2003 – Paula Radcliffe

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13-Apr-2003 – London Marathon – 2:15:25 – Nike Air Streak Spectrum Plus
Date of birth: 17-Dec-1973
Nationality: English
World Record duration: 16 years, 6 months

The athlete:                
It seems trite to reduce what Paula Radcliffe achieved at the 2003 London Marathon to numbers. You already know what happened on the day, she managed to take nearly two full minutes off her world record, her new benchmark standing until 2019 and still counting as the second fastest marathon performance of all time. A paper published in the Journal of Applied Physiology discussed what was the ultimate time for the women’s marathon, similar to the two hour barrier for men. It was determined that what Radcliffe achieved was the equivalent.

It was remarkable that Radcliffe even made the start. In the month before, she had an accident with a cyclist during a training run. Her injuries included cut knees and shoulders, whiplash and a dislocated jaw. Radcliffe used emu oil, her trainer having been made aware of the cure by Olympic medallist and athletic legend Cathy Freeman. Starting strongly, Radcliffe felt that her third mile was too fast and eased off the pace. It allowed her two nearest competitors to close within 11 seconds of her by the 6th mile, when Radcliffe got back into her stride.

By the halfway point, that gap had grown into 79 seconds, Radcliffe passing through in 68:02. Her pace would only increase, and by the 17th mile she would have two minutes and 20 seconds between her and second place. Radcliffe would break the 30 kilometre world record as she went, 64 seconds ahead of her time from the 2002 Chicago Marathon. She would set the new 40 kilometre world record along the way. The wind was picking up, but the crowd knew what Radcliffe was on track to achieve and were cheering her along. With 800 metres left, Radcliffe thought to herself that if she ran the distance in under three minutes she would break the 2:16 barrier. Finding more reserves of energy, she sprinted the distance in two minutes and 25 seconds.

With it she won the race and set the new marathon world record, which was actually fast enough to qualify her for the men’s marathon world championships. The effort took its toll on her, Radcliffe suffering from severe stomach cramps during the post-race press conference. As noted above, her record would stand unbeaten for over sixteen years. It was not until Brigid Kosgei’s run at the 2019 Chicago Marathon that another woman would run faster. Even more staggering is that apart from Radcliffe and Kosgei, no other woman has ever run faster than 2:17.

The impact was felt wider than just the record books. Her performance started a boom in women’s running, sales of women’s running shoes increasing significantly in the aftermath of her performance. Radcliffe’s impact was every bit as significant as other pioneers such as Kathrine Switzer and Joan Benoit. The next challenge for Radcliffe was the 2004 Olympics. Despite her training having gone well, an abscess within her knee in the final weeks before the race required various injections of anti-inflammatories. Her body began to betray her as the race went on, and she stopped at the 36th kilometre, utterly distraught. Radcliffe would later talk about the disappointment of what she felt was like a horrible dream. Of all the races she would eventually win during her illustrious career, the 2004 Olympic marathon was the one that got away.

She would prove her abilities had not escaped her by winning the World Championship the next year, setting a new and still unbroken record time in the process wearing the latest Nike Air Zoom Marathoner racing flat in a colourway designed just for her. Despite winning the New York City Marathon in 2007 and 2008, her next attempt at the Olympics would end in her finishing 23rd. Injuries began to plague her more and more, with Radcliffe missing the 2012 Olympics due to a foot injury. She would end her career in 2015, her last run at the London Marathon netting her third place. Radcliffe remains as one of the legends of distance running. She has used her position to support anti-doping measures in athletics, having worn a red ribbon throughout her career to show her support.

The shoes:                   

Radcliffe continued to wear the Nike Air Streak Spectrum Plus for her record-setting performance, however this time in a colourway sporting red and purple flames. This was the version that Nike and streetwear label Supreme retroed in 2018. Other colourways were released as well, but the specific colourway Radcliffe wore is now quite expensive through various consignment stores. You can read more about the history of the Air Streak Spectrum Plus in regards to her 2002 world record here.