A little over an hour after Ethiopian Tigist Tufa broke the tape as the women’s winner at Sunday’s London Marathon, the steady stream of clapping and audible excitement in front of Buckingham Palace erupted into a deafening roar and chants of “Thank you Paula!” as the first wave of nearly 37,000 citizen runners made their way toward the finish line.
Her head bobbing up and down in its characteristic fashion, 41-year-old Paula Radcliffe turned onto the finishing straight at The Mall early on Sunday afternoon for the final time in her unparalleled professional career, cracking an occasional smile as she waved to the thousands of appreciative spectators in attendance—2 hours, 36 minutes and 55 seconds of effort and emotion clearly visible her face.
Amid the smattering of mid-2:30-something marathoners making their way toward the finish line, Radcliffe held the hand of another runner, Robert Danson, a scene that bared no resemblance to the magical one that took place in the same location 12 years prior, when she had the entirety of the hallowed straightaway to herself, eyes locked on the finishing clock, seemingly unaware of the raucous noise filling London’s spring sky around her as she covered 26.2 miles in an eye-popping 2:15:25—a mark no woman who hasn’t failed a drug test has come within three minutes of since.
But on this chilly day in central London, 12 years and 50 seconds per mile removed from the seemingly untouchable time she ran here in 2003, rather than trying to stop time as quickly as possible, Radcliffe seemed content to savor every second of it while acknowledging the hometown crowd that has held her in the highest regard for over two decades.
“Today was special,” she told BBC Sport after the race. “It was just amazing the whole way around.”
Despite her unmatched racing résumé, Radcliffe chose not to start with the elite women’s field on Sunday. Rather, she elected to toe the line some 50 minutes later with the masses, many of whom took off from the start line well ahead of their own goal race pace in order to to share a mile or two with one of Great Britain’s greatest athletic icons. It was an uncharacteristic gesture for a woman who cemented her racing reputation by employing aggressive tactics against the fastest females in the world, but at the same time a fitting farewell for someone who made her highly anticipated—and wildly successful—marathon debut in London in 2002, sharing the road with many of these same runners, in front of these same fans.
Although the four-time Olympian never won an Olympic medal—famously dropping out of the 2004 Olympic marathon after leading because of stomach issues—Radcliffe won the marathon at the 2005 IAAF World Championships and also claimed multiple world titles in the half marathon and cross country. She’s got three London Marathon titles to her name, an equal number of New York City Marathon wins and a victory at the Chicago Marathon as well. But it’s her world record in the marathon, which stands as a beacon of superior athletic performance in the age of doping controversies, that the world will remember her by.
Radcliffe crossed the finish line on Sunday with no one else around—not an unfamiliar scene in that very spot—tears welling up under her trademark sunglasses, a huge smile spread across her fit-looking face. There was no world record to celebrate, no fourth London Marathon win to cap off a brilliant career, but instead a mutual appreciation between the greatest female marathoner in history and the fans who supported her through it all.