Despite the grimace, Paula Radcliffe runs a marathon worth a smile

Paula Radcliffe wins the 2002 Chicago Marathon in a world-record 2 hours, 17 minutes and 18 seconds  Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Running looks hard when Paula Radcliffe does it, her head jerking back with each quick stride as if she were receiving a sadistic jolt from some higher source.

Perhaps that is why it has been easy to feel her pain, and there has been plenty to share, including fourth-place finishes at the Olympics and world championships that left this gaunt and committed Briton just off the podium and tearfully asking herself the thorny question: "Will my best ever be good enough?"

But this has been the year for Radcliffe to slough off self-doubt and the media-friendly but unsatisfying label of gallant loser. It still looks difficult, even agonizing, but the results tell a different tale, and the most recent time of Radcliffe's life came Sunday on the flat, fast marathon course in Chicago as she established a world standard for women in 2 hours, 17 minutes and 18 seconds.

That was 89 seconds better than the mark set in the same race and place last year by Catherine Ndereba of Kenya.

This year, Ndereba finished second in 2:19:26. That time would have been cause for headlines in 2001. The 2:20 barrier which once looked more like a brick wall has been demystified, with Japan's Naoko Takahashi, Ndereba and Radcliffe taking turns redefining the limits of womankind in the past 54 weeks.

"I think there was a bit of a mental barrier there," Radcliffe, 28, said in Chicago. "Also, I think as we've moved on, women are training harder and pushing themselves harder. We're pushing each other further."

A marathon record is still an imperfect entity. Marathon courses do not vary in length, but they do in topography. They will never run as fast in Boston as they will in Chicago. Some elite marathons also start the women with the men, which gives the top women excellent pacing.

That was the case in Chicago. Radcliffe, who only made the leap from long-distance track runner and cross-country stalwart to marathoner this year, was escorted by a group of male runners for the first 20 miles.

To have a true sense of what her time was worth, it would have been best to have Takahashi in Chicago, too, but appearance fees are not limitless. Takahashi ran in Berlin last month instead, winning in 2:21.49.

Radcliffe is now, as the Brits say, on holiday, and one can only imagine the satisfaction she must feel as she tosses her spikes into the closet and allows herself a break from the high-mileage, six- day-a-week running-and-recovery regimen she has imposed on herself.

In a six-month period, she has gone from an appealing member of the leading pack to the fastest marathoner of all time, the second- fastest 10,000-meter runner and the fifth-fastest 5,000-meter runner.

She has won on turf, taking her second consecutive cross-country title in March in Dublin. She has won on the track, taking the 5,000 at the Commonwealth Games by a remarkable 1.21-minute margin and the 10,000 at the European Championships in a European record time of 30 minutes, 1.09 seconds.

She has also won on the road, beginning with her marathon debut in London in April, where she missed Ndereba's mark by just nine seconds.

In all, it is one of the most impressive and complete seasons in memory, the only caveat being that it was a season without an Olympics or world championship. Her fellow Britons, and their lionizing press, won't soon forget her accomplishments.

But the wider world tends to remember what happens on the biggest stages, which means that Radcliffe's bigger challenges still lie ahead.

Articulate and humane, she is a potential antidote to the declining appeal of athletics, which has suffered from drug scandals and increased competition from other pursuits. Like all track stars, Radcliffe is well aware of the damage that doping has done to her sport.

But she has been proactive and outspoken in fighting against it, wearing a red ribbon on her running outfit to lobby for blood testing and, most famously, holding up a sign of protest at last year's world championships in Edmonton, Alberta, when a Russian runner, Olga Yegorova, competed in the 5,000 despite preliminary indications that she had failed a test for the banned endurance- enhancing hormone EPO.

Yegorova was exonerated because the proper testing procedure had not been used, and Radcliffe's militant behavior has not earned her universal admiration from her peers, some of whom view it as sanctimonious. But her cleaner-than-thou approach is seemingly the right one for this era, where the burden of proof in endurance sports has shifted from the governing bodies to the athletes themselves.

It was a telling sign of how far she has come that there was concern about her integrity before the Chicago race, with Ndereba's agent, Lisa Buster, saying Radcliffe was receiving preferential treatment because she had not been subject to random testing in the lead-up to the marathon.

Radcliffe and her husband and manager, Gary Lough, were put in the awkward position of having to lobby to have her tested.

At least Radcliffe's message and progress have been steady, and why shouldn't her marathon training have helped her improve at shorter distances on the track?

Sure, she experimented last year with sleeping in a tent that simulates high-altitude conditions. She has employed a nutritionist to reduce the chances of hitting the wall at the end of races, and increased her longest training run this year by 20 minutes.

It has all helped make her a champion, and why shouldn't that be the whole story? It would hardly be fitting for someone who makes running look so tough to take the easy way out.

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