No news is good news?

On Thursday last week I was invited to the official opening of the Nike store in Westfield Stratford, on the Olympic park being built for the Games in 2012. The added draw was that Paula Radcliffe would be there, talking about running and giving tips and discussing her training and of course, discussing her meeting with IAAF president Lamine Diack to discuss the recent ruling that means that as of January 2012 Paula’s world record of 2:15:35 will be down-graded to a ‘worlds best’ from it’s current world record, because the race was a mixed race.

History stands

On arriving at the new store, everyone there was given a ‘History Stands’ t-shirt and we were able to nose around the very impressive new retail space, while a DJ played. But it was clear to me, that everyone was there to hear Paula being interviewed by Charlie Webster. And we didn’t have to wait long.

As I would expect, the message that Paula delivered from the IAAF was that they are sympathetic to the points she made and that they would look into the issue. Bodies like the IAAF rarely reverse decisions quickly or publicly, but my thoughts about this ruling are pretty clear;

  • if pacers are not allowed in women’s races then surely they have to be banned in men’s races too?
  • there doesn’t seem to be much compelling evidence that being in a mixed race actually provides assistance
  • the vast majority of big marathons have mixed fields which makes them ineligible for a world record attempt, so this limits women’s opportunities to run a world record
  • Paula didn’t use pace-makers. She did race men in the field, but at no time was she running behind a shield of pacers or anything like that
  • the ruling affects many more women than just Paula Radcliffe – for example the US women’s record is currently 2:19:36 by Deena Kastor at the London Marathon (not in a women’s-only race) and if the ruling were applied across the board, the record would suddenly belong to Joan Benoit Samuelson who ran 2:24:52 at the 1984 Olympic Games.

Paula Radcliffe on running in a group

I think that like many of the people at the event, I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more positive news from the meeting with the IAAF, but when you have a super-star like Paula Radcliffe on stage being interviewed by a knowledgeable interviewer and runner like Charlie Webster, who was sporting trainers with ‘Break 3:30’ embroidered on the tongues, to remind her of her next target, there is always going to be some good stuff to take away.

Charlie asked Paula for any advice that she had for marathon runners who are starting out on training for the marathon and I was really pleased that Paula raised the subject of finding a training group, whether that is an athletics club or a group of friends. I have written about the value of running in a group which you can read about here and Radcliffe also talked about the importance of running in a group as the nights draw in from a safety point of view. Indeed after the talking was done there was an opportunity for the assembled crowd to go for a NikeTownRunners blast lead by a team from the store, which happens every Monday and Thursday and includes women-only groups, which I think is likely to be quite popular.

Paula’s focus on the Olympic Games 2012

Moreover I was delighted that Paula talked so positively about her experience in Berlin and the surgery that she had just afterwards. It was really great to see the fire in Paula’s eyes when she talked about the decision she had to make mid-race to back-off from challenging the eventual winner Florence Kiplagat who finished in 2:19:44. Paula has her eyes on the gold medal in London and I am delighted to see that she is prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure she is on the start line in the best shape possible. Can you imagine if she runs a world record that day… what would the IAAF say to that?

 

 

A world record… or is it?

I recently re-read one of my favourite books ‘The London Marathon’ by John Bryant and in one chapter, the author describes a fictional scenario for how the 2 hour barrier will be broken in the marathon;

It is 6 May 2024, London Marathon Day, the date set… after detailed discussions with the Ministry of Climate Control – the day when running 42.2 km should be perfect.

Millions are gathered around the course and a battery of television cameras are focused on the bright orange strip of all-weather running track two metres wide that snakes the miles from Blackheath to Buckingham Palace… Tufimu [the fictional athlete in this fantasy] is not wearing shoes as such for this marathon. His feet have been painted just 90 minutes before the race with a tough, flexible weatherproof coating – and one of the latest wafer-thin energy-return soles have been laser-glued to the bottom of each foot…

Bryant goes on to imagine that the runner will have an ear-piece plugged in to a feed from his personal hypnotherapist and that micro-chips under his skin will feed data back to a control centre, etc, etc. All very amusing.

