Race too far for Sonia


Not quite the homecoming Loughrea had anticipated for Sonia O'Sullivan. Yesterday's five-mile road race proved one outing too many in the long and rewarding season of the Olympic silver medallist and, not totally unexpectedly, her competitive tank had hit zero.

Rarely will Britain's Paula Radcliffe score a more convincing victory over her Irish rival. On this occasion, she made a leaden O'Sullivan look half the athlete she knows she is, although none of the 20,000 spectators that lined the roads of Loughrea seemed to be bothered. Like Sydney, second here was as good as a win.

But the race of five miles was in fact over after one. When Radcliffe eventually breasted the tape in 25 minutes and four seconds, the clock had to run for another two minutes before O'Sullivan arrived home. For Radcliffe, fourth in the Olympic 10,000 metres, this was an exercise of direct contrast. Sydney needed to be forgotten, not celebrated.

And she did it with another striking display of front running. After shouldering O'Sullivan for the first half mile, the 26-year-old opened a winning margin almost as soon as she pressed the pedal. After the first lap of just under two miles, the gap was almost half a minute. By three miles, the gap was a minute and a half.

"I'm as fit as anything," said O'Sullivan, "but you just can't get yourself up for so many races in the year, and eventually it runs out. I went out fast enough but it was just the climate of the crowd at the start. Of course I wanted to come back here and run well again but I'm finished now and it's time for a rest.

"I mean, it's been non-stop now since this time last year. You can be excited about a race like this if it is your first race in a long time. But after the Olympics and everything else since then it's difficult to get your energy levels up."

Radcliffe - clad in her now trademark white socks and shades - never gave O'Sullivan the slightest hope of a counter-attack once the gap opened. The season that began here last year, just three months after giving birth to daughter Ciara, and has since included cross-country championships and road appearances and a horde of Grand Prix races had finally run its course.

"Well the race was over after a mile, and I wasn't pushing it after that. I was just getting around really. Of course I was happy that everyone came out to see me but I'm not happy that I couldn't run as well as I should have been able to. But everything was aimed for Sydney and it was a very long season when you're gearing everything towards September."

Radcliffe was nonetheless relieved at how easy she got away. "Well Sonia really took on the first mile and I just planned to sit in for the first lap. I was confident I could do enough damage on the second lap, but then I was flying and just settled into it and tried to keep it going.

"So I was surprised at the bend of the first lap that she had dropped back, but then I thought how much the pressure must have been on Sonia these past two weeks and I knew she mustn't have had the best race preparation. But when I got into that wind on my own then that's my territory, that turned it into a strong person's race. I would have liked to have got near the record, but that mile between two and three was just too slow."

As they headed out around the lake for the longer second lap, the stiff autumn breeze took its toll and Radcliffe's target time - her own five-mile road best of 24 minutes 47 seconds - quickly perished. "I'm not running quite as well as Sydney," she said, "because I did take it very easy for a week. But I'm really looked forward now to a good race next weekend in the Great North Run."

For O'Sullivan, however, that's a wrap on the season. Her second place here was always secure despite being approached by Britain's Andrea Greene on the second lap but the batteries need re-charging. She too had early plans to return to Newcastle for the half-marathon run next weekend but instead it's back to her Australian base for the winter and where, with all certainty, the hunger will return.

The men's race yesterday was always going to be something of a sideshow but Dundrum's Cormac Smith very nearly pulled off an Irish victory after breaking free from the bunch a little after half-way.

Indeed he looked a have had a winning stride approaching the finish only for Britain's Jon Mayock to close like a train and steal the win in 23 minutes 53 seconds. Smith - the National steeplechase champion - was just five seconds back while his team-mate Noel Berkeley proved that he's still got some life in the old legs by taking third in 24:04.

Italy's Olympic Committee (Coni) has played down a newspaper report that five Italian gold medallists tested positive for a growth hormone before the Sydney Games, saying the drug-test results were `preliminary'.

Saturday's Corriere della Sera said that athletes, from a range of disciplines, were found to have traces of growth hormone in their blood 30 to 60 times normal levels.

Italy won 13 gold medals at the Sydney Olympics. The newspaper named the gold medallists involved in the positive tests. Coni said that it would take legal action against those who named the athletes involved.

The Details

Ireland Run, Loughrea: Women: 1 P Radcliffe (Britain) 25:04, 2 S O'Sullivan (Ireland) 27.12, 3 A Greene (Britain) 27.21, 4 M Harrington (Ireland/Riocht AC) 28.10, 5 M Donoghue (Ireland/Clonliffe) 28.12.

Men: 1 J Mayock (Britain) 23.53, 2 C Smith (Ireland/Dundrum South Dublin) 23.58, 3 N Berkeley (Ireland/DSD) 24.04, 4 J Lewis (Ireland/Finn Valley) 24.05, 5 C McGee (Ireland/Lucan AC) 24.21, 6 G Ryan (Ireland/ Galway AC) 24.33.