NOT since Jack Holden captured the second of three successive titles in the mid-1930s has a British-born runner won back-to-back world cross-country championships. When Paula Radcliffe staged her successful defence of the women's long-course crown at Leopardstown on Saturday, she turned the clock back almost 70 years, to the vintage days when Britain ruled the world of endurance running.
Radcliffe, who managed to tame a gruelling Dublin trail to claim her own place in athletics history, has done much to rekindle the glories of that era, and may soon set the sport aflame again. She has also won the world half-marathon crown for two successive years, and her marathon debut is less than three weeks away. She is determined to make it a winning one.
She is also keen to chase a cross-country treble in Lausanne next year, and says she is ready to break a habit by turning out in the European cross-country championships to be staged in Edinburgh in December 2003.
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''It's still some way off, and my plans aren't finalised, but with the event being in Britain, I would hope to be able to do it,'' said the 28-year-old.
She became the first woman since Lynn Jennings, in 1992, to win consecutive titles when she beat American Deena Drossin by nine seconds. With South African-born US citizen Colleen de Reuck third, it was the first time in a decade that black Africa had been denied an individual place on the podium.
Derartu Tulu, Birhane Adere, and Gete Wami, the Ethiopian trio who denied the Bedford woman a world 10,000m medal on the track in Edmonton last summer, were all absent. Inevitably, there were murmerings that she had won against a field of diluted quality. ''The Africans weren't as strong, but I did expect a bit more from them late on,'' acknowledged Radcliffe.
Also absent was old Irish rival Sonia O'Sullivan, who, however, capped a remarkable comeback by leading the hosts to team bronze in yesterday's short race, just three months and a day after having given birth to her second daughter.
Tulu is focusing on her Flora London Marathon duel with Radcliffe, and time will tell whether this race has compromised Radcliffe's preparations. She is convinced otherwise, but has returned to the clinic of physiotherpy guru Ger Hartmann in Limerick, for further treatment on a tight quadriceps, ''though I never felt it at all in the race,'' she said.
''I was confident because I always felt it was my race to lose. I've always said that London is my main aim this year. I'm just glad that it did not cost me the chance to win this race. Choosing between the two would have been very difficult. I believe it's possible to run well in the cross-country and the marathon.''
Drossin led for two-thirds of the 8000m course, helping to jettison the African challenge, but offered even stouter resistance than Radcliffe might have anticipated. The fastest US debut marathoner at 2:26.58 last year, Drossin swallowed a bee which stung her in the throat, yet still finished twelfth in this race three years ago. She has come on since then, and attacked here. ''I should have been a bit more aggressive,'' she said, ''but Paula is very intimidating to run against.''
A lucky ring, a gift from her mum and her husband, Gary, helped launch Radcliffe to vic-tory. The gift was a recent replacement for the talisman which she lost on crossing the finish line 12 months ago in Ostend, but the present did not prevent her from dismissing Gary from the matrimonial bed when she could not sleep because of nerves on the eve of the race. ''I kicked him into the single bed, because I could not sleep,'' she said.
Radcliffe seems unaffected on track and country by her head-bobbing action, which under stress seems to resemble a demented marionette. Whether that will ultimately drain her in the marathon remains open to debate, but her strength on a windy day challenges the doubters. She has been running up to 130 miles per week in the altitude of New Mexico. ''This was a long way from 26 miles, but shows I am strong.''
Drossin said: ''I am sure Paula will fulfil all expectations when she runs in London.''
Gerbre-egziab Gebremariam, whose name means Servant of God, Servant of Mary, ran barefoot to claim the men's junior crown for Ethiopia, while the junior women's race went to 18-year-old Viola Kibiwot for the second year, the first time this double has been achieved.
Phil Mowbray was outstanding among the five Scots. His thirtieth place in the short race, second UK finisher just six seconds behind John Mayock, and tenth European, augurs well for his track hopes this summer. Leading coaches last night predicted sub 13:35 for him over 5000m.
