Paula, Women, Sport

I finished reading Paula Radcliffe`s semi-autobiography last week.

I couldn`t put the book down.

Although not very well written (it jumps around historically and there is some repetition as a result) it engaged my attention from start to finish because I identified so closely with what she went through as an athlete and as a human being during her career. She comes across as  humane and conscientious but above all, an extremely strong-willed and strong-minded person, the latter being the qualities that made her the athlete she is yet at the same time, her own worst enemy. But what struck a deep chord with me is her humanity and willingness to speak so openly about all the struggles she has gone through to acheive the 5 page list of results and world records at the back of the book. Any lesser mortal would have thrown in the towel much earlier, after the first stress fracture or her disappointment at Athens. It was hugely inspirational to read and feel the belief that she and her surrounding support team had in her ability. Even the fact that she spent her whole athletic career with the man who took her on at Bedford athletic club at the age of 12, Alex Stanton,  is remarkable.

When I described the ups and downs of her athletic career to my coach, Markus, he asked me if her non-performance in the 2 Olympic games she competed in were as a result of her not listening to her body when it was screaming for rest due to over training or when there were little niggles. I believe that yes, she could have managed herself better in this respect but I also feel that she was extremely unlucky on a number of occasions to have sustained injuries at very inappropriate times.

Decision making and consequences

The book brought me back to the days when I was rowing at an international level. I was always in the company of really great athletes who were more mature than me in age and attitude and I really could have learned a lot from them. But I wasnt ready or mature enough to give what it really takes to be an athlete at the top level. I often gave in to the desire I had to break free from what I felt was a `cage`. I was inside a cage and walking around and around in circles, sleeping, eating, training, napping, eating, training and racing. I took risks to break out every now and then and this was detrimental to my performance (breaking my scaphoid in a silly accident 5 weeks before the Olympic Qualification Regatta in 2003). But as I grow older, I have learned to take heed of warning signs and prioritize to manage my time better and not suffer the consequences of neglect. I have become more focused and able to make wiser decisions.  I now evaluate my actions based on whether or not they could have a negative effect on me mentally and physically or on all the preparation and effort I am investing to acheive my goals.


I think that I speak for so many other endurance athletes who are addicted to the free feeling of running and moving. Addiction has a negative connotation so lets liken it to LOVE. We love to run, we love to move and it is part of our lives.  As much as some people love spending time by themselves, watching television to unwind, having some drinks with friends or listening to music, we love to do sports.

But sometimes the body needs to rest and that is really hard. Especially when we enjoy nothing more than putting on our runners or hopping on a bike to head out with friends on a social run or bike ride for a few hours.

The relationship between an athlete, their body and their sport, is like a relationship between a couple, you want to see each other all the time but you know that you need to strike a balance and give it space so the relationship can grow and reach its potential. That potential can only be reached by striking a balance and by listening and understanding what your body is trying to tell you, not by hearing what you want to hear.

Sometimes we manage to strike a balance in our lives, sometimes we don`t. Sometimes we train too much or too hard and our body lets us know by producing an injury or by being totally flat. While I was looking around online for more information on Paula Radcliffe`s career I came across another interesting interview from Irishman Ger Hartmann who when I was training for rowing in Limerick, was so famous as Paula`s physiotherapist. Hartmann has strong opinions about the need for athletes to eat well and take adequate rest. “The athlete who is in training can be very susceptible to picking up bugs and colds. There is that window of opportunity for so many hours after you have trained hard when your body’s defenses are low. You have actually broken down the body when you train. It’s a stressor—a distress on the body. The reason we benefit from training is that we mix hard training days with easy ones. The opportunity to break down is there after every hard training session.

Sometimes we neglect other aspects of our lives and we pay the price as a result. As well as the relationship beween our bodies and our sports, there is also the balancing act we perform between all the other elements of our lives, family and friends, health, career and integrity. Letting one of those balls drop really upsets the flow as you have to stoop to pick it up again and re-introduce it to the mix. If its dropped for too long the cycle can be broken and it takes longer to re-introduce.

So now I have ticked the philosophical blog contribution for the month!

The following article  (thanks to Melanie Spath) also touches on some of these topics from female cyclists perspectives:

Women Riding Bikes
By Christopher Fauske
Date: 12/11/2009
Women Riding Bikes
Women riding bikes
Members of the women’s peloton discuss their sport

Recently, by e-mail, Daily Peloton writer Chris Fauske caught up with three members of the women’s peloton based in New England and asked them, as the cross season wound down and during the off-season for road races, to reflect on what it takes to succeed as a member of the peloton.

Chris Fauske: I wonder, as we’re going to be talking about the time commitments and the psychological investment you are each making, if you might each share how it was (and when) that you got involved in competitive cycling; I’m thinking more of what cycling offered you at the time you started that you really wanted to be part of, rather than of a specific event or incident.

Anna McLoon: I think that if you ask a bunch of women that question, you’ll get as many answers as the number of women you ask.

For me, riding and racing fulfills several things that I love and need; I love working hard physically but with a goal. I love winning or when I fall short, I love thinking about what I can do better next time. These things are pretty universal to all the sports I’ve done over the years, but cycling fits my life right now for many practical reasons.

Clara Kelly: I got involved in racing through the NEBC [Northeast Bicycle Club] clinic in April 2008. I was drawn to the adrenaline rush of pushing my limits on the bicycle. I was also craving speed after spending the previous summer on foot— making slow progress through California, Oregon, and Washington along the Pacific Crest trail.

Clara Kelly warming up for the 2009 TDBank Mayor’s Cup.

Photo © 2009 Chris Fauske

Read more…


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