As one high-profile Brit approaches his final race over 26.2 miles and another prepares for her first, former world record-holder Paula Radcliffe urges both to make time to enjoy this year’s London experience
One athlete saying farewell to the marathon, another taking on the distance for the very first time. One athlete approaching the final strides of their career, another at the peak of their powers. Mo Farah and Eilish McColgan are coming at this weekend’s TCS London Marathon from very different angles.
Paula Radcliffe knows how both will be feeling. The former world record-holder, who recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of that landmark run of 2:15:25, is very much aware of what it’s like not only to be the centre of attention for the vast crowds who line the streets of the city, but also to be standing on the start line of a debut marathon with questions to be answered.
Having won London in 2002, 2003 and 2005, she has also experienced the joy of being able to say goodbye to the British public along the world famous route, having bowed out from competitive racing at the event eight years ago.
Farah, while still aiming to be a competitive presence, has admitted this will be his last foray into running 26.2 miles, having run five marathons – a win in Chicago and third place in London (both in 2018) being his best results.
Retirement is looming for the highly decorated track athlete who has four Olympic titles to his name and a 10km tune-up in Gabon which saw him finish seventh did not suggest a renaissance is in the air. That performance comes on top of the now 40-year-old having to make a late withdrawal from last October’s London Marathon through injury, a surprise defeat to Ellis Cross in last year’s Vitality 10,000 and a failure to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
Radcliffe expects the six-time world champion, who is coached by her husband Gary Lough, to still be giving his all but is also hoping he allows himself to simply enjoy the occasion.
“Having to train hard and put a lot into racing – that’s never a sacrifice. The hard thing is doing the hours of physio and getting over the disappointment when you can’t do a race because your body wasn’t able to do it”
“What makes him so great is that attitude of ‘I always think I can do it’ so when your body starts to tell you ‘no mate, you can’t’, and you keep getting injured, that’s when suddenly you have to think ‘okay’,” says the 2005 world champion.
“Having to train hard and put a lot into racing – that’s never a sacrifice. The hard thing is doing the hours of physio and getting over the disappointment when you can’t do a race because your body wasn’t able to do it.
“Or [there’s also] when you feel like you’re in shape but your body just doesn’t click and it just doesn’t go right on the day. Those days, as you get older, become a bit more frequent.
“I think the most important thing is hopefully that he’s able to enjoy it and he’s able to make a few more of those London memories and savour them. I’m eternally grateful that I got the chance to do that in 2015. It was the slowest time I ever ran, so it wasn’t for speed. It was just the chance to be able to get out there and be a part of it.
“[For Mo] to be able to go out and to be semi competitive, but to get around and just appreciate the crowd, appreciate the race that it is and appreciate London, I think it will be really, really special. It makes me emotional thinking about it.”
The struggles of athletes who have been at the very top but are then forced to come to terms with no longer being able to produce superhuman feats are well known. Radcliffe admits that she no longer times of any of her runs as she simply doesn’t want to know how much slower she has become.
Farah is also reaching the point of having to contemplate life beyond being a professional athlete. For now, however, Radcliffe insists reaching the start line healthy is a small victory in itself and that we shouldn’t forget the vast back catalogue of big race experience he can lean on.
“I remember running with him in 2012 and saying ‘at the moment everything feels easy, just take the time to enjoy it, because it won’t be there forever and it’ll get harder’,” she continues.
“I don’t think he’s really thinking about what he’s going to do next. I think it’s just still one target at a time. I think he’s realistic and he doesn’t think he’s going to be up there trying to win this race but, at the same time, he still wants to run as well as he is capable of doing at this stage.”
“I would think she’s probably bursting with excitement and anticipation to get out there. With this being her first one, she’s learning so she can play about with it a little bit and have fun”
What McColgan might be capable of on her marathon debut is a question on many observer’s lips. She is an athlete who has taken great strides forward thanks to the year of her life in 2022 which featured a series of record-breaking performances, European medals and that unforgettable Commonwealth 10,000m victory in Birmingham.
The 32-year-old has carried the momentum on. Her London build-up has featured a run of 30:00:86 over the 25-lap distance which took down Radcliffe’s long-standing British record, while a knee issue was subsequently overcome as McColgan broke her own national mark by 43 seconds with a time of 65:43 at the Berlin half marathon.
Those times have done little to dampen expectations around what might be possible for her over the marathon distance, plus there’s the added dimension of her mother and coach Liz being a former London winner. However, as Radcliffe explains, only once the notoriously difficult distance has been covered will the picture become clearer.
READ MORE: 2023 TCS London Marathon preview
“Until someone runs one [a marathon], you really don’t know – and that’s absolutely not trying to take anything away from Eilish,” says the 49-year-old. “She’s shown how good she is, she’s shown how strong she is and she’s shown she’s in great shape by running 30 minutes for 10,000m in the middle of a marathon build-up.
“She’s in that really exciting position now of knowing she’s in shape coming into the biggest race that a British athlete can do, plus her mum’s been there and won it before so there’s a whole family history to it, as well. I would think she’s probably bursting with excitement and anticipation to get out there. With this being her first one, she’s learning so she can play about with it a little bit and have fun.”
McColgan will line up as part of an impressive elite women’s field which also features the likes of world record-holder Brigid Kosgei, Olympic champion Peres Jepchirchir and defending London champion Yalemzerf Yehualaw. There is a temptation to try and estimate the Scot’s potential finishing time and Radcliffe does concede “everything points to a great a performance”.
However, she adds: “I’m not sure she wants to [put a time estimate on herself]. I think she just wants to go out for the first one and just race well. It’s a good field, but I don’t think it’s a field that she should be scared of.”
» 20 years on, Paula Radcliffe takes us behind the scenes of her marathon world record in the April issue of AW. Buy it here
» Read everything you need to know about the 2023 London Marathon in our in-depth preview guide