AFTER a flick through the timetable of events for next summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Laura Muir’s father suggested to her that she enters the 800m, the 1,500m and the 5,000m. He was only joking, of course.
At least, she thinks he was. When it comes to the 20-year-old athlete from Milnathort, whose extraordinary versatility has singled her out as Scotland’s most exciting prospect in years, anything seems possible.
At the IAAF World Championships, which start in Moscow on Saturday, Muir will run for Great Britain in the 800m. Not bad for an athlete whose focus, in her first year at senior level, was on the 1,500. Or was it the 400? It has reached the stage where even she is not sure. In Barcelona this week, where she will be in the squad’s holding camp, she might care to reflect on her visit to the same city a year ago, when she ran 3,000m in the world juniors.
Muir has always combined speed with endurance, but her priceless ability to do so came into its own two years ago, when she started a veterinary degree – and a new training regime – at the University of Glasgow. If she was not winning national 400m and 1,500m titles on the same day, she was following victory in the Scottish under-20 cross-country championship with an indoor 800m title 24 hours later. Linsey Macdonald’s 30-year-old record was broken in the process.
Simultaneous success at more than one distance is nothing new, as Kelly Holmes – 800 and 1,500 – proved in the 2004 Olympic Games, but the range of Muir’s running is something else again. “Most people could do 1,500 and 5k, 800 and 1,500, or 400 and 800, but I can run a pretty good 400 and a pretty reasonable 5k,” she admits. “That’s quite a big thing. Others could run both of those, but not as quickly as I could. If there was such a thing as a running pentathlon, I’d be right in there.”
Given her ambitions, Muir’s repertoire is invaluable, firstly because it increases her options. When it occurred to her that a place on the GB team for the World Championships would not be easily secured in the 1,500m, she went to Belgium for an 800m race in which her performance was so impressive that she was selected for Moscow.
It also hands her a precious technical advantage. As well as stamina, she has pace, and quite a burst of it at that, which is rare in distance runners. “When you’re young, you have a bit of both, but at this level, to have that sprint as well ... it’s quite unusual,” admits Muir. “If the race goes off slow, and it’s tactical, then I’ve got the kick. If the race goes off fast, I’ve still got the endurance. Either way they run it, I’m going to be OK.”
Andy Young, her coach at Glasgow University Athletics Club, can take much of the credit for Muir’s development, but in many ways, she is a freak of nature. He talks about the acceleration that distinguishes her from other athletes, and the fast-twitch fibres that give her more than just an engine.
“She is Paula Radcliffe, but with the speed of Christine Ohuruogu, and without Paula’s injuries,” he says. “That’s the context. I’ve been in GB teams, away in altitude camps with some really, really good athletes, and I used to compare Laura with some of them. Now, I’ve run out of comparisons. She is an anomaly that you almost never see.”
By her own admission, Muir was nothing special in the early years of her track career, training with her brother, Rory – who is still a promising 800m runner – and treating athletics as little more than a hobby. She dreamed of competing in the Commonwealth Games, but she had no concept of the sport outside Scotland, no idea of what it took to be the best. When she first hooked up with Young, she could barely do a press-up without collapsing in a heap.
But, with the help of his strength-and-conditioning drills, and more attention to her technique, she underwent a stunning transformation, the scale of which can be measured in the dramatic reduction of her times. Within 12 months, she had taken 25 seconds off her best in the 1,500m. Since the turn of the year, she has knocked nearly seven off her 800.
Muir was surprised to be told recently that her times at the age of 20 are quicker than those of Radcliffe, Holmes, Yvonne Murray and Liz McColgan at the same age. Given that her training programme is being developed incrementally, and that she is still not on a full schedule, her potential is off the scale.
“If I can run faster than them at this age, and they’ve gone on to achieve what they did four or five years later, there’s nothing to say that I shouldn’t be able to do the same. It’s exciting to think about what is possible down the line. Certainly, I’m on track to do well. I just hope that it continues and that I can live up to the name I’m getting.”
Muir’s versatility extends beyond athletics. Her veterinary work placements demand that she handles different animals in new environments. Last year, she was out lambing on a local farm. Last week, she was at a nearby stables, grooming the horses, tacking them up and picking out their feet. She was also invited to ride them, but thought better of it.
Her flourishing athletics career has put paid to a penchant for extreme sports. At school, where she was halfway to a black belt in karate, she did rock climbing and white-water rafting. She would demand a sky dive for her 21st birthday, but it falls two months before the Commonwealth Games.
Still, her last few months on the track have been thrilling. This year, she was supposed to be dipping her toe in the water of senior competition, learning what it feels like to race abroad, but in Finland, she won a bronze medal at the European Under-23 Championships. In Sweden, she reached the final of the European Indoor Championship.
And all the while, she is getting used to the crowds, the atmosphere, and the company. In last week’s Anniversary Games, when she finished ninth in the 1,500m, she admits to pausing a moment in the Olympic Stadium and taking it all in.
“You’re on these teams with people you grew up watching. You’re thinking, ‘I should be watching this on the sofa’. To be there, competing with them, is very surreal. It’s all happened so quickly. I was on the European indoor team with Christian Ohuruogo. I’m thinking, ‘oh my goodness, here’s an Olympic 400m champion’. Mo Farah’s going to be at the World Championships. I’ve never met him face-to-face. He’s every distance runner’s idol.”
At least she will have a local lass alongside her in Moscow. Her room-mate there will be Eilidh Child, six years her senior, but from the same background. Both went to Kinross High School, where Child had all the sprint records, Muir the distance ones. Child once visited the school for a presentation day on which Muir and her brother were both sports champions. Now, they are firm friends, on the same track, with the same ambitions.
Foremost among those is next summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Muir is way ahead of schedule, but she has exceeded expectation often enough to admit that she dreams of a medal. “The Kenyans are involved, so they would be the main competition,” she says. “It’s hard to tell, as you never know what form will be like a year from now, but I’d love to be on that podium.”
Muir suspects that her body is not quite mature enough to handle a bid for multiple medals. She would rather excel in one discipline than be mediocre in two. The question is, which distance, 800m or 1,500m, gives her the best chance?
If she knew that, she wouldn’t be the athlete she is now. “I’ve improved so much, in such a short space of time, it’s kind of hard to tell what I will be best at this time next year. I’ve no idea really.”