Running battle

Taken from My Story So Far

Taken from My Story So Far

I remember feeling so angry with myself. It was the end of the 10,000 metres final at the 2001 world championships in Edmonton, Canada. I had taken a gamble, run a totally different race to normal and it hadn’t paid off: I’d finished fourth. I knew I’d made mistakes, I felt I hadn’t given every last ounce of energy, and I just wanted to get back out there and do it again.

The race is probably most remembered, however, for an altercation between Gary, my husband, and me. I had just crossed the line and, glancing at the giant screen in the stadium, I saw they had mistakenly listed me as third instead of fourth.

“Why did they do that?” I asked Gary, who had somehow got himself down by the side of the track. He thought I said, “Why did I do that?” “Yeah, why the f*** did you do that? Why didn’t you stick to the race plan that we talked about before?” he yelled at me.

Gary was not just my husband but also my manager, and his point was valid. But his timing was wrong. In a minute or two I was going to have to do television, radio and newspaper interviews. I needed to be emotionally in one piece.

“Leave it for now. We’ll talk about it later; just leave me alone,” I said, pushing him away as I walked past.

It was just one of those blow-ups that happen between two strong-minded people with a lot of invested emotional interest. We had argued before and would again but the difference this time was that we were the focus of television cameras and photographers at a moment when our deepest emotions were raw and exposed.

The television footage was beamed into millions of homes, the pictures were everywhere and everything was totally out of proportion. Gary’s mum called the next day about it. Here’s what he says now:

Gary: I barged my way past these security people, got down there and saw her cross the line fourth. I didn’t see her name go up on the screen as third and when she said, “why did they do that?” I had no idea what she was talking about and thought she said “why did I do that?” “Yeah,” I said, “why the f*** did you do that?” referring to the way she had run the race. She said she wasn’t dealing with that now; she had interviews to do.

I felt she was blanking me and never thought about the fact that there were television cameras on us. As she walked away I tried to stop her and she just kind of pushed me away. She then went up through this blue tunnel towards the television booths and I stupidly followed her. The BBC actually had footage of me inside this bloody thing which, thankfully, they never showed.

When she finished her interviews, I apologised. I mean she was devastated by the race and to top it all there was all this bullshit from me. My mother called and all she said was: “You are an arsehole. I was meant to go to the bank this morning but I can’t now. Everyone is talking about it; I can’t go out. What are Paula’s mum and dad going to think?” That awful picture, the one of Paula pushing me away, was everywhere. The Times newspaper ran an unbelievable story about the bust-up. It was so way out, it just made us laugh. Paula and I were listed with all the celebrity couples who’d had a public falling-out. There was Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit, Madonna and Guy Ritchie, Paula and me: I kid you not.

If there was one thing I found upsetting about all of that, it was the portrayal of Gary as rude, pushy and awkward. That’s not him. He’s just fiery. It’s the way he is. I can be fiery, too.

Something similar happened at the Sydney Olympics where I also ran a disappointing 10,000m. He kept asking why I had not run faster. Being physically exhausted and mentally wiped out, I felt he was accusing me of not trying hard enough when all I needed was some consolation and comfort, but Gary isn’t strong on tact and diplomacy.

G: If I said to her, “You did really well, you were great!” she would have thought, “that’s not what you really think. Don’t patronise me”. If I had come out with all that bullshit, she would know I was telling her something I didn’t believe. That would have made her feel a lot worse. I don’t fill her head with crap and it is not what she expects from me.

My relationship with Gary has always been special, but not always what you would call straightforward: boy meets girl, brief courtship, fall in love, get married. We travelled a very different road. Others may look from the outside and think “weird”.

I remember the night we met more clearly than Gary does. It was a Tuesday evening in the autumn of 1992 in a small pub in Loughborough, where I was in my first term at the university. I was with a group of friends after an evening run, but alongside me was this tall, good-looking 1500m runner from Northern Ireland, Gary Lough.

Whatever he said has long vanished but not the memory of his voice and the tingles as he spoke to me. The next day I rang my best friend Liz Talbot. “Have you met anyone?” she asked after we’d been talking for a bit.

