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Paula Radcliffe: 'Running is all part of the healing process'

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"Paula Radcliffe, women's marathon world record holder, is an ambassador for Revive Active vitamin supplement. Photo: Andrew Downes

"Paula Radcliffe, women's marathon world record holder, is an ambassador for Revive Active vitamin supplement. Photo: Andrew Downes

Andrew Downes, XPOSURE

Paula Radcliffe receives the inaugural John Disley London Marathon Lifetime Achievement Award during London Marathon in 2015

Paula Radcliffe receives the inaugural John Disley London Marathon Lifetime Achievement Award during London Marathon in 2015

Getty Images

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"Paula Radcliffe, women's marathon world record holder, is an ambassador for Revive Active vitamin supplement. Photo: Andrew Downes

'Aim for the moon because if you miss, you will land on the stars," was something Paula Radcliffe's childhood running coach used to say. It became her mantra as she pounded roads and tracks all over the world to become the greatest female marathon runner of all time.

No woman has ever done what she has done - her time of two hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds for the marathon still stands. She broke her own record to achieve the result in London in 2003. Her list of achievements - three-time winner of the London marathon (2002, 2003 and 2005), three-time New York Marathon champion (2004, 2007 and 2008) and winner of the 2002 Chicago Marathon. She has also been European champion over 10,000 metres and in cross country. The list goes on and on.

But despite her dizzying array of achievements, today Paula Radcliffe is grounded firmly in family life as a mum to Isla, 10, and Raphael, 6.

Most of us are familiar with pictures of Radcliffe from the TV or sports pages - hair scraped back, gritty determination written all over her face as she takes out the competition. In person - Radcliffe is in town to promote the Revive Active vitamin supplement - her features are softer. Tall, lithe and tanned with her blonde hair framing her famous face, she smiles often and beams when she mentions her kids.

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Paula Radcliffe receives the inaugural John Disley London Marathon Lifetime Achievement Award during London Marathon in 2015

Paula Radcliffe receives the inaugural John Disley London Marathon Lifetime Achievement Award during London Marathon in 2015

Getty Images

Paula Radcliffe receives the inaugural John Disley London Marathon Lifetime Achievement Award during London Marathon in 2015

Radcliffe announced her retirement in 2015 and ran the London Marathon competitively for the last time that year, big sunglasses hiding many tears shed over the course of that day. While she might not be competing professionally anymore, running is still a huge part of her life, and when she gets the kids to school, she will go for a run with friends at home in Monaco, where she moved eight years ago, with her husband Gary Lough and their two children.

Life today centres around the kids and Paula walks them to school in the mornings before she goes out for her daily run. And she still loves to run as much she says for clearing her head than anything else. She can't understand how some elite athletes literally never run or swim again after their career has ended.

"Running for me is part of the healing process. Even when I was in school, if I could get out for a run, I could think so much clearer. Now when I have a big decision to make, I'll go for a run," she says.

She credits running for keeping her sane, when in 2015, she became embroiled in scandal after she was wrongly accused of doping. "Last year when I was going through all of that, if I hadn't been able to run, I think I would have gone crazy," she says.

She also credits running with helping her get over what happened in the Athens Olympic marathon in 2004. Reading her diary from that time and the crushing defeat she felt after crashing out of the marathon with violent stomach cramps is heartbreaking stuff. Images of her, head down sitting on the kerb not able to keep going, were shocking because we were so used to the cheers, not the tears.

But she is stoical now about that day which marked the lowest point in her career. "The races and the victories after that were all the sweeter because of what happened. I really believe in getting the emotion out there, learning from it and leaving it behind. It's dead weight," she says.

One particularly sweet victory Paula does recall is winning the New York Marathon in November 2007, just 10 months after having her daughter Isla. While Paula says she had long dreamed of being a mum, she never thought for a minute she wouldn't get back to running after children. And she said role models like Norwegian runner Ingrid Kristiansen and our own Sonia O'Sullivan, both of whom continued successful careers after children, inspired her.

"I thought to myself it's going to be difficult but it never crossed my mind that I wouldn't come back. After Isla was born I was so happy and content and when I'm happy, I run better anyway," she says.

Now Paula is actively looking forward to getting out there and going for runs in events but lining up at the back rather than at the front. "I've never experienced that camaraderie at an event - you don't when you're up the front. Of course there's still that competitive side. Someone will come up alongside me and I'll find myself picking up the pace," she jokes.

So just what was it that separated a young Paula Jane Radcliffe from all the other budding young athletes she set out on her career with?

"It's hard to answer that. My coach at Bedford and County Athletics Club used to say I wasn't the most talented runner but that I was the most talented at working hard. My body is great at absorbing the work. I think it's a combination of talent and a willingness to put the work in and enjoy what you do. Enjoying it is a big thing," she says.

"My grandmother Olive Radcliffe taught me so much. She used to say that you get one shot at life, that if you can't do it first time, persevere. She also would say how important it was to have fun and treat everyone with respect. She always said it was important that every once in a while you should go back out of yourself and look back in. When I set the first world (marathon) record in Chicago I called her. She said to me 'Did you enjoy it?'"

