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Looking Back on 2015’s London Marathon: Why 3D Printing Was Paula Radcliffe’s Secret Weapon

3 min read

Fingers holding up a 3D-printed, personalized insole

When Paula Radcliffe crossed the finish line of the London Marathon for the final time back in 2015, she didn’t do it alone. She was accompanied by around 37,500 other runners, the immense support of the crowd, and her secret weapon — 3D-printed phits™ orthotic insoles.

As we fondly recall what was a bittersweet yet incredibly triumphant day for Paula Radcliffe, we’re easily reminded of just how special the former World Record holder truly is. Then 41 years old, and coming off the back of over a year of serious physical rehabilitation, Paula ran the London streets for the last time in a spectacular 2:36:55, sending goosebumps up the arms of the crowd that stood sharing their admiration along the course and the millions watching around the world.

It was a fitting farewell to a sport in which she had already given so much. The fact that the World Record time of 2:15:25 she set in 2003 would not be beaten until 2019, four years after her retirement, pays testament to just how talented she truly was. Yet it was a farewell many feared they wouldn’t get. When injury prevented her from competing at the London Olympics in 2012, the general opinion was that her active running career had come to an end.

Personalized, 3D-printed insoles with Paula's name etched on the back
Personalized, 3D-printed insoles

A global effort

Naturally, we should have known better — Paula had never known the meaning of quitting. It was her stubbornness and strength of mind, combined with the help of top doctors, physical therapists, and the latest 3D printing technology, that helped her prepare for the last hurrah she desperately deserved. It was far from an easy journey.

As the BBC covered in an article at the time, it took a global effort from this multi-disciplinary team to get her running once again:

“Help is sought, from British Athletics and the doctors and radiologist who aided her recovery from surgery, to physicians in Monaco and orthotics specialists in Belgium. ‘Thanks to a combination of everything, it started to get better,’ says Radcliffe.”

The orthotics specialist mentioned were RS Labs, which had supplied Paula with custom-made orthotics since 1996. This relationship has remained strong ever since, but it became particularly important in 2014 when Paula was introduced to phits™: 3D-printed orthotic insoles customized exclusively for her needs through dynamic gait analysis.

The magic of Materialise Phits Suite

The process of developing phits orthotic insoles was, and still is, fast and straightforward. It began by gathering Paula’s dynamic data by having her walk, stand, and run across specialized plates that measure her movement and pressure points. In doing so, the team could identify key characteristics of her gait that traditional methods just can’t provide, including the pressure across different zones, toe-off, and pronation vs. supination.

After analyzing this data with the help of an advanced software, foot and ankle experts based the design off of AI-generated input and adjusted according to their consultation with Paula. With Materialise’s existing 3D printing expertise, it wasn’t long until the design was brought to life. For Paula, getting her hands on the real thing changed everything for the better.

“Without the support of phits, it would have been impossible to recover so well after my surgery, and most likely, I wouldn't have been able to continue my running career,” said Paula.

As was always the case, Paula continues to inspire others, this time through her collaboration with Materialise. In the years since that final race, many others — athletes and otherwise — have benefitted from phits orthotics in much the same way. Fellow runners like Charlotte Purdue, Aly Dixon, Lily Partridge, and Natascha Cockram, have their own pairs of phits. It’s clear her role at the front of the pack extends beyond the incredible times she set throughout a remarkable career. Looking back and knowing that we played some part, however small, in making sure she had the send-off she deserved is an opportunity everyone at Materialise will always be grateful for.

Paula running in a crowd
Paula Radcliffe completed her final London Marathon in an inspiring 2:36:55

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