“Well, not really . . .”

“What do you mean not really? You have?” “Well, there’s one guy that I quite like. He was in the pub tonight. He is good-looking and he’s got a really sexy accent.”

Liz and I had been closer than sisters since I was 12. In my teens I lacked a lot of the self-confidence that would come with my success in running. I remember asking Liz when we were teenagers: What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I have a boyfriend. Liz said I intimidated them. “No,” I said, “it’s because I’m not pretty.”

There are two sides to my personality. One is stubborn and intensely competitive; a few setbacks don’t stop me doing what I enjoy and striving for what I want and believe I can achieve. If anything they make me even more determined. And I don’t like to give up.

That competitive edge was always there. When Gary and I first trained together, one of us would be half a stride ahead of the other.

“Why are you pushing it?” “I’m not.”

“Yes you are. Look, you’re just ahead of me.”

As both of us are stubborn, no one would give an inch and the pace would just get faster and faster. I would like to say we have both matured and are far more sensible now, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.

The other side of me is sensitive, self-conscious, a little vulnerable. Part of that is a yearning to be liked and accepted, which has always been there. The emotional woman is as much a part of me as the determined athlete.

G: She intrigued me. I couldn’t put my finger on why. She had come to the college with a bit of a name for what she had done in athletics but she was totally without ego. I’d seen her in the Olympic trials when she ran like a demented chicken but only just missed out on going to Barcelona. She was shy back then, very quietly spoken, and I couldn’t make out how someone could be as successful as she was but never act like they were successful. Was I reacting as an athletics fan or as a guy who thought this could lead to something? I don’t know.

For a few months we were busy doing our own things. But one evening next summer I fell in love with Gary. A group of us went to watch an athletics meeting. Gary was in the 1500m and, as it was his last race before the world student games, it was important. Somehow he misunderstood the starting time and turned up late. He was stressed and ran badly. I tried to console him and we just kind of ended up together. My feeling was, “Yes, this could work now”.

I was keen to develop our relationship, but I wasn’t sure whether he felt the same. He isn’t the best at telling people how he feels about things.

That Christmas, 1993, we went to the athletics club Christmas dinner as a couple. His memory of this night is not that sharp, but he got drunk and spent the evening talking to anyone and everyone. It is what he does when he has a few drinks; his natural shyness disappears and he bobs around the room, having fun with everyone. Being young, naive and a little insecure, I was upset because it felt like he was ignoring me.

G: There’s lots of stuff I did back then that, if she’d been different, if she hadn’t been the person she is, she would have thought “What the hell is he about? Forget him, move on. He’s not worth bothering about.” Thank God she didn’t.

It was far from the perfect relationship. We were an item but it wasn’t an all-consuming relationship and some people may have wondered how interested he really was. At times I certainly did.

As part of my course in European studies I had to spend some of my third university year in Germany. Gary was meant to come and say goodbye but didn’t show. It turned out he had tonsillitis but he didn’t pick up the phone and it seemed he just wasn’t interested. My attitude was, “Okay, that’s the end of it, it’s just not worth it, forget him.”

G: One night, around this time, I had a few drinks and ended up with someone else. Then I couldn’t face seeing Paula and couldn’t even face ringing her, even though she was going away. I did get tonsillitis but that was an excuse. I just wanted to disappear, not have to face this.

I moved into a little flat in Düsseldorf. After about two weeks the phone rang at 3am. It was a friend from Loughborough, a little bit drunk: “Paula, it’s about Gary. He got this new girlfriend. I just think you should know.”

That ended a relationship that had already died. I still had feelings for him but I was determined to let time take care of things. So I licked my emotional wounds and got on with my life. We remained friends, which was better than nothing. Gary was very good about it because he knew I would have liked more, but he never made it awkward for us.

People asked if I regretted that my feelings about Gary were so obvious. The answer is that I didn’t — your heart is not really that fragile, and if you don’t put it out there you’ll never get the rewards.

Gary had his new girlfriends, I had the odd boyfriend, but we stayed in close contact, developing an understanding, warm, supportive and unconditional friendship.

