31 December 2000

Radcliffe avenges her defeat in Sydney by beating Tulu in the frozen Great North Cross-Country

If some men from Mars had come down to Consett, Co Durham, they would have seen a remarkable sight. What on their old map would have been the country’s most famous steel works was now a flat, snowy field with a tall bank at the end of it around which a tall young woman with dark glasses, fair pigtails and long white socks was running a lot faster than all her pursuers. Paula Radcliffe yesterday was little short of extra-terrestrial.

Since she won everybody’s vote for most gallant Olympic loser when finishing fourth in Sydney to the Ethiopian, Desartu Tulu, Paula has set about reinventing herself anew. She was a record-breaking winner of the Great North Run in October, won the world half-marathon title in Mexico a month later, and yesterday had the diminutive but mighty Tulu a full 1 ¼ minutes adrift in second place after this icy, four lap, 6km ordeal that is the Great North Cross-Country run.

Revenge may be a dish best served cold but for the beaten Tulu conditions must have been bordering on the ridiculous. It had been 80 degrees when she left Addis Ababa on Wednesday and if the temperature in the midday sun was not that far below freezing it was still chilly enough to bring the polar bears back to Weardale.

Tulu had only once run on snow before. “It was at Boston in 1992,” she said with her Haile Gebrselassie smile afterwards, “and I pulled out after 200 metres.”

To her undying credit, this former major in the Ethiopian army chased Radcliffe without flinching from flag fall to finish. She is a tiny wisp of a thing, just 5ft 1in and not much more than seven stone, but there is a set to her jaw and a bite to her stride that reminds you that she has won two world cross-country titles as well as two Olympic 10,000 metres titles.

She might have been struggling with the going underfoot but pride is the fiercest of dynamos – even when vain pursuit is the only option. For this was Paula Radcliffe running like a mountain deer.

Snow was her element. She had actually won the world junior event that freezing day in Boston in 1992 and she had spent this Christmas with her family at her apartment in the French Pyrenees at Font Romeu. She and her husband, Gary Locke, had practised running on the frozen langlauf trails. Before the start yesterday she did a practice 100m sprint down the straight.

With her black gloves and pink and blue shoes with the 15mm spikes, she was ready and it showed.

That she has got herself so focused is typical of Radcliffe. She is an enviably elegant mix of intelligence (she got first-class honours at university) and determination, and is far too shrewd to get sidetracked either by remorse at Olympic might-have-beens or by a bit of reported “she has got a slow finish” goadings from her Ethiopian rival.

Yesterday was Radcliffe at the peak of her powers. She rocketed off in front from Tulu, Hounslow’s Cathy Butler and the new European cross-country champion, Katalina Szentgyorgyi.

After 800 metres on the flat, the course attacks the steepest of banks, threads its way 300 metres along the ridge and then toboggans down a frozen chute that threatened your ankles even at a walk. For the first lap, I stood at the bottom to see the carnage, Radcliffe, arms out wide for balance, came bounding down quick enough to put any chamois to shame.

Once on the flat again she dug in hard, her long stride devouring the frozen ground. The old head may rock in that painful, disconcerting way of hers, but she is still ruthless on others as much as herself. She had 50 metres over Tulu, after one lap, 100 after two, and by the end she had more than twice the whole length of the straight between her and her Sydney torturer with Butler a most honourable third.

Within seconds of the finish she was able to give breathless thanks and good wishes on the microphone. Within minutes she was completely together and putting the whole day into perspective.

“I just love running in snow,” she said, her eyes shining so bright that you forget all the pain. “I wanted to go out there and attack. Once I got a gap, I felt good and wanted to exploit it.”

“There are many different ways,” she added with just a cryptic smile at Tulu’s “slow finish” suggestions, “of winning a race.”

There were many other honours at Consett. The Kenyan, Paul Kosgei, beat European champion Paulo Guerra magnificently in the men’s 9km race, Irishman Gareth Turnbull won the 4km race for the third time, and 11-year-old Khalil Thompson beat little Mathew Foggin and 135 enthusiastic others in the junior event.

But, in truth, one superstar outshone all others. To paraphrase the immortal description of the great racehorse Eclipse in the 18th century, it was Radcliffe first, the rest nowhere.

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