The 13th April in 2003 marks a landmark date for the world of female marathon running. Paula Radcliffe had just ran a time of 2:15:25 at the Virgin Money London Marathon in front of an adoring British audience who had witnessed greatness before their eyes.
Not only had Paula reached the pinnacle of her career just shy of hitting 30 years-old, it also proved to be a defining moment for long distance running as a whole. However, the date in question was not Paula’s first date with destiny.
In fact, her world record time in 2003, was the third time in which she had broken the female marathon record in the space of one year. In 2002, she clocked 2:18:56 at the London Marathon and, in October later that year, she ran a time of 2 hr 17 min 18 sec at the Chicago Marathon
What is most remarkable about Radcliffe’s achievements in both 2002 and 2003, is that her athletic background and preferred distance in running was actually cross country, half marathons as well as 5,000 and 10,000 metres. Moreover, to add further clout to her astronomical rise in the sport, was that the first world record time she set in 2002 in London, was her debut marathon race. An incredible achievement.
The step up from the shorter distances to a 26.2 mile slog in a marathon is an unprecedented leap into the unknown so for her to achieve a world record breaking time is, quite simply, incredible. The demands on the body, the commitment to training, strict diet can, for some, be too much. Just ask Mo Farah made his marathon debut in 2014 at the Virgin Money London Marathon and completed the course in 2 hours 8 minutes 21 seconds and finished in eighth place. Nothing to be sniffed at, mind.
You could perhaps argue, though, that Radcliffe’s was destined for great things from the very beginning. Her father had a passion for running and she soon became involved in the sport despite suffering from Asthma. She made her national running debut aged just 12-year-old in 1986, when she placed 299th in the English Schools Cross Country Championships. In 1991 Radcliffe won the English Schools 1500 metres title.
She would then appear at the 1992 IAAF World Cross Country Championships and took the Junior title, beating Wang Junxia and Gete Wami in Boston, after recovering from a bad asthma attack in the weeks beforehand. Radcliffe would continue to enjoy success at various British and European meetings but The Olympic Games would be her next big step up.
As has been well documented - and written previously - Radcliffe would go on to enjoy success on the most global and grandest scales in athletics and marathon running but the minor blip on her CV was her lack of success at the Olympic Games. She made her Olympics debut debut in 1996 Olympic in Atlanta, USA, but finished fifth in the 5,000 metres. In Sydney in 2000, Radcliffe finished sixth in her 10,000 metres heat to qualify for the final. Once there, Radcliffe set a new British record, but crossed the line in fourth and was highly disappointed to miss out on a medal. Better luck in Sydney perhaps?
In 2004, she went in to the Olympic Games as a firm favourite to win gold carrying the hopes of Britain on her shoulders. She suffered an injury to her leg just two weeks prior to the event and had to use a high dose of anti-inflammatory drugs. This had an adverse effect on her stomach, hindering food absorption. She ended up withdrawing from the race after 36 km (22 mi). Five days later she started in the 10,000 metres but, still suffering from the effects of the marathon, retired with eight laps remaining. "I've never before not been able to finish and I'm desperately trying to find a reason for what happened", "I just feel numb - this is something I worked so hard for.
Injuries soon began to creep in and slow her progress and had to miss various meetings as well as marathon majors which led to her carefully selecting her races. Radcliffe withdrew from the 2008 London Marathon due to a foot injury which put her place under threat for the upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. She would, however, prove her fitness and join Team GB, in China. Her injury problems resurfaced and she cramped during the marathon to the point where she had to stop running and stretch. She resumed the race and finished in 23rd place overall.
This would be her last ever appearance at the Olympic Games which would sadly mean, no medals and worse for Radcliffe, no homecoming appearance in London in 2012. Whether she would have been able to cut it with the top runners is another matter and a question that would sadly not be answered.
Gaps in her career also came as a result of her having her first child in 2007, daughter Isla and, her second, in 2010, Raphael. Following a 19-month layoff that included the birth of her second child, she returned to action at the Bupa London 10 km (6 mi), where she finished 3rd, 55 seconds behind the winner. She also completed the 2011 Berlin Marathon in a time of 2:23:46 hours – getting the Olympic standard and the fourth fastest time by a European that year.
Little action of note occupied the years after and, at the Virgin Money London Marathon in 2015, she would bid an emotional farewell to running. She decided that she would enjoy her final run along the infamous route - where she set three world record times - rather than push herself to her usual limits. It was a fitting end and thousands lined the streets of London to give her one last cheer.
Radcliffe’s achievements throughout her career, holding records for the fastest time to run the Chicago and London Marathon, the latter in which the fastest ever in 2003 and the fastest road run 10 kilometres (female).
She earned many accolades including the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Laureus World Comeback of the Year, IAAF World Athlete of the Year, AIMS World Athlete of the Year (three times) and a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). She has also been nominated for World Sportswoman of the year on several occasions. In 2010, she was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame.
The most notable achievement of her career, we would argue here at Guinness World Records, is when we presented Paula with her Guinness World Records certificate for the fastest marathon ever ran at the 2003 London Marathon.
Athletes and sporting greats are always remembered for their skill and achievements but Paula had a tremendous character and was able to win the hearts of the British and global public, something that not everyone can do. Although the men’s fastest marathon time has been beaten on a few occasions in the last couple of years, Paula’s record has stood for nearly 15 years and looks likely to remain that way for years to come.