We even went together to New York for the Fifth Avenue Mile in both 1995 and 1996, when I won. After the 1996 race Gary and I went for a week’s break in Florida. We were best friends, extremely comfortable in each other’s company, we enjoyed hanging out together and shared lots of interests. But it was totally platonic.

Around this time I bought my first house in Loughborough and it seemed logical that Gary should be my lodger. But there was no thought in my mind that our relationship might go back to where it once was.

G: We were an unusual pair. We lived the life of being romantically involved even though we weren’t. We did the things that a couple would do but we did them purely as good friends. My family thought we were together, but I kept saying “No, we’re not, we’re just very good friends.” Paula’s family would say, “Are you together?” “No, we’re not.”

40I had spent a lot of time carrying a candle for him, running after him, hoping we might get back together, but by this time I had truly given up on him and had begun another serious relationship with Curtis Robb, another athlete.

At one point I was probably falling in love with Curtis, but at the same time there was a nagging doubt in the back of my mind.

We were both pretty determined about our careers. He also had a medical career and I didn’t see myself as a little homemaker, putting my career on the back burner to be able to provide the kind of back-up that a young doctor and top-class athlete needed. Neither did he see himself in a position to compromise what he was doing to make things easier for me to get where I wanted to go.

When I called to tell him that I’d won the silver medal in the world cross-country championships — easily my best performance in this event so far — he was very pleased for me but in his voice I could pick up on the frustration he felt about an injury he was struggling with at the time. Half-jokingly, he said, “Just what I need, you phoning me telling me you’ve done well when I can’t even train properly.”

By contrast, when I phoned Gary he was so pleased for me. He too had suffered enormously through injury but his joy at my performance was unqualified.

G: Just before Christmas 1996, a close friend of mine died suddenly. It was snowing outside and I just sat there, devastated. Then I found a note downstairs from Paula. It said “Gone to see the doctor”. That was her light-hearted way of referring to her boyfriend. Typical, I thought, the one person that I would have turned to in this moment was off with someone else.

I felt unbelievably alone. And I realised that you don’t appreciate what you have until you are without it. I had been complacent, even blasé, about someone who was really important to me. I was so busy searching for what I thought I wanted that I couldn’t see that what I really wanted was right there in front of me.

The situation was changing, though. Little things. I would be in the room when Curtis telephoned and would overhear the conversation. Things were a bit strained between them and she was hinting that she didn’t think they had a future. And I thought this is so sad, here I am and she has no idea how I feel. I wanted to tell her but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

People look at me and they think I am cocky. I was never cocky. But I do put on an act, put up barriers, something to hide behind because I have always been terrified of rejection. It was beyond me to work out that the worst that could happen was she would say she wasn’t interested. You’d feel terrible for weeks, months, whatever, but eventually you’d move on. I mean I could have ruined my whole life by holding back, waiting for Paula to put herself on the line for me. I felt that wasn’t a big deal for her because I was never going to reject her.

Friends started mentioning things to me. One of the lads told me how one night in the pub Gary had opened up. But I didn’t give this much credence: people say things when they have had a bit to drink. There had been plenty of opportunities for him to make his feelings known to me. I had spent a long time chasing him early on. If anything were to develop between us, this time it had to come from him.

My focus was on the 1997 world championships in Athens. A few nights before my departure Gary and I had our evening meal together at home in Loughborough. He might have had a couple of glasses of red wine. That’s how I remember it, because he began speaking in riddles and I asked him what he was trying to say. But Gary doesn’t easily open up, so I pushed him and pushed him to say exactly what was on his mind. Without much success.

G: When we got talking, I made up this cock-and-bull story about a friend who had this girl with whom he was really good friends. My friend wanted to take the relationship further but didn’t know how to go about it. So what should he do? Because I wasn’t prepared to take the risk of putting my cards on the table, that was as far as I was able to go. She asked me to explain it better and I remember thinking, “Oh shit, she actually believes I’m talking about someone else.”

Later that night, as we were upstairs getting ready for bed, we almost bumped into each other on the landing. Instead of walking on, we stopped and looked at each other. Suddenly I sensed the strength of his feelings, and mine, and I hugged him. It just felt really comfortable and right, like we fitted together perfectly. Something, I knew, had changed for ever.

