Paula Radcliffe had the pedigree, the past performances and a track tailor-made to showcase what she does better than any woman in the world: run mile after mile after mile after mile with the precision of a metronome.
So nobody should have been surprised when the 28-year-old British runner was the first woman across the line Sunday at the Chicago Marathon. Or that she covered the distance in a world-best 2 hours, 17 minutes, 18 seconds -- lopping nearly a minute and a half off the old mark.
Even less surprising, though, was what Radcliffe did afterward. She insisted on taking a drug test.
''I just wanted to make sure that was done,'' said Radcliffe, the two-time world cross-country and half-marathon champion, ''so there could be no questions and no issues about this one.''
That reveals as much about her sport as Radcliffe's place in it.
Nobody who competes in track and field is above suspicion of using performance-enhancing drugs. Same with cycling and all the other endurance sports -- and for that matter, baseball, football, soccer, hockey, golf and even chess.
What makes Radcliffe stand out, beyond her success these past two seasons, is that she welcomes the scrutiny, even insists on it.
Remember how Sammy Sosa chafed at the offer of a surprise test to back his claims about being steroid-free? Well, Radcliffe refuses to let any opportunity slip away without doing just that. As she's climbed steadily toward the top, Radcliffe has raised the stakes in her crusade against the performance-enhancing drug EPO.
She wears a red ribbon on her singlet to show support for compulsory blood testing, a more effective method than urine tests, and she's authorized release of her own blood tests from just about every race she's run in.
At the world championships in Edmonton last year, Radcliffe sat in the stands during the 5,000-meter heats holding up a hand-lettered sign. It read ''EPO Cheats Out'' and it was intended for Russian Olga Yegorova, who had tested positive for EPO but was allowed to compete on a technicality.
David Moorcroft, an outstanding distance runner who was head of the British federation at the time, warned Radcliffe she'd ''spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder,'' wondering whether somebody had spiked a post-race drink, a snack, even her toothpaste.
Radcliffe explained in an interview soon after why that wasn't too steep a price to pay.
''Too many people think we're all at it,'' she said. ''It's like the Tour de France. Because no cyclists stood out against the cheats, they all got tarred with the same brush, those who wouldn't touch a drug condemned along with those who are full of the stuff.
''And I don't want that,'' she concluded, ''to happen in my sport.''
Like Lance Armstrong, she knew what to expect after setting herself up as a beacon for drug-free performance in a sport shrouded by it. She's been asked to prove her innocence over and over and so far, Radcliffe has produced the goods. What has changed, however, is the size of the stage she commands.
Radcliffe was practically born to run. Her great aunt won an Olympic silver medal as a swimmer for Britain in 1920 and her father was a respectable amateur marathoner in his spare time.
When Paula was 11, he moved the family to Bedford in the English midlands and she found in the fields surrounding town that running could be both her love and her livelihood.
A string of disappointments steeled Radcliffe for the tough times ahead. Before her breakthrough 2001 season, her principal weakness at distances ranging from 3,000 meters through 10,000 meters was the lack of a finishing kick.
But the consistency that enabled her to stay with the elite competitors in so many of those races -- producing lap after lap at near top speed -- has been her greatest asset in both of her remarkable marathon performances.
In Chicago, with temperatures in the 30s and a stiff wind facing the runners heading home, Radcliffe methodically ground down the competition. She ran the second half of the course a minute faster than she did the first, leaving her last threat, two-time defending champion Catherine Ndereba, sputtering in the 17th mile.
The only time Radcliffe stopped after that was to leave a sample for drug testing. Too bad. Where once we marveled at human achievement, we now immediately suspect better living through chemistry.
On the eve of the Atlanta Games, 198 U.S. athletes, most of them Olympians or aspiring to be, were asked if they would take performance-enhancement substances if they were guaranteed of winning and not being caught.
Only three answered no.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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