The Olympics are filled with women of exceptional athletic ability, many of whom have a level of determination and courage that far exceeds their superhuman physical strength. With today’s kick-off of the London Olympics, I find Paula Radcliffe’s inspiring story to be a standout of this summer’s Olympics. In spite of extraordinary setbacks, Radcliffe continues to set the pace in the world of women’s running.
Radcliffe is one of the greatest runners, male or female, of all time. Born in England, a country not known for its modern long-distance running pedigree, she began racing as a youngster. As she matured in the sport, she set the women’s marathon world record - 2 hours and 15 minutes! - a time that only a handful of men could beat. Her record still stands nine years later. Of the seven marathons Radcliffe ran prior to the 2004 Olympics, she won six and set world records in five.
But, despite her inherent gift, an Olympic medal remains mysteriously elusive for this superathlete. Going into the 2004 Athens Olympics, a victory for fan-favorite Radcliffe seemed practically preordained. However, debilitating cramps and the 95-degree heat took their toll. The world watched as Radcliffe, who had been leading the pack, slowed to a full stop at the 23-mile mark and collapsed on a curb, amid tears instead of cheers. Unable to make it the final four miles on foot, she entered the ancient Olympic arena, where the finish line awaited, in a medical van.
Radcliffe’s collapse in Athens marked the lowest point of her running career. Having been labeled a “quitter” in the British press after the marathon event, Radcliffe hoped to redeem herself in the Olympic 10,000 m final. When the painful cramps returned, she had to drop out with just eight laps remaining. It was a defeating end to what was supposed to be an inspiring tale.
In my opinion, this moment marked the beginning of Radcliffe’s inspirational narrative. Though she didn’t walk away from the 2004 Olympics with the glory everyone had anticipated, Radcliffe never gave up. She trained throughout each of her two pregnancies, up until the day she gave birth. In 2007, I remember cheering her on in the 2007 New York City marathon and watching her cross the finish line first of all the women. She barely seemed out of breath and was happily cradling her 10-month-old baby a few minutes after finishing.
Radcliffe’s running style isn’t exactly elegant. Her head juts forward with each step as if she’s mounting an endless incline. But this forward motion reflects her resolve to push ahead of the pack and finish first. Though she was unable to train adequately for the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to a stress fracture of the left femur, Radcliffe once again entered the field as the fan favorite. She went the full distance this time, but the Olympic curse followed her to Beijing. Watching her competitors blow past her in the final stretch, she soldiered on and wept as she crossed the finish line in 23rd place.
Four years later, as she readies for her fifth (and probably final) Olympics, the 38-year old is battling osteoarthritis in her left foot. This training season, she’s been wearing knee-high compression socks to massage her calves, a titanium necklace to improve blood flow, and a nasal strip to ease her breathing... because on top of her injuries, Radcliffe is asthmatic. According to charity Asthma UK, Radcliffe is among a quarter of Britain’s Olympic hopefuls who struggle with exercise-related asthma. This condition triggers coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing, and it is especially aggravated during endurance sports like long-distance running.
Could all of these measures be a sign that Radcliffe’s body is ready to call it quits, no matter how mentally dedicated she is to her running career? I might have thought so before picking up the book Born to Run
by Christopher McDougall. I was convinced that our bodies are not meant to withstand the long distances that we inflict on them in events like the marathon. But Born to Run
posits that the human body is built for distance running, as evidenced by the running habits of ancient tribes, and that today’s overly cushioned sneakers are to blame for most running injuries. I couldn’t help feeling inspired and entertained by the book’s bigger-than-life cast of characters, and I recommend it for a quick read about the history and science of running, interlaced with one of the best adventure stories of all time. Based on what I learned from this book, I understand that Radcliffe has stuck with her choice of career path, despite the rocky terrain over the years, because it is what she loves. In a 2011 New York Times’ article
, Radcliffe admitted, “There have been times when I’ve said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’... Two minutes later, you change your mind. There isn’t anything else I’d rather do.”
The recurrence of Radcliffe’s osteoarthritis, a chronic joint problem that first flared up in 1994, does not bode well for her prospects at this year’s Olympics. When she revealed the injury a few weeks ago, Radcliffe said that she could still run in a painful state but was in agony after training. In an article in The Telegraph
, UK Athletics coach Charles van Commenee is quoted predicting a 50/50 chance Radcliffe will be physically able to compete in the marathon.
Striving to beat the odds, Radcliffe is trying to manage the pain and making another push for an Olympic medal this year. This time, she is equipped with the fact that she holds the three fastest times by a woman in marathon history and has never once lost a marathon in London. The fastest female marathon runner in history has probably weathered more struggles than any other runner in the field. Thwarted by illness and injury at every Olympic turn, Radcliffe is an inspiration to us all to overcome our excuses and persevere in achieving our physical goals. Whether it’s climbing a flight of stairs, a mountain, or a podium - like Radcliffe - we can stay active at any age.
If Radcliffe manages to cap off her trail-blazing distance running career with a spot on the starting line August 5, put down your national flag for a moment and cheer on this native in her final quest for Olympic gold.