G: That night something happened. I can remember the second part much better than the first. In my convoluted way, did I reveal exactly how I felt? Why did things change that night? I wonder if Paula remembers the precise details. What I remember is that it was around bedtime. She was in her bedroom at the back of the house, my bedroom was at the front. There was another small bedroom, like a box room, which we used as an office. I don’t know what was going on but I was in that room and can remember walking out. As I did we met on the landing, we stopped, she gave me a hug and it was like, I don’t know, it was different. Then we just went to the other bedroom, her bedroom, and from then on we stayed there. How did I feel the next morning? I was quite relaxed about it. It wasn’t like we were relative strangers. We spoke about it. There was definitely no sense of “Oh my God, what have we done? Are we spoiling a beautiful friendship?” There was no fear, no wondering whether the other person had any doubts. It felt a lot more natural than that.

Gary and I didn’t feel the need to rush out and tell people immediately. I understood that my friends might have been concerned had they known, but there were absolutely no doubts in my mind. The previous experience had been painful but that wasn’t going to stop me. There are people — and Gary is a bit like this — who choose not to let others get too close, or to put themselves in certain situations, because they are afraid of getting hurt. I have never been like that. Being hurt once is no reason to lock your heart away. Hurt heals, and if you never take chances you might never find who or what you’re looking for.

It’s a little bit like my attitude to racing: I give all I can and lay everything on the line. If sometimes it doesn’t pay off and ends in severe disappointment that’s no reason to be afraid to come back again and again and keep trying. If something is important to you there is no limit to how hard you will try to achieve it. Yes, I had been hurt in the past, but it wasn’t an experience I regretted. There were never regrets.

Two years later we got engaged. Given how long we had known each other, the engagement wasn’t going to shock anyone. But Gary had this notion that before he could propose to me he would have to have a secure career and a means of supporting me. At the time he was still hoping to return to his athletic career but struggling to regain his fitness after serious injury.

His old-world view of the man’s responsibilities was complicated by the fact that I owned the house and had the greater earning power. He wasn’t going to do anything until our circumstances changed. As for me, the tradition that decreed the man must propose, earn, provide was totally irrelevant. What mattered to me was happiness and love.

The day before his 29th birthday I was out shopping, trying to think of something to buy him. There was a man’s ring I liked. But he had a ring already, his grandmother’s. I thought about the custom of the man always proposing to the woman and it dawned on me how sexist that was: the woman waiting for the man to make the move. There was no reason why a woman should not propose to her man if she wanted to. And I wanted to. But I was hopelessly torn. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Would Gary be pleased or not?

As I was flying out to Rome for a race the following day, there wasn’t a lot of time. What the hell! I bought the ring and had them wrap it up nicely. That night in bed I gave him his present and asked him to unwrap it. “But I’ve got a ring,” he said.

“Yes, but maybe you could wear this one on that finger.” That was as close to a formal proposal as I was able to get. The penny didn’t drop immediately with my ever so romantic husband-to-be. Eventually he saw what I was saying.

G: We were definitely going to get engaged, but I was doing it in my own time. We talked about it and I would have suggested it was something we should do, but I would have put it in a really twisted, cryptic way, nothing direct. I was thinking further down the line. Then she gave me this ring and I said I had a ring already. She said, well you could wear it on the other finger, “then it would be more like an engagement ring”. Doh! That’s how it happened. She asked me. Some people might have seen that as a sign of weakness in a woman, I saw it as totally the opposite. It just showed her strength.

Being male this made me ask some obvious questions. “What can I offer you? How can I provide for you?” Paula was thinking in the 21st century, I was still back in the 19th. I was saying, “What can I do to support us?” and she was saying, “Bollocks to all that, I know what I want and I am not afraid to go after it”.

Then for the next five minutes I agonised over whether I was about to lose my identity as an athlete. Had Gary Lough, one-time 1500m runner, just become Paula Radcliffe’s fiancé? It didn’t take long for me to get over that. What was the big deal? If that was how it was going to be, that was how it was going to be.