Wednesday, 4 April 2012

English Rose Bitten on Bum!

(Above) Jamie takes gold at the Olympic stadium (in his own mind).

IT’S hard to decide which is the more excruciating: Watching Andy Murray fail gloriously at Wimbledon, England fail miserably at a major football tournament, or Paula Radcliffe fail physically in an Olympic marathon.

We could well experience all three of those familiar calamities this summer.  But at least the last of the trio only occurs once every four years.

Witnessing Paula fall short in her quest for Olympic gold - not through lack of talent or application, but due to the unlucky timing of some medical complaint or other - is truly agonising. In the case of Murray, and of England, at least failure is through not being good enough, whereas with Paula a major sense of injustice always seems to be involved.

So what’s it to be as Paula makes her fifth and final attempt at gold at London 2012? Looking at it unemotionally, you might expect she will run around 2hrs 19mins and be beaten fairly and squarely by somebody who is simply quicker on the day. But on past history, that just doesn’t seem likely. It’s far easier to anticipate that something of a medical nature will intervene instead. The tricky bit is predicting which particular ailment it might be.

They say being in your late thirties and having had children makes marathon women stronger, so being world record holder and performing on home territory surely means everything is nicely lined up in her favour?  Not quite. The news from RadcliffeWorld is rather worrying:  “I’ve got this massive Nairobi fly burn on my bum,” she told an inquisitive reporter recently at her African training camp.

Before anybody had a chance to say ‘That’s too much information Paula,’ she continued:  “I got it when I was stretching on the grass. We found out it’s the little black and orange ones that are the problem. When you squash them this fluid comes out and it causes like a chemical burn. Everyone else gets a little mark, but I’ve got one about this size [indicated about three inches with fingers]”

Apparently this botty damage was not a cause for great concern, and was expected to disappear fairly quickly. But there was more news. A few days earlier there’d been a full-blown panic. She woke up with a feeling that the back of her leg was being tightly grabbed . . . and after ruling out burglars, her husband and another hungry Nairobi fly, she decided it must be a hamstring tear.  A quick 30-minute drive to hospital and a scan led to more advice that there was nothing to worry about. “Because it’s Olympic year you just freak about things,” she said ruefully, her red face matching her buttock.

After returning from the hospital, plucky Paula went back out on the dusty Kenyan trails, 120 miles a week of them, more locals recognising her characteristic bobbing blonde head and crying out “Hello, Radcliffe!” 

As I write this, there are 114 days before the Olympics start and the bookies have Paula at between 8-1 and 12-1 to win the marathon. They seem reasonably generous odds and are probably based on the fact she’s not raced while 100 per cent fit for FOUR years.  

One thing for sure is that Paula has yet to experience running into the new Olympic stadium in front of a big crowd – something which nearly 5,000 ‘ordinary’ runners sampled last weekend, including my clubmate Jamie Fairfull (pictured doing so above).

Picked at random by ballot from almost 43,000 entrants (I was one of those unsuccessful) all the Joe and Josephine Bloggs from around the country did a five-mile run around the Olympic Park, passing the Velodrome and Aquatics Centre, before finishing inside the iconic stadium on the sacred track itself.

As the laid-back secretary of Tiptree Road Runners, Jamie is not normally given to hyperbole or artificial enthusiasm. But he admitted the atmosphere and significance of the occasion was ‘almost overwhelming’ last weekend, and sparked a surge of hitherto unprecedented adrenaline that took him around the track like a man possessed. Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice was in the race too, but Jamie had long since stormed past her, the thought of bowing or curtseying no doubt far from his mind.

The royal mini-Fergie told reporters it had been “an extraordinary moment” crossing the finish line, but our Jamie was unavailable for comment, the speed of his closing lap having propelled him off towards the general direction of Canary Wharf.

While such antics were underway in East London, more than 300 of us prepared for another five-miler, this in the more prosaic surroundings of Braintree, Essex, where royalty was notable by its absence, and the nearest we got to a smooth, springy track was the Flitch Way path. Nevertheless, this was a well-organised little event, with chip timing and a T-shirt, all for the very reasonable entry fee of £8. A welcome change from some of the extortionate prices I’ve seen elsewhere lately.

In these tough economic times, many of us Essex-based runners are having to nail our flags to the mast of trail running, where all you get is a set of written instructions, the promise of a beer afterwards, and they tell you to bugger off at your own speed, as and when you are ready. There’s still competition to be had if you want it, but often only involves opposition that is hopelessly lost in a field up ahead.

It’s sport, Captain, but not as we know it.

* Information about Rob Hadgraft's books on running, and more, can be found at the website

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