Despite her success Paula says her parents, Peter and Pat, were never pushy and that is definitely something she wants to emulate with her own kids. I ask if her children - the progeny of two athletes - are good at running and Paula modestly says they enjoy lots of sports and her daughter especially is quite competitive.

So what if they turned to her some day and said we're going to pursue athletics as a career? "I'd love it if my kids wanted to be athletes. It's a sport I love and it's a beautiful sport," she says.

Paula is very keen to get involved with the newly formed Athletics Integrity Unit, an independent organisation with responsibility for the management of all aspects of the anti-doping programme for international-level athletes and their athlete support personnel, as well as for the management of all other integrity-related programmes operated in elite athletics.

"I think doping has tarnished the sport. There's a huge amount of work to be done to regain that credibility. You can take the view that we'll never win the battle but we can do a lot more to protect the generation of athletes to come," she says.

Paula is also passionate about encouraging families to be active together. While her own children play tennis, football, do surfing and swimming, she's aware that children have become less active. She became involved in the World Health Organisation's Commission on ending childhood obesity to use her voice to call for more physical activity in schools.

"I think it's really important that families are active together. Kids are just not active enough. Get out for a walk for half-an-hour. It's important to find a sport - not everyone likes running, but give kids the opportunity to find a sport they enjoy," she says.

Paula is also keen on encouraging women to get out and get their trainers on. And she says novice runners shouldn't be intimidated by others, especially at events not to get involved. "What's great about running is that you can tailor it to suit yourself. You might want to run on your own or you might want to do it socially - find out what you want to get from it."

There's no doubt about it that Paula has inspired thousands of women to tie up their running laces and get out. Sebastian Coe has credited her with democratising the sport. "She gave women permission to go out, run and be part of the London Marathon, not just the elite contribution, but a generation of runners male and female that have taken up the sport because of Paula Radcliffe," he has said.

For anyone starting to run Paula says the best thing to do is to join in with a group of friends. "You're just chatting and the time goes in. It's less intimidating than running on your own. If you're taking that first step, do it with others in a group. You could set a target like perhaps running a 5k or run for half an hour without stopping.

"When you have a goal it's much easier to move towards that. Reward yourself afterwards - do something like go for a nice meal," she says.

In every situation Paula believes she can walk away and say she gave it her best shot. Even after Athens, she has no regrets. Something she does cringe about is the incident at the London Marathon in 2005, when she answered the call of nature in the street. "I set a record that day," she says pointing out where the focus should rightly be. "People who run accept that's what happens," she adds.

For someone who has been so goal-driven all her life, what are her life goals now? "The most important thing now is keeping the kids and the family healthy. The kids have their goals, things they want to do well in, so that's important. I want to make a difference with the Integrity Unit and I'd love to improve as a commentator. I've sat alongside Steve Cram (former athlete and athletics commentator) and I want to improve," she says.

Running, it seems, will continue to be important, although when she runs now Paula says it's not training. Whether it's getting involved to help with training camps or promoting the sport at the highest level, Paula Radcliffe's name will forever by synonymous with the best of running. Another of her mantras throughout her career was "no limits". There's no doubt whatever she does, she'll continue to apply this golden rule that has served her so well.

÷ Paula Radcliffe is an ambassador for Revive Active, a vitamin supplement which has just reformulated to offer increased amounts (150mg) of CoQ10 to further increase energy and reduce fatigue. Revive Active is available in pharmacies and health shops nationwide

2002: Paula moves up to marathon distance and wins the Chicago Marathon, setting a new world record with a time of 2 hours 17 minutes and 18 seconds. Later that year she is awarded an MBE and becomes BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

2003: Paula breaks the World Record at the London Marathon with a time of 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds.

2004: She wins the New York Marathon in 2 hours 23 minutes and 21 seconds. She was favourite to win gold at the Olympic Games in Athens that year, but has to stop before the race was over in a distressed state. In all she represented Great Britain four times consecutively (1996 to 2008), although she did not win a podium position in these events.

2005: Paula wins the London Marathon with a time of 2 hours 17 minutes and 42 seconds. The race is remembered for the runner answering a call of nature on the road. Later that year at the World Championships in Helsinki she won Britain's only gold medal when she took the marathon title.

Paula's career highs and lows

2006: Paula announced she was expecting her first child. Her daughter Isla is born in January 2007.

2007: Paula wins the New York Marathon just 10 months after the birth of her daughter.

2008: She withdraws from the London Marathon and is dogged by injury problems in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. She places 23rd in the Marathon at the Olympics. Later that year she wins the New York Marathon, her third victory in New York.

2010: Paula and her husband Gary Lough welcome their second child Raphael into the world.

2012: Paula pulls out of the London Olympics due to a foot injury.

2015: She bids farewell to competitive running at the London Marathon.

- Kathy Donaghy

Health & Living