The marathon record that ages like red wine

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Paula Radcliffe being interviewed by Gabby Logan ahead of the 2015 London Picture: Paul Wilkinson via Flickr

Even now, as she reaches the age of 45, many still can’t comprehend the incredible marathon world record set by British running legend Paula Radcliffe.

With over 15 years gone and counting, nobody has quite come close to troubling the 2:15.25 time set by Radcliffe at the London Marathon, with many questioning when, if at all, it will be broken.

The likes of Eliud Kipchoge and Abraham Kiptum have taken men’s marathon running to new levels in 2018, but on the women’s side, the greats like Mary Keitany, Tirunesh Dibaba and Vivian Cheruiyot are a couple of minutes away from challenging.

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When she broke the record, the scene couldn’t have been more perfect. As she completed the 26.2 mile race, the 2002 Sports Personality of the Year was passing Buckingham Palace on her way to becoming athletics royalty.

After she crossed the line, London’s huge home crowd stood applauding the undisputed marathon queen as she recovered her strength to soak in the incredible record she had achieved.

Steve Cram, the commentator at the time, said that were he not on media duties he would have stood up and applauded himself. Nobody there had ever seen anything like it in terms of marathon running. There is even a case for it to be the most astonishing record across the whole sport.

The race itself was effectively a time trial for Radcliffe, who led almost from the gun, having only male pacemakers for company.

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When the pace finally began to bite towards the end, the strain it had on Radcliffe was clear, with her head bobbing and arms pumping as she doggedly drove on to grab the time that would change the landscape of female marathon running for good.

From then on, it was a pure spectacle. Steve Cram and Brendan Foster could only repeat how unbelievable Radcliffe’s performance was, while British distance great Peter Elliott remarked at what a “privilege” it was for him to watch it unfold.

Naturally, it took a short minute before a tired Radcliffe could stand in front of the awestruck supporters and acknowledge that mission impossible had been accomplished. It would undoubtedly prove to be the Cheshire runner’s finest moment.

As with most athletics world records that break the previous one by such an amount, Radcliffe’s achievement would evoke a feeling of suspicion in some minds that all was not quite what it seemed.

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In the case of the women’s marathon record, suspicion was raised for the same reason as admiration; that the time was just too good. 

Radcliffe had only taken up marathon running 18 months prior – with this also being the second time that she had broken the world record.

Throughout her career and her retirement, she has been one of the sport’s strongest anti-doping advocates, famously holding a ‘EPO cheats out’ sign with Welsh athlete Hayley Tullett during the 2001 World Championships.

Allegations came out in 2015 when she was identified by MP Jesse Norman as being a suspect during a parliamentary enquiry into blood sampling.

However, the three ‘off-score’ blood samples that raised the suspicion were found to be incomplete, with the IAAF releasing a statement saying that no conclusion could be made, clearing Radcliffe of any wrongdoing.

And so, her record looks set to remain untouched for years to come. It has already withstood a 2011 challenge, when the IAAF Congress initially decided that all women’s records should be from events with only female competitors.

After protest in Britain, the decision was reversed, albeit Radcliffe’s time is now the “mixed gender” marathon world record, while Kenyan Mary Keitany last year usurped Radcliffe’s “women’s only” record of 2:17.42.

Today, Radcliffe continues to speak out in favour of clean sport and inspire both amateur and professional distance runners.