Former long distance running royalty, winner of three London Marathons and setter of the world record for the women’s fastest marathon which stood for 16 years, Paula Radcliffe MBE, is taking part in the second RunFestRun event later this summer at Laverstoke Park in Hampshire meaning she isn’t ready to hang up her running shoes anytime soon.
Radcliffe also took part in the first RunFestRun event back in 2019 but it hasn’t been able to return until now due to the Covid-19 restrictions that were in place last year, but winner of the 2002 Chicago Marathon thinks this will only make for a better event as lockdown inspired lots of people to take up running.
The former European Champion spoke about what to expect at the event, and explained how she got involved in running in the first place as well as revealing which is her favourite marathon to run in.
How did you get involved in running and when did you decide that you wanted to centre your career around it?
That was all a very long, gradual process in the beginning. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t running to be honest, I just liked running around. My dad was running marathons at the time when I was growing up, so I used to join in with him sometimes. At the weekend we’d take a drink to the forest where he was doing his long run and I would join in for maybe about half a mile, 1000m or so at that age.
Then I had a friend at school who was a member of the local athletics club, so I knew that as soon as I was nine, I was able to join there, so my dad promised as soon I was nine, he’d take me down which he did, and I joined Frodsham Harriers then.
Later when we moved because of my dad’s job, we moved to Bedfordshire, and he did a lot of research on the clubs in the area and that’s when he found Bedford and County which is where my coach Alex Stanton was. I was 11 when I started training with them, it was a hobby, it was fun, it was what I enjoyed doing – that sport lit that passion for me, and it was the one I wanted to do. I used to do a whole range of them and then when I moved, I decided I didn’t like judo as much as I did athletics, so I was just going to concentrate on that for my evening activities through the week.
As far as it becoming my career that was much, much, much later. When I won the World Junior Cross Country in 1992 that was the year I was doing my A-Levels, so I’d already decided I was going away to Loughborough University and I decided at that point, or I believed it was possible at that point that if I worked really hard I could give being a full-time athlete a go when I’d finished my four years because I did languages so I had four years at university. Then it was just a try it and see if I could survive doing that and luckily, I did so I didn’t have to get a proper job as my grandma called it until I was in my forties.
What is it about running marathons and longer distances which appeals to you as opposed to shorter distances and sprinting?
I think to begin with I just wasn’t good at sprinting and I enjoy the mental as well as the physical battles that go on in the longer run, I think that’s why the marathon is so attractive for so many and so magical because it’s not just your body against the physical challenges of the 26.2 miles it’s also your mind and training your mind to overcome those little demons which say: “I’m too tired to carry on.” And to judge it as well, like a drawn-out game of chess. All of the endurance events are a little bit like that, the 800m the least so, but for the 1500m there are lots of tactical decisions and tactical choices that you need to make and make correctly in a split second.
In the marathon you perhaps have a bit longer to make those decisions but there’s a multitude more decisions to make and they can really impact on the race. You can play mind games with your opponent if you want to, you can play mind games with yourself – there’s lots to make it interesting. A lot of people talk about the loneliness of the long-distance run and it’s boring but it’s actually not, there’s a whole community of likeminded people out there. It’s really the only sports event where you can take part with 55,000 other people on the same day and largely go through the same emotions and same experience. It’s not lonely and it’s not boring because there’s lots of different ways it can pan out.
What’s been your favourite marathon location and why?
It’s tough for me to pick that, I think London because London is the race that inspired me in the beginning because I went down to watch my dad run in 1985 and saw Ingrid Kristiansen run past on route to setting the world record that day for the women’s marathon and I just remember being in awe of her power and strength and the fact that she was so far up with the elite men and just thinking, wow I’d love to be able to run like that one day. And then later to be able to meet her, to find out what an amazing person she was and get advice from her as I was moving to the marathon.
Then to come back and make my debut in the London Marathon and for it to go phenomenally well in 2002 with a women’s only world record, huge victory and I just loved it from start to finish. When I crossed the line, I was already planning my next marathon and that’s the race where I fell in love with the marathon and then I was able to bring the world record back there in 2003. And then to retire there in my own terms in 2015 which was really important for me too, that was very, very special because I got to run from the mass start and experience everything that is the whole carnival of the London Marathon mass race.
So, for that reason I think I’d pick London, but New York is also extremely special in my heart because it was my comeback city, it was where I made my New York marathon debut in 2004 after the heartbreak of Athens. And then when it didn’t work out in Beijing I could go back and win again in New York. After I had my daughter in 2007, I went to New York and won there so New York has always been my feel good, pick me up – it’s just an amazing vibe from start to finish and I would say if anyone hasn’t run that marathon to do that one also.
How did it feel to be awarded an MBE and win BBC’s Sport Personality of the Year in the same year in 2002?
I think those awards they’re very different to winning titles, to winning medals, to setting world records because in a way they’re out of your control. BBC’s Sports Personality is the public actually making the effort to pick up the phone or fill in the coupon in the Radio Times, because it was that long ago for me, and take that effort to vote for you so I think it’s special in a very different way because there’s not really a whole lot you can do about it, you’re just relying on other people making that judgement and making that recognition. For those reasons it’s very special.
The MBE is extremely special because it is an honour from the Queen, you get to go to Buckingham Palace and receive it and that for me is a great honour. They were very special, and I think 2002, for that reason, it was pretty much the perfect year for me with the Commonwealth Games as well and the European Championships so without a doubt that helped build my confidence for 2003 and to be able to set the world record then.
You held the record for the women’s fastest marathon for 16 years, did you think it would take that long for it be broken?
