Well, this is a first. Before I can meet Scotland’s top athletics star, I have to make a pledge that I will be contamination-free. “If you get even a slight sniffle or a ticklish throat,” cautions Laura Muir’s manager in a late-night text, “please promise me you’ll cancel.”
Having gone to bed with a hot water bottle and a lemon drink, I’m unnerved by coughing and spluttering on my westbound train and, on the walk to her flat in Anniesland, contemplate asking a workman if I can borrow his dust-mask. I know I’m at the right address because Muir has her name emblazoned on the car parked outside – “sponsored by Muir Homes”. The door is answered by a wee sparra, just five foot three and a half inches tall, who looks eminently capable of being blown off her slippered feet by a sneeze.
Her mentor, Andy Young, was initially reluctant to allow the interview, time being precious to Muir as she continues her winter schedule and germ-free time especially. But equally I can sense his excitement about the year ahead and what it might bring her. In the end, excitement wins and Muir and I get to talk.
The excitement is justified. The previous evening the veterinary student smashed the UK indoor record for 5,000 metres in what was only her second-ever run over the distance. Liz McColgan’s standard had remained intact for 25 years but Milnathort-born Muir, the top-ranked woman in world over 1,500 metres in 2016, obliterated it in 14.49.12. McColgan was quick to tweet her astonishment about Muir’s 14-second improvement – “Amazingly fast.” Meanwhile the scottishathletics feed quipped that fire engines had later been spotted outside the Emirates Arena – “Track surface still smouldering, presumably.”
She offers up peppermint tea – “Sorry, I don’t do caffeine” – while her cross-country spikes dry on the radiator. Her phones bleeps for a while, possibly with messages confirming the record, McColgan having wondered whether the correct doping control had been in place before praising her young successor. Muir had flopped into bed following the night’s exertions but, after what she terms a lie-in, was pounding the canal path near her home in the morning gloom, dodging the ice and the grumpy swans, as she seeks to make 2017 the year when she steps onto a championship podium and, just maybe, claims a title.
“I was sore this morning,” she says of the 5,000. “Sore in different places.
My only other 5k was 2013 and I hadn’t run a 3k since 2015.” To make it more challenging for her, all the other girls quit long before the end, leaving the 23-year-old flying solo for 16 of the 25 laps. “It was a mixed race and the rest had only signed up for 3k. I’d hoped a few more of them might come with me but had to go it alone.” So the ponytail bobbed round the course, with shouts of “C’mon Laura!” from the sparse crowd the only encouragement.
Viewed on the internet, the run looked like one of David Bedford’s from when he used to race against the clock, with the rest of the field – including his trusty pacemaker – having long since retired. “I didn’t look at the lap-counter – you don’t need to be reminded you’ve got to run 25 of them,” adds Muir. “When it was down to me on my own it was a bit crazy but I knew the times I had to do, 36 seconds each lap, and when I started to slip a couple of seconds I just thought: ‘Right, I’m going for this.’”
Muir’s abode doesn’t really seem lived-in, mainly because it isn’t, the most prominent items being the running shoes littering the hall. She was training in South Africa for four weeks before Christmas and next Tuesday returns there for another four. She races again today – in the Great Edinburgh International XCountry when she’ll captain the British team for the scramble round Holyrood Park. But the most heavily-ringed dates on her calendar (that’s metaphorical, the walls being pretty bare) are those for the European indoor championships in Belgrade in March and August’s world championships in London.
Finally, she hopes, a medal will be hers. But she’s only interested in one colour. At the 1,500m at the Rio Olympics she went for broke – for gold – and ended up being swallowed up by the pack and finishing seventh. Now, 5,000m comes into her thinking for 2017 as 800m starts to fade. “I never really took the 800 seriously,” she says. “No, that’s not true: I ran it at the worlds in 2013. But I’m not really built for doing brilliantly at it. Others are a lot bigger and stronger.”
You’d be a fool, though, to underestimate Muir despite her elfin size. “Friends say that when they watch me as I’m about to race they always go: ‘Where’s Laura?’ Because I’m wee and have got this peely-wally Scottish skin I think I must just blend right into the track.” But, readers, you should know that when trying to inspect her most prestigious prize from 2016, the Diamond League award for 1,500m, I struggled to lift it on to the kitchen table. Muir, however, manages no problem. Perched on top is a ludicrously large diamond, probably not real, which seems to belong to either a Syd James crime caper or a Kim Kardashian reality show, and the sheer weight of the trophy was initially an irritation to the racer. “Straight from winning it I went to New York but it took me to my luggage limit and I couldn’t come back with any shopping. I was raging!”
The bling-scooping run came in Paris, just 11 days after the disappointment of Rio. Muir tanked almost all the same rivals who’d capitalised on her flawed boldness at the Olympics and, for the second time last summer, broke Dame Kelly Holmes’ UK 1,500m record. Plenty of serious observers of the scene still have faith in Muir being able to deliver a podium performance. While her decision in Brazil to try to go with Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon and Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia ruined her chances of the bronze medal, according to one, it “simultaneously marked her out for potential greatness”.
