Paula Radcliffe had to be assisted off the track after a virus left her weakened and out of the medals in the 10,000m at the 1998 European Championships in Budapest but the Brit was in unconquerable form on a soaking wet evening at the Munich 2002 European Athletics Championships.
But such was Radcliffe's fervour for breaking barriers, she admitted in her post-race interview that her first reaction was disappointment after being agonisingly close to becoming just the second athlete to break the 30 minute-barrier for 10,000m, and the first to do so in a major international championships. At the time the world record stood to China’s Wang Junxia with 29:31.78 from the 1993 Chinese National Games, a mark which was viewed by some with a degree of scepticism.
Even so, Radcliffe’s winning time of 30:01.09 was the second fastest in history and broke both the European record (30:13.74) and the championship record (30:23.25) which belonged to her childhood idol Ingrid Kristiansen from Norway. Nearly 20 years later, Radcliffe’s time from Munich, also the host city of the 2022 multi-sport European Championships, remains the standard bearer.
— European Athletics (@EuroAthletics) August 4, 2020
Radcliffe’s signature performance - her world marathon record of 2:15:25 - came the following spring in the 2003 London Marathon but her 2002 campaign was arguably the greatest of her career. Radcliffe was without peer at cross country and on the roads in 2002 and the Brit ended her decade-long search for a major track title with gold over 5000m at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. This was followed by another over 10,000m just nine days later at the European Championships in Munich.
Major championships in the years prior to Munich followed a familiar pattern and an inevitable outcome: Radcliffe would take it out hard only to be outpaced and leave empty handed in the sprint for the medals. Radcliffe finished fourth in the 10,000m at both the 2000 Olympics and 2001 World Championships but such was Radcliffe’s form in 2002, it is debatable whether anyone in the world that year could have weathered Radcliffe’s fearless front running.
And while it is true the balance of power was beginning to shift away from Europe and towards the Kenyans and the Ethiopians, Radcliffe still defeated some significant continental opposition in Munich. They included reigning 5000m and 10,000m champion Sonia O’Sullivan from Ireland, 1994 European champion and 1996 Olympic 10,000m champion Fernando Ribeiro from Portugal and the future Olympic marathon champion Constantina Dita from Romania.
Radcliffe was relentless in her pursuit for the title and the European record, reeling off metronomic laps of 71-72 seconds as the rain fell unremittingly in the Olympic Stadium. By the sixth lap, Radcliffe had put distance on both O’Sullivan and Ribeiro and by the ninth lap, Radcliffe was already beginning to lap the back markers.
In the end, Radcliffe lapped all but three of her 28 rivals in the 10,000m in Munich and the Brit amassed a winning margin of nearly 300 metres on O’Sullivan who forged a lonely path to the silver medal. By contrast Ribeiro forlornly stepped off the track just beyond the halfway point after being caught by the chase pack.
“I heard the crowd roaring and thought it might be because Paula was going to lap me as well,” said O’Sullivan who clocked an Irish record of 30:47.59. “I didn't like losing and not by that distance but there is no way I could have stayed with her.”
At the 5000m checkpoint, Radcliffe was on course to break the 30 minute-barrier with a split of 14:57.65 appearing on the clock. After committing in the first half, Radcliffe’s lap times slowed imperceptibly in the latter stages and despite closing with her fastest kilometre of the race - 2:57.53 - this wasn’t fast enough to compensate for two back-to-back kilometres of 3:02 in the second half. Radcliffe reflected that a faster time might have been possible with a more conservative start.
“The aim was to duck under 30 minutes; it seems really stupid but my first reaction was disappointment because I really wanted that! I set off a little bit too fast, it’s easier to run a negative split,” Radcliffe said in her post-race interview with the BBC.
Writing about her exploits in Munich 2002 later in the year, Radcliffe reflected: “I knew I was in European record shape and I also knew that going for a fast time was also one of my tactical options and would give me the best chance of winning the race, as Sonia O’Sullivan and Fernanda Ribeiro were both formidable rivals and fast finishers.
“The rain fell steadily but the wind was calm and I won the race. Although I was agonisingly close to the 30 minute barrier, I did break the European record held by Ingrid Kristiansen. I have always looked up to all that Ingrid achieved and she has given me great advice and support over the last couple of years. She told me that I would run faster after my marathon debut and I am honoured to follow in her footsteps.”
Radcliffe gave some serious consideration to attempting the long distance double but with the possibility of having to run heats of the 5000m before the final and with an upcoming marathon to prepare for in the autumn, Radcliffe took the decision to scratch from the 5000m and begin her preparations for the autumn road racing season.
In the long-term this decision proved a wise one. Radcliffe capped off her landmark season by breaking the world record in the marathon at the first time in the Chicago Marathon, taking the event into new territory with 2:17:18.
Radcliffe’s splits in Munich 2002:
2km 5:57.21 (2:58.05)
3km 8:56.84 (2:59.63)
4km 11:56.81 (2:59.97)
5km 14:57.65 (3:00.84)
6km 17:58.00 (3:00.35)
7km 20:58.52 (3:00.52)
8km 24:01.18 (3:02.66)
9km 27:03.56 (3:02.38)
10km 30:01.09 (2:57.53)