Top performers in athletics are sometimes not averse to avoiding their most dangerous rivals. Note how, for instance, the world number two sprinter might “opt” for the 200m at a meeting when the number one is suddenly added to the 100m field.
The practice extends to the longer races too – but emphatically not at this year’s New York Marathon, which takes place on Sunday.
There are at least two reasons for this. Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder, thanks to her 2hr 15min 25sec time at the 2003 London Marathon, might have wished for an easier race in her return to the event after a break of more than two years. But something adjacent to half-a-million bucks to put her dainty feet on the Staten Island start line is temptation enough, no matter who is lining up alongside the lanky Briton in her attempt to take another big bite out of the Big Apple, where she won in 2004.
But the other, more pertinent reason, is that 33-year-old Radcliffe is not one to avoid confrontation.
The day after her miserable collapse and retirement from the Olympic marathon in Athens in 2004 – her only loss in seven outings at the event – when she might have opted for a long, ruminative stroll, she submitted herself to a tough press conference attended by about 200 journalists. She duly shed a tear or two at the inevitable invasive cross-examination.
And Sunday’s race through the five boroughs will be another exacting challenge, given that it has a women’s field to rival an Olympic Games or a world championship.
Since Radcliffe has not run a marathon since winning the world title in Helsinki in 2005, and is returning from a lengthy lay-off after the birth of her daughter Isla, promptly followed by an injury or two – the perennial bugbear of the long-distance runner – she is laying her reputation on a highly public line.
On top of that, she got a nasty surprise in her comeback race, the Great North Run half-marathon in England five weeks ago. Her time of 67min 54sec would have provided plenty of grounds for optimism had she not finished almost a minute down on the little- known Kara Goucher of the US, who is not running on Sunday.
Radcliffe seemed undaunted, saying: “I wasn’t happy to be beaten, and certainly not so decisively. That fires me up to go back in and train harder. The most important thing is to get back into a competitive field, and [New York] is a very highly competitive field. As the field will be in Beijing.
“That’s what I need to do between now and Beijing, get into very competitive races, and race them and win them.”
The streets of New York have already proved the road to one sort of salvation for the Briton. It was in winning this race three years ago that she exorcised the demons that had waylaid her three months earlier on the road from Marathon to Athens. New York provided revelation as well as salvation. Not famous for her sprint finish, Radcliffe managed exactly that, easing away from Susan Chepkemei of Kenya in the last 200m to win by just three seconds, the closest finish in the almost four-decade history of the women’s race here.
New York this time is one of the penultimate steps to what Radcliffe hopes will be her final redemption, winning the Olympic marathon in Beijing next August. But heading the stellar opposition is a far better Kenyan, Catherine Ndereba, who has the best competitive record in world marathon running. She has an Olympic silver from Athens and has twice won the world title, the latter victory in a resilient display in the heat and humidity of Osaka in the summer.
She has also won the Boston Marathon four times and Chicago twice. On the other hand, she has never beaten Radcliffe, including at Helsinki, but will probably never have a better opportunity to do so.
Gete Wami has beaten Radcliffe many times and is, perhaps, the most intriguing entry. The Ethiopian is a former 10,000m world champion, has beaten Radcliffe easily on the track, and exchanged world cross-country victories with the Briton. However, Wami ran and won the Berlin Marathon five weeks ago and has only been tempted to run in New York because of the $500,000 bonus offered to the overall winner of the series of marathons – Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York – known as the World Marathon Majors. Wami leads the rankings in this über-contest but needs to prevent Jelena Prokupcuka of Latvia winning in New York for a third consecutive time in order to scoop the jackpot.
When Prokupcuka won two years ago, she could barely speak English. Since then, she has responded as well to her language coach as to her athletic mentor and was indistinguishable from a local when she said this week: “I would compare it to a hungry man who comes into a restaurant and has eaten two parts of his dinner and now he is ready for his dessert. Now, I’m ready to have dessert.”
There are others quite capable of pulling the tablecloth out from under all the above runners, notably Salina Kosgei of Kenya and Russia’s Lidia Grigorieva, who won Boston in April, because this is probably the best ever women’s field in New York.
Nor is the men’s field far off – despite being deprived of the resurgent American contenders who, during a bonanza marathon weekend, compete in the US men’s Olympic Trial being run separately around Central Park and its environs today. Sunday’s race features the defending champion, Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil. Yet such is the competition that he, like Prokupcuka, will not be among the three favourites.
There are three other New York champions, best of whom is probably Martin Lel of Kenya, the 2003 winner, who has also won the more competitive London race twice and finished second in the past three years. Other former winners are Rodgers Rop of Kenya (2002) and Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa (2004).
Saturday’s US men’s Olympic Trial is important from another perspective. Its strength in depth demonstrates just how well the Americans have responded to the challenge of the domination of the marathon by African runners during the past 20 years.
Coupled with the restoration of New York Marathon fields to their former strength, this augurs extremely well for the sport on a worldwide basis.