The term ‘legend’ is bandied around an awful lot. So much in fact, that when it comes to describing athletes like Paula Radcliffe it feels rather inadequate. In the female running community – and indeed across the world – she’s an icon. Not only does she hold the world record for the marathon (an incredible 2hrs 15mins 25secs), some of the fastest women’s marathon times ever recorded, and won World Marathon Majors three times over, but has inspired millions of female runners to unleash their potential in the process. She has taught women – and athletes at all levels – not to be afraid to push their boundaries and her battle through periods of injury have taught us never to give up. Though she hung up her competitive racing shoes in 2015, her legend and love of running is as strong as ever. We catch up with her about life after retirement, her go-to running techniques and some of the greatest life lessons running has taught her.
What does running mean to you now that your competitive career has come to an end?
It’s my thinking time, but also my time not to have to think, or deal with anything. It’s my time to clear my head, my hobby, my fun, my enjoyment. If I’m thinking-over something or I’ve got to write a big piece, make a big decision, I always go for a run. It’s not the main focus of the day anymore; it fits in around whatever happens to be the main focus of the day. But it is still an important part of my life.
You described your mantra throughout your career as having ‘no limits’ – running how you felt without chaining yourself to hitting certain times. What inspired this mantra?
I started off running cross-country. As opposed to track racing, in cross-country, you don’t have any split times, you really do just run how you feel. You gauge your effort over the distance of the race by judging yourself. Then when times became a target on the track and on the road the aim was always to run faster than a certain time rather than running a certain time. Within the race there are lots of points when you might be ahead of the splits you thought you could do and it’s not necessarily that you need to slow down. We always thought it was more important to tune into your body and tune into knowing “I might be ahead of where I thought I should be but my body feels good and I think I can do this” and then having that faith in the training and the preparation, to keep pushing on.
When you broke the marathon world record in 2003, what was going through your head as you crossed the finish line?
Exactly when you cross the finish line you feel a mix of relief, elation, fatigue… All of those things. A lot of the time, as you’re approaching the finish, in the marathon particularly, you’re really concentrating on getting every last bit of energy out of your body. If at that point, say with 100 meters or so to go, someone told you that you had to run another 400m you would absolutely be able to do that. But the minute you cross the finish line and you know you’ve finished, you then really feel how exhausted you are. In terms of setting the world record in that race, it’s a little bit different and special because I had all the last two miles to know that I was going to beat the world record. Whereas with something like the 100m, for example, you may not even know you’ve broken it till you’ve crossed the line. I had time to take some of those memories in and to really savour it. At the same time, I was also trying to push myself in the hope that the marathon record would stand as long as possible.
Your pain threshold has been described as legendary. Was this always true for you or was it something you built up?
I’ve always had it. I don’t see it as any different from normal because it’s the same one I’ve always had. With my coach, Gary, we’d have to set a sliding scale of 0-10 for pain and I wasn’t allowed to run through more than a five or a six. Below that, I might get away with it and above that I would be doing damage and creating a more serious injury.
Is there a go-to mental technique you fall back on when running?
I count. It’s really boring and probably a bit anal but I count up to 100 and then start again. When I was racing that technique fit really well in that three times 100 would be roughly a mile. So I could break down the mile even further. It keeps me in the moment. Focusing only on what number came next. Not projecting ahead how far I had to run or if something wasn’t feeling good. It was something to focus on.
Your record has stood for nearly 13 years now, what do you think needs to happen for someone to break it?
You have to run hard. In a marathon, you have to have all the conditions come together well on the day. You have to be well prepared, you have to be feeling good, the conditions need to be good, you need a good fast course and you have to be prepared to go for it as well. Sometimes that’s just in a person’s mindset and sometimes it’s in the set up of the race. You have a strong race with lots of people who are of the same ability as you and all really fast, either that’s going to produce a really fast race or they’re going to race each other.
What does the London Marathon mean to you?
It means a lot! It was my first experience of a mass road race; a mass marathon. I watched my dad run it. I remember seeing Ingrid Christensen set a world record and being very impressed with how strong and how powerful she was running. That was one of my earliest inspirations to move towards the marathon. I think when you’re a distance runner in Britain you grow up with the London Marathon theme tune coming on every April. It’s iconic. So to get the chance to run it is really special. To really experience all of that support from everybody on the streets of London, the crowds, the organisers, the other runners in the race. It’s a really special experience. It’s something you can never really get enough of. It was very special to go back and run it in 2015, to appreciate it one more time. I was able to see a different side of it as well, because I was going off the club start line. So I could appreciate running with the masses and the difference there.
Do you think you’ll run it again?
Certainly. I have friends I’d like to run it with. In terms of going and competitively racing, that’s behind me. But there’s no reason I can’t go and run it with friends and help them reach their targets.
You have battled through – and overcome – difficult periods of injury, particularly in the latter part of your career. What advice would you give other runners recovering from injury?
Take it steadily, day by day. Set baby targets. And bring the same dedication to your rehabilitation as you would bring to your training. Also visualise getting back to running. Visualise your body healing and really support that healing nutritionally. That’s what’s great with the Revive Active Joint complex; I really noticed my foot felt a lot better after taking that; I was giving it the building blocks to help it heal. With any kind of muscle injury you really need to support your body with the right vitamins and minerals to be able to rebuild.
What are the greatest lessons running has taught you?
Where is your favourite place to run?
I have lots of favourites. I love running through forests. When I go to NY I love running in Central Park. I love to run along the river and through the parks in London. I have a favourite place wherever I go. But I always prefer off road. Parks, forests, mountains, along the coast – something like that. Time passes quicker. It’s more fun. On the trail your body is working harder. You’re working your muscles harder. So it’s better for your body as well.
Finally, describe running to you in one word…
Paula Radcliffe is an ambassador for Revive Active, a brand of energy-boosting supplements, including the Revive Active flagship product, and Revive Active: Joint Complex. For further product and stockist information, visit: reviveactive.com.