Radcliffe's world record is under threat but she clings to dream of golden glory
22:01 GMT, 21 April 2012
Paula Redcliffe's world record – one of athletics' greatest performances – will be under threat as never before in Sunday's London Marathon as the decision to allow the race to become a final trial for the Kenyan Olympic team ensures the capital will witness the strongest field ever assembled.
Radcliffe's time of 2hr 15min 25sec was famously set in London nine years ago.
Towering figure: Radcliffe on her way to victory in a world-record time in 2003
On Sunday morning, however, defending champion Mary Keitany will, given good conditions, subject that record to its sternest test.
In New York six months ago, the Kenyan scorched through halfway ahead of the pace to break Radcliffe's record, only to fade in the final stages.
But on a considerably faster London course the world half-marathon record holder – running the full distance for only the fourth time – has the potential to rewrite the record books.
Behind her, Florence and Edna Kiplagat and Priscah Jeptoo make up a fearsome Kenyan threat, the depth of which is underlined by Lucy Kabuu, not even one of the six female Kenyan candidates for Olympic selection despite having set a personal best of 2.19 in Dubai earlier this year, four minutes faster than Radcliffe ran in Berlin in September.
Popular Paula: Radcliffe crosses Tower Bridge during the 2003 Marathon
In the men's race, the world record is under even greater threat, with defending champion Emmanuel Mutai one of four runners to have run under 2.05, including world record holder Patrick Makau, who claimed his place in history with a run of 2.03.38 in Berlin.
But from the perspective of Radcliffe's loyal following, it will be the women's race that will attract the closest scrutiny.
Last week, on a grey London morning, a host of competition winners met their idol.
Glamour queen: No wonder Paula is the nation's favourite athlete…
Photographs were taken, autographs were sought and chances for brief conversations seized.
Radcliffe's most competitive days are behind her, but she harbours the belief that she may yet enjoy one last magic moment.
Logic and statistics may not point to success for Radcliffe, but if she believes, then so do her fans.
Whenever those 'in the know' discuss the subject of Radcliffe, certain phrases inevitably crop up.
She is 'clinging on', 'past it' and, perhaps most cruelly, 'milking it'.
It is a considered, weighty and largely collective view, yet it fails to find any kind of favour with the public.
Radcliffe connects with the British public like few others.
Golden girl: Radcliffe winning the London Marathon in 2003 (left) and in 2005 (right)
Some triumph to the sound of cheers, but she engages the emotions far more deeply.
Whether in celebration or sadness, for much of the population the end of a Radcliffe race requires tears to be discreetly wiped away.
They say her image is carefully maintained, and her publicity artfully managed, yet the evidence suggests otherwise.
Few PR gurus would suggest eternal popularity lay through continual Olympic failure, an injury history which reads like a busy night in Accident and Emergency and an ocean of tears.
Not that Radcliffe will be adding to the tears – or the injuries – in Sunday's London Marathon.
Tearful: Radcliffe after finishing 23rd in the Women's Marathon at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
Her involvement will be as a spectator.
Last week, she faced her first public test since a winter's altitude training in Kenya left her 'full of confidence' and in 'great shape'.
That was the theory, anyway. It was a disaster as she finished the Vienna half-marathon in just over 72 minutes, her slowest ever.
Yet in London she smiled at the suggestion the dream may be over.
'I got ill two weeks before Vienna,' she insisted. 'First of all I felt bad in training, but then I got a cough and a lung infection and ended up on a lot of antibiotics. I suffer from bronchitis because of my asthma. Gary [her husband, Gary Lough] and the kids get a cold or a cough and they're OK, but mine develops.
'That's the way it is. Being asthmatic, I have to accept that it'll develop into the whole package.'
It could, she maintains, have been far worse.
Vienna was painful and humiliating, but temporary.
'Illness is one of those weird things. With the sort I had, you know that it can't last longer than three or four weeks at most and then it will be gone. It's not like being injured. Bronchitis was better than an injury would have been, in terms of the long-term damage to me. If that's the worst I get, between now and the Games, well…touch wood.'
And she does, with only a hint of an apologetic smile.
It is hard to blame her.
Since winning the world title in Helsinki in 2005, she has not featured on a major championship podium.
Comforting words: Haile Gebrselassie with Paula Radcliffe after Vienna half marathon
That win was preceded by the heartbreak of Athens and followed by the public agonies of Beijing.
In 2009 she withdrew from the London Marathon with a fractured toe and from the world half-marathon championships with tonsillitis.
It summed up the frustrations of her career: from head to toe, there was neither injury or illness to which she could not succumb.
Winner: Radcliffe celebrates winning the 2009 NYC Half-Marathon in New York
Since Vienna she has endured a week of analysis. It has caused her mild irritation.
'I know what some people say: I always seem to finish races in tears, or I have done recently,' she said. I do show my emotions. That's me, I'm afraid, and I'm sorry if it annoys people. At the end of races when you're exhausted, some people can put a mask on. I've never been able to do that.'
It is that willingness to wear her heart on her sleeve that has so endeared her to the public. That, and a love for the sport. It is, she says, the only thing she really wants to do.
'I'm never going to get fed up with training and racing. I love that completely,' she said.
'When I retire from competitive athletics I'm still going to go out running. It's still going to be a huge part of my life. Equally, I'm not going to finish the Olympics and say that I've finished competing.
'I'm not running at the Olympics and then stopping. As long as I can keep going I'm at least looking at doing another London Marathon.'
Not just another marathon, another payday, but one specific race A race which, in the shadow of her 40th birthday, will not realise anything approaching the fees she commanded at her peak
'Yes, definitely London,' she insisted. 'It's an amazing race and I feel like a lot of them have been taken from me through injury and stuff. This year I decided it was just too close, just not enough time for me to recover properly. But next year, yes. I need to be ready and I know I can be. One last lap, Blackheath to the Mall.'
There will not be a dry eye in the house. With Radcliffe, there never has been.
Olympic athlete Paula Radcliffe and Paralympic athlete Shelly Woods hosted Breakfast With Champions outside the Holiday Inn Bloomsbury in central London. Holiday Inn is the official hotel provider to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.