“That’s a nice thing to say,” smiles Muir when I read out the testimony. “I guess when I won in Paris I did think to myself about the Olympics: ‘What if…?’ I know I said after that race that I was happy with my performance but of course I’ve re-run it in my mind and wondered: ‘If it had just been run this way, what would I be doing now?’
“The thing to do is to analyse, not dwell on it. That race has gone. What have I learned? That I can get on a podium, that I’m right up there.” Did she not believe this before? “Everyone at 1,500 is so close, ability-wise. There are so many girls who can run sub-four minutes. Rio could have gone many different ways and it told me that I’m world-class now.
“But I don’t have any regrets about what happened. I’d rather go for the gold medal and lose it than come away with the bronze. Racing for me isn’t about coming second or third, it’s about winning. I’m not in it to travel the world and meet new people. I train hard, day in, day out, to be the best I can. I want to win gold.”
Such remarks might be suggestive of an absolutely tunnel-visioned athlete earmarked for greatness since she was a tot. But this has not been Muir’s path and she’ll cheerfully spend half the interview discussing her other big passion – animals. Indeed, she could probably spend half of it on Planet Earth II alone. So what was her favourite moment from the series - jaguars versus caimans, perhaps, or racer snakes versus just-hatched iguanas? She shudders at the memory of the latter footage – “That was like a horror movie” – and opts for the poignant scenes of golden moles roaming the Sahara in search of termites, undaunted by their blindness.
“In athletics,” she continues, “there are child prodigies but I wasn’t one of them because I wasn’t really all that good. A friend got into it first and I just chummed her to the sessions. I mean, I probably ended up the fastest in my school but at regional and Scottish level I’d scrape into finals and come last.”
That sounds like the perfect scenario to make a teenager jack in racing pretty quickly. “Well, I actually think it helped me make the transition to senior level. Some juniors, if they’ve been used to winning, find that difficult. I wasn’t, so falling down the field, being lapped, ending up in last place didn’t demoralise me because I always just enjoyed my running.” It wasn’t all about winning – at least not then.
There is no history of racing in Muir’s family although wee brother Rory is a runner, too. Dad Crawford converts methane into electricity and he and her mum Alison have encouraged their daughter to dream big. Thus, on top of her hopes for track glory in 2017 Muir will, after a year out, return to Glasgow Uni to complete her training as a vet.
While she wasn’t remotely geeky about racing, or even curious about it beyond the basic enjoyment which running provided, never having had an idol in the sport, she has always been fascinated by the animal kingdom and declares Sir David Attenborough a major inspiration. “His Life of Mammals was my bible. My head was buried in it all the time.” Muir’s parents got her a rabbit, then a dog. Alison, bitten by a hamster when she was a child, declined her daughter’s request for one. “So I asked for a rat instead and ended up having six.” Back in my cub reporting days, my first editor demanded that stories featuring pets always listed the names and Muir is only too happy to oblige: Bailey, Coco, Maisie, Minnie, Hoody and Skye.
“I wanted to choose a profession where I thought I could make a difference and for me that was always going to be vet,” she explains. “It must be hugely rewarding to make animals better and as a consequence make their owners feel better, given how important pets are to the elderly, the young and people living on their own.” Muir was devastated when her Border Collie, Moss, died during the first year of her degree. Now, with both she and her brother studying, there are no pets back at home in Milnathort. She admits she finds herself habitually seeking out friends who have cats and dogs.
So which does Muir prefer, animals or humans? “Er… depends!” Forced to choose between being a champion runner and a successful vet she would doubtless answer: “Why can’t I be both?” For her the disciplines dovetail.
“Although this is supposed to have been a gap year I went straight from my last race of 2016 in Newcastle to a placement at a Darlington dogs trust. Then I spent a month researching a condition in cats where the immune system destroys the red blood cells. I’m used to having textbooks by my side when I travel to meets. If you ask Eilidh Child she probably knows a little bit about turtle life from having roomed with me at the European indoors in 2013! I definitely couldn’t be a full-time athlete, not having another amazing world where I can get lost while waiting for the the next training run to come round. I’d get very bored.”
Don’t think for a minute, then, that all this chat about little furry creatures denies the existence of a tough competitor lurking in Anniesland today. Yes, there are old quotes which made Muir seem sweet and innocent, for instance: “I didn’t know I could run so fast.” At one time she was intimidated by taller girls flaunting six-packs. And she’ll admit that, back in 2013, and the following year when Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games and she was clipped coming into the final bend of the 1,500 metres final, she was a “very, very nervous” runner. All that’s changed. “I was very chilled going into my Olympic final and I think I now show the other girls that I’m not afraid of them. The 1,500 really is the scrappiest, most cut-throat race but if they give me a nudge they’re going to get one back.” So, like the young giraffe in Planet Earth II, is she capable of repelling lions with a swift kick? “Maybe not quite. That would get me disqualified!”
Muir tells me about her best-ever Christmas present, courtesy of her parents. “It’s a signed photo: ‘To Laura, best wishes – David Attenborough’.” 2017 could not have got off to a more exciting start for her, but maybe there are more grand prizes to come.