(Reuters) – Paula Radcliffe struggled to hold back the tears as she tore down the Mall in front of her adoring fans for the final time at the London Marathon on Sunday, bringing down the curtain on the glittering career of one of the great distance runners.
With Buckingham Palace looming in the background, the queen of British athletics approached the finishing line with her customary bobbing head and gritted teeth to leave one last enduring memory of her uniquely committed style.
Soaking up the adulation of the crowd, the 41-year-old world record holder crossed the line in a time of 2 hours 36 minutes 55 seconds, waving to her cheering supporters as fellow runners held her arms aloft in salute.
“I wore the sunglasses to keep a lid on my emotions and they definitely hid some tears along the way,” Radcliffe told reporters. “I knew it would be emotional and it was so emotional.
“I nearly lost it at Birdcage Walk but the crowds bowled me over, I wanted it to last forever. It was so special, I’m really going to miss it.
“I was looking to finish holding hands with someone. I always wanted to run with my dad but never managed it so I did it in spirit instead.”
Radcliffe captivated the British public in 2003 with an astonishing world record of 2:15:25, which remains nearly three minutes faster than any other time clocked by a woman marathon runner.
Britain’s most admired sportswoman — a winner in London in 2002, 2003 and 2005 — inspired a generation of women to take up running but her career was not without its heartbreak.
In 2004, when she was the world’s most dominant marathon runner, Radcliffe famously pulled out 23 miles into the Olympic marathon in Athens while injuries in her later years limited her participation on the elite stage.
An Achilles injury earlier this year threatened to rule her out of her London swansong but it was her unyielding resilience which saw her cross the line with the thousands she inspired to take up the sport.
“I owed that to London to give my best effort because it’s given me so much over the years,” she said.
“I’ve always run and I’ll always continue to run. I’ve always appreciated what a gift it is just to get out and run.”