness and develops the skill of setting and working towards goals."
Mental strength is a trait Radcliffe has in abundance and still uses in her current career as an athletics commentator and television pundit.
"I'm blessed in that my mental strength was naturally strong and over the years of running you work on it and build it up – so you have that maturity to tackle the marathon."
She admits she has surprised herself with how well she has adapted to retirement.
"I've transferred that application, training mentality and motivation to different areas of my life. Doing the commentating I do with the BBC helps me continue to get the adrenalin buzz. That was a new career I had to learn at 40-something.
"It's an honour to get the opportunity to convey the action and you want to do it justice. When I was racing I'd get annoyed if I made mistakes, and want to do better the next time and it's the same with commentating if you don't spot what's happening."
I ask Radcliffe, does she holds her breath and worries about her world record time, of two hours, 15 minutes and 25 seconds (set during the 2003 London Marathon in April) being broken when she's commentating on a marathon?
"No. Obviously I don't want it to happen, but I can't do anything about it. I'm just grateful for every year it does stand," she says.
Her advice to those training for their first marathon to "make a plan", but to "be flexible".
"It's rare that anyone has a perfect marathon build-up as there is always little bumps along the road. It's better if you get a niggle to listen to your body and back off for a few days rather than push through it as that's when the big injuries tend to happen."
And when it comes to race day itself?
"What you need to remember is that everyone has a rough point in a marathon race. You need to draw on the strength you've obtained during training and not panic and just keep putting one foot in front of the other until you get through it."
As well as being a busy mum and commentator, Radcliffe also works for the Athletics Integrity Unit and is passionate about keeping the sport clean.
"I work in co-ordination looking after education on the anti-doping side and do some planning for testing. Most athletes accept giving a sample is what we have to do and what we want to see is that the athletes are subject to the same testing all over the world so everyone is competing on a level playing field."
She is also an ambassador for Revive Active nature health supplements, which she herself takes daily to keep her joints lubricated and help boost her immunity to enable her to cope with her busy schedule and endless flights. Just this month her travels include Belfast, Newcastle upon Tyne, where she commentated on the Great North Run, Paris for the Run Disney event and Chicago.
Does another career as an athletics coach beckon in the future?
"Maybe, but it's finding the time," she laughs. "If I was, I'd like to work with kids more."
And are her owns children showing signs of following in their parent's footsteps?
"It's a bit early to tell. They do like running, but they also play tennis, football, swimming and water polo. I just want them to try all kinds of different sports and finds the sport that ignites that passion for them."