No! In the beginning I thought I could run faster and then things just didn’t work out that way. I got into maybe as good a shape, but I just didn’t have a race at that time and that’s just part of the challenge of the marathon, you have to be in shape at the right time and get perfect conditions on the day of the race and then execute it perfectly as well. It never worked out for me again and then I thought well if I can do it somebody else can do it, so I thought it was going to get broken and then the longer it went on the more it started to feel like it was part of the family even though you know that world records are always just there to be broken.
Did your world record achievement feel more significant to you as time went on?
It’s hard because I thought it was very significant obviously when I beat it at the time and I think to come so close in 2002, so I missed it by nine seconds in 2002, but I didn’t have any idea that I was so close to it because I think the clock was broken on the lead vehicle. It was my first marathon, I ran massively substantial negative splits so when I went through halfway I thought there was no chance of getting close to it so I wasn’t really thinking about it, I was just running and having fun. Then it was only with 800m to go that I realised actually I’m running quite fast and then I was running as fast as I could so I couldn’t have gone any quicker and it was only when I turned into the finishing strait that I realised just how close I was to it. Then I knew that I could break it, so then I went to Chicago in 2002 in October and broke it for the first time when I ran 2.17.18 there but when I crossed the line it read 2.17.17 and 17 is my lucky number so in my head it was 17 years to the day until it got broken in 2019, so maybe that’s what it was meant to be.
It’s one of those things that when you have it for so long there is a point. If it’d had been broken in the first two or three years after I’d set it there was a chance I could have gone back out and got it back again. But when it’s broken and you’re already retired there’s nothing I could do about it, it was kind of out of my hands at that point. I’m extremely proud of it, I know I worked very hard, my team worked very hard to pull things together to do that, we did it without super shoes as well. I will always be extremely proud of it. There is a little bit of me that would like to see what I could have run with the shoes but that’s just curiosity, it’s not anything more than that.
If you could go back and end your running career differently, would you?
I’m a big believer in no regrets, it is what it is, we make the best of everything we can do and if I look over the general scheme of things, the Olympics didn’t work out for me and the first two I ran as well as I was capable of doing, I just wasn’t good enough on the day to get the medal, I was fifth and fourth. But the ones after that I mean obviously if I could change them, I would but I also wouldn’t sacrifice any of the other ones that did work out, so the world records, World Championships, all of the other races – I wouldn’t sacrifice those for one second. If that’s the way it had to be then that’s the way it was. I can’t go back and change it now but yes obviously I’d love to have been able to run an Olympic marathon healthy and see what I could do and do myself justice. I feel fairly lucky that I had as long a career as I could, and I was able to get as many races work out as they did.
What is RunFestRun and what are you going to be doing at the event?
It’s a great family fun weekend of enjoying running. The first one in 2019 was really cool and I’m not even sure that the organisers believed it was going to work as well as it could because I don’t know whether they thought that maybe runners can’t have fun and have a party and enjoy the music. We were helped as we had phenomenal weather from the Friday afternoon right through to the Sunday evening and it’s just a safe place for the family to come together. There’s something for everyone.
There’s the half marathon on the Sunday for the really serious runners, there’s 2k fun runs, my Families On Track which is what I’m really excited about, to be a part of it, there’s stuff for the kids to get involved in and it’s safe as well, you know that even if you lose your kids at the runs they’re kept safe at the end in a safe zone and you collect them as you come through, there’s lots of activities going on, there’s lots of likeminded people. And this year it’s linked to CarFest as well so the music and the festival part of it is going to be even better because you’re joined to the CarFest party in the evenings. It really is that perfect trade off if you’re a running mad parent and you want to take your family away for a fun weekend and have them enjoy your fun but also have a bit of their fun as well – it’s that perfect compromise.
How great is it to be able to have an event like RunFestRun after the year we’ve had?
I think it’s going to be huge. We will all have so much more of an appreciation for what it is for just having fun and enjoying and valuing being alive and valuing being together with our families which so many people have not been able to do. There isn’t anyone who hasn’t suffered mentally in some form over the last 18 months so the fact that things are getting moving again, that we’re all supporting each other, that we’re coming together, doing something because a lot of people discovered running for the first time during the pandemic as well, a lot of people turned to that, started valuing physical and mental health maybe more because we had time to do that.
I think if there were some good things that came out of the pandemic it was the fact that we got to spend more family time together, we got to spend time thinking about our mental health and our physical health and be able to work on that. And now as it starts to go back to normal it’s important that we remember that, and we get back to normal in a way that appreciates all of that and brings the good things and gets rid of the bad things from the pandemic if we can.
I’d like to mention Families on Track for anybody who is coming to RunFestRun or wants to try it out before they come to RunFestRun and maybe try and beat the family record at the event. It’s basically just an initiative that we brought to try and encourage families to get fit and get active and get healthy together. Most of the Families on Track events are 10k events and you run it as a family as a continuous relay over loops of 250m, 500m and a kilometre.
And it’s not a race because everybody is different ages and abilities but it’s just a fun way to come together, to have the kids cheering on mum on her 250m loop or on the kilometre loop or however you want to do it. Just to come away from the day having spent some time as a family, enjoying yourself without screen time and just physically active and doing something as a family unit. There’s going to be that within RunFestRun, I think it’s going to be 5k events there just to be able to fit more in and because the families are already doing a fair amount of running over the weekend. It is funny at the end of the weekend when you add up how much you got to, I think I was almost at 50k last time.
Paula Radcliffe, Steve Cram CBE & Colin Jackson are team captains at this year’s RunFestRun festival, which takes place between 27th – 29th August at Laverstoke Park, Hampshire. For more information, visit www.runfestrun.co.uk.
Words by Lucy Roberts for Female First. You can follow Lucy on Twitter @Lucy_Roberts_72.