The 2-hour marathon

But it makes a serious point. The 2 hour barrier for the marathon will, I have no doubt, be broken (hopefully in my lifetime) and it will also probably require a series of developments in both the way the athlete prepares and the kit they use. This was the case when Roger Bannister broke what many considered to be an impossible barrier – the 4 minute mile. In the case of Bannister’s historic run, it was the use of pace-makers that was the new (and in some quarters highly controversial) development, and one which has changed the face of athletics ever since. But does that mean that Bannister didn’t run a mile in under 4 minutes? No, it doesn’t.

That is part of sport. Things develop. Cars get faster, balls get lighter (or heavier or rounder or whatever), tracks and pools get ‘faster’ and sport should look forward. But I don’t believe that sport can, with one obvious exception, look backwards.

Paula Radcliffe’s world record

So how is it that the IAAF has announced recently that Paula Radcliffe’s world record for the marathon – 2:15:25 – set on 13 April 2003, will no longer be recognised as a world record (it will instead be listed as a ‘world best’ what ever the hell that means)? And the reason that this record is being down-graded is that Paula ran it in a race where there were men alongside her. Not men that Paula asked for and not, as we saw in the men’s race in Berlin this year, a peleton of runners in a ‘V’ formation in front and to the sides of her. The pace-makers in 2003 were just in the race, at most offering a target to help with the psychological challenges of keeping up the incredible pace Paula ran at.

Drug cheats

The obvious exception to all this, of course, is when it comes to drug cheats. And there the IAAF is in murky waters. I believe most strongly that if an athlete is found guilty of cheating by taking drugs, then all of their victories and all of their records should be disregarded. If they prove to be as capable clean, as they were when doping, then once they return after they have served their ban, they will surely regain their records. If they don’t… well then maybe the records weren’t legitimate anyway. But certainly in the case of many shorter distance events, almost all of the the women’s world records, mostly set in the 1980’s – before the introduction of mandatory drug testing was introduced – are so far beyond what the world’s current best are capable of, that there is a strong whiff of suspicion. There is a great article about this very subject here.

But Paula Radcliffe is not under suspicion of any misbehaviour. She is however in danger of having one of the most increadible feats of athletics, down-graded because of the occurrence of men on the course at the same time as her (ESPN have a great piece on this storm here). For what it is worth, I for one don’t think that is either sensible or fair and certainly brings into question whether ‘assisted’ marathon world records are going to be banned in which case Kenya’s Patrick Makau had better enjoy breaking the world record (2:03:38) last weekend, because he definitely hid from the wind behind a phalanx of pacers and if there is one rule for women, it is only fair that it should be applied to men. What do you think?

Success and motivation

I have just watched this video on the BBC website with Paula Radcliffe talking about running and her career in athletics and the power that the games in London in 2012 are having over the decisions she is making in her life. It really made me think. Personally I think that Paula is an incredible person and an incredible athlete. Where the media and arm-chair pundits do criticise Paula, it is usually because in their minds she has under-performed at major championships – most notably the last two Olympics. But I doubt there is a serious runner in the world who doesn’t know how hard it is to arrive at the start line of a key race in perfect shape, and it is absolutely true that the closer one is to the edge, the harder it is to get the training just right and arrive without either under training or, possibly worse, over training.

I am really pleased to hear that Paula does not consider the issue of her not being in shape for the last two Olympics to be defining in her career or in any way indicative of an unfulfilled life. And at the same time I was touched by the fact that she is clearly still so affected and concerned by the opinions of the people who turn their gaze on her once every couple of years when she races a high-profile event, but in all likelihood have no concept of what it takes to do what she does. She mentions in the video that when all is said and done, running was the thing that Paula did as a hobby and I think, from the couple of times I have met her (albeit very briefly both times) and from the hours of video footage that I have seen of her, that Paula is still at heart a runner who runs because she loves it. I hope that it may always be like that for her and that she can have her dream of performing at the Olympics whilst retaining her sanity in the face of relentless pressure from the media and sponsors and the public.

So three cheers for Paula. Let’s all get behind her and the other runners who will hopefully be toeing the start line of the marathon in 2012 and aiming to be the best runners they can be on the day.