Given the pre-eminence of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners over the past 50 years, it still comes as a surprise that the all-time queen of the road is British.
Paula Radcliffe started running at the age of seven but she had her epiphany as an 11-year-old when she came to watch her father race at the 1985 London Marathon. That day Ingrid Kristiansen set a new world best time (2h 21m 06s, a mark that stood for 13 years) and the young Paula was instantly struck by the Norwegian’s power and fluidity as she saw off all but the very fastest men.
‘That London Marathon was a big inspiration for me,’ says Radcliffe. ‘First it was that smell of Deep Heat on the start at Blackheath. But when Ingrid came past that day, she was right in there not far behind the winning men. To see a woman that far up… I didn’t really have a lot of barriers in my head at 11 anyway but it broke down any barriers that remained.’
Thanks to asthma and anaemia Paula’s dream must nonetheless have seemed distant, yet such was her drive she was crowned World Junior Cross Country champion in 1992. Then within two years disaster struck as a doctor told her she would never run again due to a stress fracture to her left foot: ‘I remember coming home in tears and my Dad saying, “What’s the big deal? Loads of people go through life and they don’t run.” But I said I’m not “loads of people”, I’ve got lots of things I want to do. It has to get better. And it did.’
Radcliffe duly embarked on a meticulous training regime that strengthened the muscle in her head as much as those in her legs. Further cross country titles followed but she always seemed destined to be the ‘nearly woman’ of track racing because she lacked a kick over the final lap. Then it was time for her true destiny to kick in…
At her very first marathon at London in 2002 Paula set a world’s best for a women’s only race. Later that year she became the first woman to run under 2h 18m in Chicago but even that didn’t sate her appetite. At the 2003 London Marathon she used two Kenyan male pacemakers to take the record to the next level. Her 2h 15m 25s is a time so far out of reach of anyone else before or since – over a minute and a half – it could last for decades more.
‘The attraction and challenge of the marathon for so many people is that it’s you against the distance, against your body, against hitting the wall,’ smiles Radcliffe. ‘That’s the way I always like to run anyway, I never looked at split times too much, I just ran hard and strong. It’s only later you realise how much “in the Zone” you were and how much you ask your body and it delivers. You just trust it’s going to be there because it has been there in the training. It’s that “not fear” that you won’t be able maintain the pace or finish, you just trust you will be able to.
‘I don’t think I had more talent than anybody else. There are people around now who have more talent. I just had this stubbornness and a way of wanting to run as hard as I could; even if I had the race won, I wanted to see how fast I could go. So it was this mindset, combined with the luck that my body could withstand the amount of training it did in 2002 and 2003. It enabled me to get into really good shape and attack it.’
Radcliffe may not obsess about split times but when you spend your life at the front of a marathon with a camera truck ahead of you it’s unavoidable, notably for her historic run in London. The first lesson of marathon running is to stick to the same pace all the way round. The Englishwoman’s average mile rate from her Chicago record was 5m 13s, so she could tell if she was up from the split times flashing up. Alarmingly the third mile in London was below the five-minute mark, which she worried was far too fast. To most mortals yes, but Paula was on fire.
‘It was definitely close to a perfect day,’ says Radcliffe. ‘The preparation had gone really well; the only real hiccup was when I had an accident with a little girl on a bike who knocked me over a few weeks before. I spent a couple of weeks trying to get over the dislocated jaw and whiplash from that. But by that point most of the training was already in the bank. On race day conditions were good and I felt good.
‘Even so I did think I would go quicker afterwards but it never happened. I was in slightly better shape in training in 2004 but by the competition I got injured. That shows in the marathon you need to seize the opportunity. You put so much into the training cycle and so often that risk doesn’t pay off: conditions aren’t right on the day or you get a blister or an upset stomach and you can’t capitalise on everything. That’s why that day in London I felt it was really important just to keep running as hard as I could so the record had a chance of standing for as long as possible.’
The pain was worth it. 16 years and counting…
‘There is so much untapped potential in people it’s just incredible. It’s almost beyond belief, really. I feel it and I sense it through what I’ve experienced in my own journey. I’m from a humble beginning but the message of my story is that great things grow from small things.
'The magic lives inside every one of us, despite our environment, our struggles and our doubts. It takes courage to realise what that magic is, then to actually go out and try to achieve it. It’s the power of loving yourself, I suppose, and giving yourself a chance.’
In my years of researching the human being at the limit for In The Zone I’ve been privileged to meet over a hundred of the world’s biggest sports stars. But every now and again one of them sends me away with my head swimming. This time it is Australia’s national treasure Cathy Freeman, who has just summed up this entire book in a hundred words.
The magic of elite performance is that it always starts out small: with a dream. By nurturing it, crafting it and loving it, sport’s champions show us all the untapped power of the human mind. When we believe in what we conceive, the Zone can guide any of us to achieve anything. And it’s not just about sport.
