ASPIRING athletes up and down the country are getting so giddy at the prospect of competing for Scotland in front of 44,000 people at Hampden Park that there is a real danger of things going horribly wrong. It will be of constructive benefit to the group that 2014 has already provided them with a cautionary tale, in the shape of Guy Learmonth.
Three weeks ago, the 800 metres runner from Berwick-upon-Tweed was given reason to imagine himself on a celestial journey. He won the 600m at the British Athletics Glasgow International, setting a Scottish record and very nearly a British record. Three days later, in Vienna, he set the fastest 800m time of the year, and felt so in control of his destiny afterwards that he said: “I’m not going to lie, it felt like a jog.”
It would be an exaggeration to say that the wheels came off after that – the time of 1min 47.43secs he ran last Sunday in Birmingham was a personal best – but a poor run in the British trials for the World Indoor Championships left him admonishing himself over his tactics, and it came as no surprise to anyone yesterday that he should be omitted from the British team for next month’s global summit in Sopot.
Learmonth is not devastated that Mukhtar Mohammed and Andrew Osagie will be wearing GB vests in Poland rather than him, because the World Indoors would have been a bonus. But the ups and downs of recent weeks have come as a reality check, one that made the streetwise 21-year-old feel like he had been through an important rite of passage.
“The season got off to an absolute blinder, and I couldn’t really have asked for better than winning in Glasgow and running two world-leading times in three days. The atmosphere in Glasgow gave me a wee taster for what it is going to be like at Hampden, too,” he said yesterday. “I never really run for records, but breaking the Scottish 600m record was a massive bonus. I had spoken to my coach at the start of the year and we said that there was an emphasis on doing the World Indoors. But after that start I started to wonder if I should have.
“The selectors have gone with Mukhtar and Andrew, and I have to remember that it was never a goal for me. I can take a lot of positives from how the last few weeks have gone. The selectors make their decisions partly on form, partly on qualifying times, partly on times from previous years and also on how you perform at the trials. Mukhtar has actually only run 1:48.9 but he is going to Sopot because he won the trials two weeks ago.
“I beat him in Glasgow, but the selectors have favoured those athletes and that’s the politics of the sport. But it really never was a goal of mine. The whole focus has always been on the Commonwealth Games.”
That is understandable, but what Stephen Maguire, director of coaching at Scottish Athletics, will be drilling into the would-be heroes of a home Games is that the best way to approach such a challenge is not to be swallowed by it.
Learmonth remains close friends with fellow Borderer Stuart Hogg, with whom he went to school, but he has not been his main source of advice about how to keep a lid on excitement levels ahead of a big event.
“After Glasgow and Vienna I had two world-leading times and that showed my potential, and it was a big breakthrough. It proved to me that I can do it, that I can compete with world-class athletes. These are all stepping stones,” said Learmonth.
“My expectations after that did get raised, and I got caught up in it a wee bit. But as an athlete making a breakthrough, that is something you have to go through. It’s a learning curve, and as the summer gets closer it will be about learning to deal with all the coverage and all the hype. But it has given me a lot of confidence.
“There have been times when my mum and dad and my brothers have got seriously excited, especially after Glasgow. They were jumping for joy after that, and I was ecstatic, but I am trying to play it down and take it all in my stride.
“I speak to Stuart all the time, but we never really speak about how he deals with things or how I am going to deal with things, but I have taken a lot of advice from Andy Baddeley, who is a two-time Olympian and world championship finalist who competed in London. He has been around the block a few times, and he has helped out a lot. In terms of chatting to Stuart, I suppose it’s something I have to experience for myself and go through it for myself. You can train as hard as you want but you can’t go through the motions of a big championship. It’s something you have to experience.”
To his credit, Learmonth is genuinely delighted to have witnessed Laura Muir prove that a “blinder” at the start of an indoor season can be sustained. The 1,500m specialist from Milnathort is heading to Sopot as one of the form runners in the world. “She is incredible. We are the same age but she is inspiring to watch,” he says. “People just think she is a gutsy runner but she is incredibly talented as well, and it just goes to show that someone who is young and ambitious and has goals can go out and achieve them. She is fearless and it’s inspiring to watch.”