Heee-haaww. Heee-haaww. I am 16 minutes into a gentle jog with Paula Radcliffe. My breathing sounds like an asthmatic donkey down a coalmine. Radcliffe is gliding across thick mud as if she were walking on water.
I glance at her and then feel better. Nod, nod, nod: Radcliffe’s inimitable running style, her head bobbing rhythmically above tucked in shoulders, has finally kicked in. It’s a nod of delicious self-absorption; her legs and lungs working together; her body ticking like a metronome.
My friends say I run like a girl. If only. You don’t need a session with probably the greatest female distance runner ever, who still holds the women’s world record for the marathon, to know that girls can run pretty well.
Before we start, Radcliffe looks fragile in the goose-pimply flesh, freezing in the bitter wind sweeping across Regent’s Park in central London. As soon as she unfurls her limbs to warm up with some basic stretches, however, she shows all the elegance of those unusual people who somehow come alive when they are in motion.
ON THE RUN
By interviewing Radcliffe on the run, I cunningly hope that short questions, which demand long answers, will help me keep up. Failing that, friends cruelly suggest, I could always take a roadside toilet break, as Radcliffe famously did in the 2005 London Marathon.
Radcliffe began running after trotting along to her amateur runner dad’s marathon training sessions and handing him drinks. She finished second in her first cross-country race at school, which fired her competitive spirit.
“I was really annoyed because this girl beat me. I was only about eight or nine, so my dad took me to a little circuit every Saturday for four weeks and taught me how to run downhill and just relax more and let my body go. On the next race I got away from her on the downhill,” Radcliffe says.
Running is more like an addiction than a job, Radcliffe cheerfully admits while we swerve past the duckpond.
She does not feel she has to run every day, just seven days out of eight. And after a marathon, she takes two weeks off.
“The first week I’m all right, I’m having a lie-in in the morning, doing different things and recovering from the race,” she says.
By the second week, she’s getting twitchy.
“You suddenly realize that running is your stress release,” she says. “In the second week I’m dying to go for a run.”
I assumed that Radcliffe would prefer running alone but she says that she can enjoy it both as a solitary therapy or a social occasion.
“There are times when I’m feeling a bit down or have a lot of things on my mind or have had a really full-on, busy day, and I just want to go and have my time. And there are other times when it’s a big social thing, go for a run, catch up with friends and have a really good chat,” she says.
She looks as if she has recovered from the disappointment of the Beijing Olympics, where she hobbled in at 23rd place after struggling with injuries all year.
Last month she won the New York Marathon and is now firmly in training for next year’s London Marathon, where she set her world record in 2003.
Running with me is officially a rest day; most of her training is on the coast road near her home in Monaco.
“I love running by the sea,” she says.
Her husband and coach, Gary Lough, still unfortunately remembered for berating a tearful Radcliffe for failing to do better in a 2001 race, used to run alongside her but now cycles to keep up.