More than simply a cliché, the Zone is the mental state required to perform at our own absolute limit in any field. This is the home of ‘genius’: where artists are at their most creative, where musicians produce their most sublime performances, where scientists make their breakthroughs. This doesn’t stop with the stars. Whether you’re a teacher, a chef, a nurse or an astronaut, if you’re taking an exam or cracking jokes in a pub, to find the Zone guarantees you hit your absolute best. You may not even recall how or why it went so right. Put simply, it all goes like a dream.
The Zone can kick in at every level from a kickabout in the park to the World Cup Final. It is just a blissful state where all internal chatter disappears and we truly go with the flow. We assume conscious thoughts drive us on, but it is when we give our subconscious free rein to do its natural thing that we truly shine. That often leads to a performance at the maximum of our potential, albeit beyond what our conscious minds ever imagined possible. This limit rises in proportion to the hours of practice in the bank and the intensity of the occasion. Blend the Zone with supreme ability and a packed, expectant arena and you get fireworks. This book features plenty of those but the good news is that we all have enough spark to match any of them, if only we take the trouble to live the dream.
‘The great achievers, winners, inventors, musicians and painters have all been great dreamers,’ says mind coach Don MacPherson. ‘What’s exciting is that anyone can visualise. We can use it in life’s everyday challenges like school exams or a driving test. If you have to make a best man’s speech, first picture your audience in as much detail as possible, using all your senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch. See yourself delivering your speech feeling relaxed and confident. Hear the audience laughing and clapping, then coming up to congratulate you.
‘These mind movies turbo-charge your confidence because the subconscious doesn’t know the difference between the real thing and something imaginary. Like all skills, the more you practise the better you get. But your brain loves a target so give it a big one like a great success. When you have it burned into your subconscious mind, switch focus to the process by visualising how you’re going to get there, step by step.’
This book draws on the testimony of the cream of the world’s brightest dreamers and most focused schemers to show we all have a chance to be a magician. Anyone with a dream can follow these greats all the way to the top of the world by setting their mind unflinchingly on their own specific quest.
How do champions think? They don’t. The original dream comes not from the head but the heart: conceive. No matter how long it takes, they don’t think they can, they know they can: believe. Finally, to truly peak they stop thinking at all: achieve.
We all have this potential if we can stop suppressing it ourselves or believing others who haven’t yet learned this universal truth. When we finally pay dreams the attention they deserve, the payback is a sea change in everything from self-belief to self-discipline, self-knowledge to self-esteem. Then a realisation dawns that buried within each of us is the power to make any dream come true, even if the process may initially seem more of a nightmare…
This extract is from In The Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big, out now
It has been a busy month for articles in the UK media about In The Zone. Athletics Weekly has this week printed a big feature about how the greats of the 400m hurdles perform at the limit - from Positive Mental Attitude to racing in blissful silence in a packed stadium. The piece includes extracts from my interviews with legendary hurdlers Edwin Moses, Nawal El Moutawakel, David Hemery and Felix Sanchez.
Then there are not one but two articles in cycling magazines out now. Cycling Weekly has a feature on what we can all learn from Paralympians including my interview with Alex Zanardi plus fresh material from Jon-Allan Butterworth, German star Andrea Eskau and Team GB's John Lenton. This month's Cyclist also has an extended extract from In The Zone featuring insights from Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Nadia Comaneci, Jan Frodeno, Franz Klammer, Steve Redgrave, Michael Phelps and Novak Djokovic.
Finally we are honoured that Feedspot has included this website in its top 40 Sports Psychology blogs on the web - at number n-n-n-n-nineteen. You can see the medal of honour at the bottom of the sidebar to the right...
London's Evening Standard newspaper last week featured an interview I did with the rising star of global athletics, Wayde van Niekerk. The South African runner delivered the standout performance of the 2016 Rio Olympics by setting a new 400m world record of 43.03s. Yet he has maintained the rare ability to combine blistering self-confidence on the track with humility off it.
“It’s a humbling feeling to break the record," says van Niekerk. "But, at the same time, it feels like a stepping stone to so much more. As an athlete at the age of 25 there is more I want to achieve and there is so much more motivation and hunger to keep on performing well.”
Now, as Usain Bolt exits stage left, van Niekerk has the chance to fill the void as the great hope for the sport - starting with a potential 200m/400m double at this week's World Athletics Championships in London.
Click here to read the full version of my Evening Standard feature on Wayde van Niekerk...
Thank you to the Red Bulletin for running a ten-page feature in their August edition (above) with quotes from many of the sporting superstars who I interviewed for In The Zone. You can read all about it in their UK, Switzerland and Mexico editions. You can also read the online version here...
Elsewhere Runner's World kindly made In The Zone their Book of the Month for August. The book also received a mention in August's F1 Racing while Autocar ran a British Grand Prix preview feature (below) on the racing mind based on my interviews with Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and more. It can now be f0und online here...
I'm extremely grateful to all the media outlets who have given space to helped publicise the book and its message.
Clyde Brolin spent over a decade working in F1 before moving on to the wider world of sport - all in a bid to discover the untapped power of the human mind.