Paula Radcliffe’s time of 2:15:25 from the 2003 London Marathon might be just referred to as a European record since Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei slashed her world record to 2:14:04 in the Chicago Marathon last October but her performance on this day (13) in 2003 is still considered by many as the greatest performance in the history of women’s marathon running.
This was Radcliffe’s third record-breaking marathon in the space of twelve months in which Radcliffe also won the European 10,000m title in a continental record of 30:01.09. After setting the world’s fastest debut one year prior with 2:18:56 off a cautious first half split of 71:04, Radcliffe bettered Catherine Ndereba’s world record with a 2:17:18 clocking in the Chicago Marathon in October 2002 but she was still scratching the surface of her potential at the distance.
Barely eighteen months had passed since Naoko Takahashi from Japan became the first woman in history to break the 2:20-barrier for the marathon but Radcliffe completed the same distance almost one mile faster than Takahashi did in her landmark run in the 2001 Berlin Marathon, breaking the tape on the Mall in 2:15:25 - a time which would have qualified Radcliffe for the men’s marathon at the 2003 World Championships in Paris.
The world record on the men’s side at the time of writing stands to Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge at 2:01:39 - and the advancements in shoe technology and sport science are such that some observers believe a sub-two hour marathon is possible in legal race conditions - but Radcliffe took the women’s world record in 2003 to within ten minutes of the corresponding world record on the men’s side of 2:05:38 for the first and only time in event history.
“This was a quantum leap in women’s marathon running which made even the men’s world record look soft,” commented Radcliffe’s long-time physiotherapist Gerard Hartmann after the race.
Race director Dave Bedford was similarly blown away by the scale of Radcliffe’s performance seventeen years ago. He said at the time it was 'the greatest distance running performance I have seen in my lifetime; it ranks in my mind with the impact of Bob Beamon's long jump in 1968.'
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One of the challenges facing the organisers was how to assist Radcliffe in her bid to re-revise her record. Radcliffe, who was a renowned front runner at her prime, cut loose from the pacemakers after six miles in 2002 and there were very few women at the time who were capable of running at a pace which would put a 2:17 clocking - let alone a projected finishing time of 2:15 - into view. For reference, Radcliffe’s first half split of 68:02 in the 2003 London Marathon was only bettered by two female athletes in a half marathon in 2002.
The race organisers recruited the services of eight male Kenyan pacemakers to assist Radcliffe and the rest of the elite women, a decision which caused some consternation at the time - as well as in the ensuing years - when the IAAF tried to demote Radcliffe’s time to a world best in 2011. But the mark was to remain on the books for another eight years and her time remains the second fastest in the history of the event.
By her standards, Radcliffe started conservatively on her debut but having since mastered the distance, she released the handbrake the moment the gun fired in 2003. With two pacemakers at the helm but not providing undue assistance, Radcliffe set off with a vengeance but even some very astute and experienced observers of the sport were astonished by Radcliffe’s pace in the early stages.
“I remember Paula ran through the third mile in under five minutes (4:57) and I was thinking ‘oh gosh, Paula this is crazy!,’ remembered 1983 world 1500m champion Steve Cram, who was commentating on the race for the BBC. “You were expecting at some point she would start to struggle at maybe 16-18 miles and it just never happened.
“I remember Brendan Foster and I kept looking at each other in commentary and we didn’t want to commit [to making a prediction] because anything could happen. I remember it wasn’t until the last two miles we thought this is really going to happen and despite what happened the year before, what she did in 2003 and the manner of how she did it was just off the scale,” Cram added.
Radcliffe concurrently became the first woman to break the 2:17 and 2:16-barriers for the marathon but for all the plaudits she deservedly received for her 2:15:25 clocking, she did not think that performance represented the peak of her physical ability. Radcliffe was still a relative novice at the distance and her preparations almost suffered a race-ending blow when she dislocated her jaw after colliding with a cyclist while training in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
'I was still thinking I can run quicker than that, I can train harder,' reflected Radcliffe in the years after her world record. 'I remember Dave Bedford saying he never thought he'd see anyone come near that time for a while. And I remember thinking, 'Well, that's not right, I'm going to come back and beat it next year.' I really did think I would.'
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In truth, Radcliffe didn’t come close to that mark again. The latter stages of her career were punctuated by injuries but if Radcliffe could get to a marathon start-line anywhere in the world in reasonable shape, the chances were she would come out victorious regardless of who else was in the field.
Radcliffe further embellished her status as one of the greatest marathon runners in history by winning her third London Marathon title in 2005 in a near gun-to-tape 2:17:42, triumphing by more than five minutes. She was also to win the New York Marathon on three occasions between 2004 and 2008.
Twelve years after making her senior global debut at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart where she contested the now discontinued 3000m, Radcliffe landed a major title at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki. Her winning time of 2:20:57 remains the fastest time set in a championships and her time was also faster than when Emil Zatopek won the marathon in the same city at the 1952 Olympics.
Radcliffe's mile splits:1M 5:10
2M 10:18 (5:08)
3M 15:15 (4:57)
4M 20:22 (5:07)
5M 25:32 (5:10)
6M 30:54 (5:22)
7M 36:06 (5:12)
8M 41:17 (5:11)
9M 46:35 (5:18)
10M 51:48 (5:13)
11M 56:58 (5:10)
12M 1:02:14 (5:16)
13M 1:07:30 (5:16)
14M 1:12:38 (5:08)
15M 1:17:48 (5:10)
16M 1:23:01 (5:13)
17M 1:28:08 (5:07)
18M 1:33:19 (5:11)
19M 1:38:26 (5:07)
20M 1:43:33 (5:07)
21M 1:48:44 (5:11)
22M 1:53:50 (5:06)
23M 1:59:03 (5:13)
24M 2:04:06 (5:03)
25M 2:09:14 (5:08)