Paula Radcliffe: A world champion finds peace and sport in Monaco
Paula on the run
When I read that Paula Radcliffe, the women’s world record holder for marathon for the past ten years, was the marraine (“godmother”) of the Nice-Cannes Marathon in November 2013, I jumped at the chance for an interview, thinking that she was just passing through the Riviera.
I quickly learned two things: Paula and her husband and coach Gary Lough, a former 1500m runner, have lived in Monaco since 2005. And secondly, as I witnessed at the marathon start line with Paula at the mic giving last minute advice to some 8500 runners, she speaks very competent French.
I ask the soft-spoken 39-year-old about how she ended up in Monaco and her language proficiency when we meet afterwards.
“I really wasn’t comfortable in the UK anymore after the Athens Olympics. We were training already in the Pyrenees when someone suggested Monaco. We decided to give it a try and … well, both of our children, Isla and Raphael, were born there. At university, I studied Modern European Studies – essentially languages – and Economics. As our kids go to French schools in Monaco, at home I actually speak French with them while my husband speaks English.”
Paula Radciffe winning her third NYC Marathon in 2008. Photo: Fergie LancealotWhen Paula mentions Athens, I want to hug her for every horrible headline that has undeservedly attacked her since the 2008 Olympics, when she stopped at the 36-kilometre mark during the marathon; she did not complete the race. One of the finest runners of our times, she has not ceased to be a target of the British press: “Quitter”, “Choker” or “Money-loving drama queen” (which I’m guessing were filed by journos happily eating crisps and having never exercised a day in their lives).
The woman who “gave myself one year after uni to see if I could make it as a professional runner and if not I’d get a job” is a three-time winner of the New York Marathon, and three-time winner of the London Marathon in which she set the world’s fastest time for women in 2:15:25 in 2003, and has represented Britain in four consecutive Olympics. She holds the title of MBE and has earned countless athletic awards. You cannot achieve this by being a “quitter” and for anyone who has ever tried to run, there is a monumental difference between wanting to stop and having to stop.
“I felt ill at ease in the UK, as if I’d let a lot of people down, and I just wasn’t settled,” she tells me. “I miss family and friends that are there, and some favourite places to run, but Monaco is the place I consider home – it’s where our lives are.”
A natural and confident woman with her feet firmly planted on planet earth, Paula seems the antithesis of Monaco. “People always say Monaco is like living in a bubble, it’s not the real world. And it can be but there are two extremes so you can quite happily be normal if you want to. I like the lifestyle and have always loved France, and Monaco is a good mix of French, Italian and the cosmopolitan English lifestyle. The schools are great, the kids are literally running around outside all year, and it’s safe.”
Plagued by a series of injuries since 2009, Paula has been taking it day by day since undergoing a foot operation in August 2012 that had her in full rest mode until April this year. Now she continues to train, either running up by the Plateau de la Justice in Col d’Eze or at the athletics stadium, where she also hits the weights, and says, “I’m steadily getting stronger and more resilient, and am able to endure longer and faster runs on the road. I would love for it to recover enough to be able to get back to racing at the level I want to and am getting more hopeful that it will.
“I’m still sitting on the fence but if my foot would allow it, I’d like to run another marathon. That being said, I am also very grateful to be able to run again and don’t want to lose or jeopardise that by pushing my foot too far.”
So what will a post-running career be like for Paula? “It will still involve running, because it is part of me and I hope I will be able to continue running in some shape or form for as long as possible. Obviously the training level and intensity will be less when not competing and I will have to think about the next stage – commentating, maybe mentoring and coaching, and giving back to athletics in some shape or form.”
Paula has been involved for many years with Peace and Sport, a global initiative created in 2007 under the High Patronage of Prince Albert II, working toward global sustainable peace, which, according to the mission statement “is not merely a state of absence of war. Peace is taught, learned and transmitted.”
Paula at the Nice-Cannes Marathon in November with fan Michael Stannard. Photo: Michael StannardPaula genuinely believes that sport can make a big difference in uniting communities. “Peace and Sport recognises this and tries to harness the power of sport to raise funds to help conflict areas and also to actually bring people together in peace to take part in sport.
“I am also passionate about the many benefits sport brings into your life – you work together as a team and learn about yourself, and it gives you confidence – so any chance I have to introduce people to this, I want to take advantage of it.”
An outspoken anti-doping advocate, Paula has worked on the advisory side of the campaign but has never been hands on. “I would definitely like to get more involved with the Blood Passport and new Steroid Passport testing. I also feel higher sanctions are needed: the responsibility of educating youth in sports lies with the parents and coaches – but it’s the federations and doping control agencies that need to be able to guarantee these kids that they can achieve elite sport by being clean and by training hard.”
With a 40th birthday approaching in December, is Paula Radcliffe where she thought she’d be? “I’m not someone who worries about ageing because there’s nothing you can do to stop it. In my head I still feel like I’m 25 ... but then I realise – oh yeah, the body is getting older, and I need an extra recovery day.
“I thought by the age of 40 I’d have kids – I always wanted a boy and girl – but I never imagined having a career from running – or to be living in Monaco!
“I guess generally I’m happy with my accomplishments. If I look back, of course, there are times, particularly at the Olympics, when I wish things had worked out differently but there is also so much that I am proud of. Now I’m at a crossroads, though. I’d really like to stay in Monaco but my career is changing.”