Mixed emotions for Paula and Pauline after marathon effort
Two women finished the Olympic marathon yesterday and stood within a few feet of each other in the mixed zone and you couldn't help but wonder whose life you'd prefer.
There was Paula Radcliffe, trying desperately to make light of the agony she had bravely endured but still looking tortured and unable to stem the tears 30 minutes after she had limped over the line.
And there was Pauline Curley of the Tullamore Harriers, grinning broadly and sounding like a delighted pixie on helium. Radcliffe put herself through unimaginable torture just to get there but sadly didn't seem to find the redemption she had sought in finally finishing an Olympic marathon in 23rd place.
On the amount of outdoor training (two weeks) she'd done, that was actually super-human. When her calf seized up you could see her thinking 'I'm not bloody quitting' with every agonising step and it spoke volumes about her character that she didn't.
Yet there, sharing the same stage was Curley, who, at 39, was the oldest woman in the field. She only found out three weeks ago that she had got in with a 'B' standard and hadn't really trained for it, yet still became only the fifth Irish woman to complete an Olympic marathon.
And her pure, unadulterated, heart-lifting joy at that achievement covered the whole gamut -- the inner child, the fun-runner and aspiring Olympian -- in all of us.
After finishing in 63rd place in 2:47.16, eight minutes slower than her PB, Curley fell to her knees, kissed the track and celebrated like she'd won the bloody thing. Two nights earlier, when she came down to see the stadium, she had cried with happiness and the circle was completed yesterday. "Oh, just keep fighting for whatever your dreams are!" she enthused. "This was one of my dreams, it's every athlete's dream, and I would never have thought it would come true."
And she listed out the pages of her personal fairytale: rehearsing the race in her mind before her 4.45am start, pinning on her race number, lining up at the Tian'anmen Square start beside all the superstars. "And then the final chapter ... coming into this stadium. It was just fantastic!"
Compared to Radcliffe, Curley is an amateur. Yes, she trains obsessively and has dominated Irish road-racing for nearly a decade, but she's also a part-time chef, works at the 'Harriers nightclub late on Saturday nights and is a mere mortal like the rest of us.
She has nothing like 'Team Paula's' resources yet there is actually a 'Team Pauline' who are just as precious to her, like local mentors Mick Hayden and Robert Denmead, husband Adrian, and son Emmet (7), who cycles alongside her training too shouting "give it holly, mammy!".
She actually heard them all roaring at the 10km mark, and the 20km, yesterday and when she saw the 42km mark knew her Holy Grail had come.
And three big names -- Ethiopia's Gete Wami and Behane Adere, as well as America's Deena Kastor -- were among the dozen who couldn't even finish it. So her heart soared just to do that while Paula's shuddered and gulped.
Radcliffe could still make 2012 considering yesterday's winner, Romanian Constantina Tomescu was 38.
She won in 2:26.44 by a 22-second margin to reigning world champion Catherine Ndederba, who had to out-sprint local heroine Chunziu Zhou in a spectacular finish to take silver.
Meanwhile, the hero of Ireland's distance events so far was Cork race-walker Robert Heffernan's brilliant eighth place in the 20km Walk on Saturday. That was just two places lower than Jimmy McDonald's sixth in Barcelona, but all accept that the stand-ards are now stratospheric.
Heffernan was in the lead group, and actually led briefly but at the 15km mark the field was split by a move from four-time world champion Jefferson Perez of Equador.
The great surprise was that he was in turn burnt off by metronomic Russian Valeriy Borchin, a European silver medallist whose credibility was immediately questioned.
"I tried to make a little bit of a move between 13-14km and I was probably just missing a year of training to have that explosiveness at the end and the strength," said Heffernan who finished in 1:20.36.
"I'd have liked to be a bit closer but to finish top eight in an Olympic Games for an Irish person is great," he said.
He refused to get drawn into the debate about Borchin, who won in 1:19.01, and was previously served a one-year drugs ban and who is recently alleged to have failed a test for EPO. The Russian denied this, saying: "I don't know what this is about. In the past months I have been training on my own. Some of my teammates have fallen ill and it just happened they could not make it here."