Passed by a pantomime horse!

With many athletes competing in the Belfast and London Marathons on Sunday, here’s a little story (and a warning) that might help those hoping to cover the 26.2 miles.

Remember speed kills!

Paula’s marathon failure was no pantomime

By Tony Bagnall

The big news from the 2004 Athens Olympics was Paula Radcliffe, the British favorite for the gold medal in the marathon, who failed to finish.

Most people understood that she was giving the best of herself but that she had had a bad day; although some thought she should have finished the course.

Others, who have probably never taken a step in their lives, have savagely castigated her.

These uninformed people obviously don’t know that in 35 degrees of heat and high humidity, it takes a tremendous effort just to walk a mile – let alone run 26 miles at full speed?

Also, an injury before the event did not help his cause.

Paula is my sports heroine, the person I would like to meet above all.

Maybe it’s because I see some similarities between us.

Granted, she was a world class athlete, and although I was once a marathoner, proud of my personal best of 2.53, I was definitely a minor league.

Paula’s running style wasn’t great either, her head swaying and her face filled with pain reminding me of my own awkward gait. On the positive side, I saw myself as a judge – just like Paula.

But maybe the most important thing we share is that we both hold world records in the London Marathon. Hers was a magnificent official world best time of 2.15, set in April 2003.

I realized mine almost exactly 21 years ago – unofficial, and in fact, not much to write about.

Anyway, here’s how it happened.

The day started in Blackheath when I stood in line with 23,000 other people and, like Paula in Athens, I was on a mission. I wanted to cut seven minutes off my best 3.06 marathon and dodge under three hours.

So with that goal in mind, I managed to make my way to the front of the field… among the five-minute guys.

It was mistake number one.

When the gun went off I was dragged along with these national class athletes and ran way too fast. It was mistake number two.

And by the time I realized my last mistake, it was too late. I had clocked just under 25 minutes for the first four miles. Much, much too fast.

At this point, maybe a thousand runners had passed me. Although initially I was working hard to cover almost six minutes of miles, the athletes around me were sailing at a pace of maybe 5.30 or less.

As the race progressed, the runners passed me in droves. And this state of affairs lasted until the finish line on London Bridge. This is my world record claim… to be exceeded by most runners in a marathon!

Either way, things would get worse. Tired after four miles, ten miles, I rocked the whole road. I had to walk for the first time. But I struggled.

At 17 miles, I was dizzy and my pace was almost pedestrian. I could only hang out in small stretches and mostly walked. I was also so embarrassed. I was wearing my Newry Shamrocks racing vest and remember trying to hide the Shamrocks pattern with my hands so people wouldn’t know I was Irish. I was ashamed. I was abandoning my country.

And if I was embarrassed, in a place where no one knew me, I could hardly begin to imagine what it must have been like for Paula Radcliffe on the road to Athens with the weight of a nation, let alone dozens. millions of people watching television, leaning on his slender shoulders.

During this time, my humiliation was not over. At 23 miles I heard cheering and was completely squeamish with myself when two runners, dressed in pantomime horse costumes, passed me.

It was the lowest point of my athletic career.


Eventually I reached the mall and a few hundred yards from the finish I tried to increase the pace slightly… and maybe just pass one runner. This did not happen and it was error number three.

My legs are deformed. I fell.

I managed to get up – and by shuffling and stumbling, I finally hit the line.

But once that line was crossed I collapsed again and was taken to a recovery room where I was given a bed, food and drink. After lying there for about 30 minutes, I thought I was fine and tried to stand up. But my legs gave way and I found myself on the ground once more.

However, I eventually recovered enough to limp back to my hotel room.

And the next day, despite some stiffness, I was fine.

These bad memories came back to me as I watched Paula Radcliffe sadly sitting on the road to Athens, tears streaming down her face and my heart dying to her.

Admittedly, she must have felt good, much worse than me in London in 1982.

Still, she should be thankful for one thing – at least she wasn’t passed by a pantomime horse!

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