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With lots of athletes competing in Belfast and London Marathons on Sunday, here’s a wee story (and a warning) that might be of help to those who hope to complete the 26.2 miles.

Remember speed kills!

Paula’s marathon fail was no pantomime

By Tony Bagnall

THE big news story of the 2004 Athens Olympics was Paula Radcliffe, Britain’s red-hot marathon gold medal favourite, failing to finish.

Most people understood that she gave her best but had a bad day; though some thought she should have completed the course.

Others, who probably never ran a step in their lives, viciously lambasted her.

Those misinformed people obviously don’t know that in 35 degrees of heat and with high humidity, it takes a massive effort just to walk a mile – never mind run 26 miles flat out?

Furthermore an injury going into the event didn’t help her cause.

Paula is my sporting hero, the person, who above all others, I would love to meet.

Perhaps it’s because I see certain similarities between us.

Granted she was a world-class athlete, and although I was once a marathon runner, proud of my 2.53 personal best time, I was undoubtedly minor league.

Paula’s running style too wasn’t great either, her bobbing head and pain-filled face reminding me of my own awkward gait. On the plus side I saw myself as a trier – just like Paula.

But perhaps the biggest thing we share is that we both hold world records in the London Marathon. Hers was a magnificent official world best time of 2.15, set in April 2003.

I achieved mine almost exactly 21 years earlier – unofficial, and in point of fact, not much to write home about.

Anyway here’s how it came about.

The day began at Blackheath when I lined up with 23,000 others and, like Paula in Athens, I was on a mission. I wanted to clip seven minutes from my marathon best of 3.06 and duck under three hours.

So with that goal in mind I somehow managed to edge my way to the front of the field … in among the five-minute miling people.

That was mistake number one.

When the gun went I was dragged along with these national class athletes and ran far too fast. That was mistake number two.

And by the time I realised my latest error it was too late. I had clocked just under 25 minutes for the first four miles. Much, much too quick.

At that stage possibly a thousand runners had passed me. Although initially I was working hard to achieve close to six-minute miles, the athletes around me were cruising at perhaps 5.30 pace or under.

As the race progressed runners came past me in droves. And that state of affairs lasted to the finishing line on London Bridge. That’s my world record claim … being passed by most runners in a marathon!

Anyway things would get worse. Tired after four miles, by ten miles I was swaying all over the road. I had to walk for the first time. But I struggled on.

By 17 miles I was dizzy and my pace was almost pedestrian. I could only shuffle in small stretches and was mostly walking. Also I was so embarrassed. I was wearing my Newry Shamrocks running vest and I remember trying to hide the Shamrocks’ motif with my hands so people wouldn’t know I was Irish. I felt ashamed. I was letting my country down.

And if I was embarrassed, in a place where no one knew me, I could scarcely begin to imagine what it must have been like for Paula Radcliffe on the road to Athens with the weight of a nation, not to mention the tens of millions watching on television, resting on her slim shoulders.

Meanwhile my humiliation wasn’t over. At 23 miles I heard cheering and was utterly disgusted with myself when two runners, dressed in a pantomime horse costume, passed me.

It was the lowest point in my athletic career.


Eventually I reached the Mall and with just a couple of hundred yards to the finish I tried to lift the pace slightly … and maybe pass just one runner. It didn’t happen and that was mistake number three.

My legs buckled. I fell.

I managed to get up - and shuffling and stumbling, I eventually reached the line.

But once over that line I collapsed again and was taken to a recovery room where I was given a bed plus food and drink. After lying there for about 30 minutes I thought I was alright and tried to stand up. But my legs gave way and I ended on the ground once more.

However, eventually I did recover sufficiently to hobble back to my hotel room.

And the next day, despite some soreness, I was ok.

Those bad memories came flooding back as I watched Paula Radcliffe sitting disconsolately on the road to Athens with the tears rolling down her face and my heart went out to her.

Granted she must have felt much, much worse than I did in London 1982.

Nonetheless she should be thankful for one thing – at least she wasn’t passed by a pantomime horse!

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