Paula Radcliffe: A matter of perspective

Thirty-eight isn’t terribly old – unless you’re Paula Radcliffe and you’ve just made the hard, heart-breaking decision to drop out of the 30th Summer Olympic Games.  Then 38 becomes another matter entirely. If Radcliffe, arguably the greatest female marathoner ever, decides she wants to compete in the next games, she’ll be 42, a master runner.

At 42, Radcliffe will still be a formidable competitor, capable of demolishing anyone fool-hardy enough to challenge her. But will she be an Olympian? It’s unlikely.

During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, Romanian runner Constantina Dita Tomescu ran the marathon in 2: 26: 44, in the process setting the world’s record as the oldest woman to win that distance at the games. Her age? Thirty-eight.

Not ironic enough? In that same race, Radcliffe struggled in, in 23rd place.

The oldest individual in this year’s Olympics is a Japanese dressage rider, who is 71. It’s safe to say he’s the exception.

The fact is the Olympics are about excellence, strength, endurance, vitality and, yes, youth.

By Olympic standards, Radcliffe no longer possesses the latter quality.

Fighting arthritis in her left foot, the British runner – whom the New York Times described as the “fastest women’s marathoner in history,” announced she was pulling out of what would have been her fifth Olympics.

Radcliffe’s record speaks for itself: 2:15:25 at the 2003 London Marathon, a world record that still stands; winner twice again of that same race and twice champion of the New York Marathon and once of the Chicago Marathon.

An Olympic gold, however, looks as if it will be elusive.

Does that diminish Radcliffe in any way? Not at all. For the runner herself, it may be something that haunts her in the short-term and, possibly, longer. But Radcliffe has already left her imprint on running history.

Age and injury are cruel. Neither take into account a person’s intent, desire and will.  In particular, age is inevitable and at some point all of us must accept the limitations it brings, even while we continue to fight it in pursuit of higher goals.

But there is free will – and then there is fate. Radcliffe told the New York Times: “It is hard to know that had the Olympics been six weeks earlier I could have gone out there and run confidently knowing that I was in the best shape I had been in for a while. But I am no means the first to experience something like this. No one tells us in advance where the limits of our own bodies lie, and pushing these limits is the only way we can ever achieve our highest goals and dreams.”

Inspiring words beautifully spoken – perhaps those are what sets apart the individuals who  aspire and attain more than many.

Youth may offer raw energy and power, but age brings – no matter how bitter – experience and wisdom.  And at some point competitors are forced to leave the Olympics and enter another arena altogether.

Like Radcliffe, we are all raging against the dying of the light. Our battles are not as public, but every bit as meaningful as we adjust our expectations and continue to joyfully test the limits of our abilities in our daily training, scheduled races and in our everyday life.

Unless she decides to retire after her Olympic disappointment, Radcliffe will likely go on to astound us with her tremendous talent for many years to come. Not everyone is destined to gain Olympic gold; some have to settle for being the best ever. Period.

About subthree

A multiple award-winning journalist, I'm currently a contributing editor with both Canadian Running and Canadian Cycling magazines. My articles have appeared in Explore, Canadian Geographic, enRoute, The National Post, The Globe and Mail, and many other magazines and newspapers. Formerly a competitive cross-country mountain biker, I switched to running in 2006. I've run seven marathons, qualifying for Boston five times (and which I've run once). Generally, I've placed or won in my age group in races, in distances ranging from five and 10 kms to half and full marathons. I've also taught spin classes at a number of leading Eastern Canadian gyms. Sub-three was a 2012 #Runchat finalist for Best Overall Blog.
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8 Responses to Paula Radcliffe: A matter of perspective

  1. kgrace7 says:

    When does the book come out?

  2. Stacy says:

    Thank you for this entry. Paula has been my hero for over a decade and well before her amazing 2:15:25. She is for me, simply the greatest ever. And to hear its arthritis in her foot that is keeping her from this last Olympics just makes me admire her and feel even more sad since that is something I am dealing with now too. Your last line is totally true. And I plan to borrow her quote about injuries. Wonderfully written Charles!

    • subthree says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read my rambling, Stacy and for leaving such a great comment. I never know how people are going to react to what I write, so it’s always welcome to hear my latest ravings weren’t totally out of touch with reality. Ha.

  3. Ririnette says:

    This is one of my favorite entries of yours. Indeed, perspective is everything. I am turning 38 this year and maybe my Romanian genes will keep me going for a few more years, but as always, seeing a top level athlete making hard choices like these brings that ticking clock back in my ear. For some of us, being the best that we can be is all that’s left. But I am doing it with a big smile on my face, since I’ve got nothing to lose.

    • subthree says:

      At 53, I still feel competitive, but I also am beginning to sense that, for the first time, I’m battling some signs of age. So, yes, personally I have to maintain the big smile and do what feels good; otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense to keep pushing so hard – if that makes sense. Thanks for reading and your great comment.

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