It was galling, however, to note that fifth-place finisher Craig Mottram, just 22, has a Scottish mother, but plans to run for Australia this summer.
Angela Mudge, Freya Murray, and Chris Watson all failed to make the counting team, but did not let the side down.
Kathy Butler, however, ran an excellent race to finish 20th behind Radcliffe, and the team's fifth place was Britain's best of the weekend.
world cross country championships
(British unless otherwise stated)
Saturday. Women Long-course (8000m) 1 P Radcliffe 26min 55sec, 2 D Drossin 27:04, 3 C De Reuck (both US) 27:17, 4 M Yamanaka (Jap) 27:19, 5 E Kuma 27:19, 6 M Denboba 27:21, 7 L Aman (all Eth) 27:25, 18 L Yelling 28:07, 20 K Butler 28:12, 42 H Yelling 29:00, 46 A Mudge 29:07, 59 J Brown 29:52. Team 1 Ethiopia 28pts, 2 US 38, 3 Kenya 41, 5 GB 69.
Junior (6000m) 1 V Kibiwot (Ken) 20:13, 2 T Dibaba (Eth) 20:14, 3 V Cheruiyot (Ken) 20:22, 31 C Dale 22:01, 45 H Freeman 22:15, 46 F Fullerton 22:16, 53 J Nugent 22:27, 63 F Murray 23:01, 68 L Dobriskey 23:10 Team 1 Kenya 13, 2 Ethiopia 24, 3 Japan 63, 8 GB 130.
Men Short-course (4000m) 1 K Bekele (Eth) 12:11 2 L Kipkosgei (Ken) 12:18, 3 H Mekonnen (Eth) 12:20, 4 S Kipketer (Ken) 12:26, 5 C Mottram (Aus) 12:27, 6 J Nyamu (Ken) 12:30, 7 A Jimenez (Spa) 12:30, 23 J Mayock 12:44, 30 P Mowbray 12:50, 39 S Barden 12:53, 42, B Noad 12:54, 72 R Whalley 13:10, 79 B Whitby 13:13. Team 1 Kenya 20, 2 Ethiopia 32, 3 Spain 57, 7 GB 120.
Yesterday. Men Long-course 1 K Bekele (Eth) 34:52, 2 J Yuda (Tan) 34:58, 3 W Talel 35:20, 4 R Limo 35:26, 5 C Kamathi 35:29, 6 A Chepkurui (all Ken) 35:32, 7 A Goumri (Mar) 35:43, 43 S Haughian 36:53, 50 A Graffin 37:10, 61 M Smith 37:32, 69 I Hudspith 37:38, 40 G Tromans 37:40, 103 M O'Dowd 38:41. Team 1 Kenya 18, 2 Ethiopia 43, 3 Morocco 58, 10 GB 173.
Women Short-course (8000m) 1 E Masai (Ken) 13:30, 2 W Kidane (Eth) 13:36, 3 Isabella Ochichi (Ken) 13:39, 4 B Johnson (Aus) 13:42, 5 S Favor-Hamilton (US) 13:47, 6 A Negussie (Eth) 13:53, 7 S O'Sullivan 13:55, 10 A Keenan-Buckley 14:03, 19 R Ryan (all Irl) 14:14 22, H Pattinson 14:18, 35 L Elliott 14:28, 60 A Wright-Allen 14:48, 75 S Thomas 15:01, 78 E Ward 15:04, 80 J Potter 15:10. Team 1 Ethiopia 32, 2 Kenya 34, 3 Ireland 85, 11 GB 160.
Men Junior (8000m) 1 G Gebremariam (Eth) 23:18, 2 A Cheruiyot (Ken) 23:19, 3 B Kiprop (Uga) 23:28, 31 T Sharland 25:15, 68 M Lole 26:05, 82 S Ablitt 26:27, 84 M Bowser 26:29, 95 D Jones 26:50, 105 C Watson 27:26 Team 1 Kenya 18, 2 Ethiopia 24, 3 Uganda 37, 11 GB 176