Over 1,500 metres, Laura Muir is impressive but it is the distance she has travelled, in a remarkably short time, to get to this point in her career that is mindboggling. The raw talent witnessed by her coach Andy Young back in 2011 has matured into not only an elite runner but a world-class racer.
“When I think back to 2011/12, she was like a blank canvas,” he says of his Olympic medal hopeful. She had a lot of talent and had been competing at school and club level but so much of it was still new to her. I said we should aim for the AAA Championships and I was always talking about that but then one day she said: ‘What are these AAA Championships?’ Can you believe it? She hadn’t had a clue what I had been talking about all winter!”
Yet, the teenager had trained like she knew exactly what they were and she went to those British Championships and made it to the final. She came last but the achievement back then was in getting that far.
“It has been a huge learning curve for her,” said Young, pictured inset, who is currently with Muir, altitude training at Font Romeu in the Pyrenees. “I remember she ran her first big outdoor race that summer and she didn’t enjoy it. She got a new personal best but afterwards she said there had been people all around her, pushing and jostling. Growing up in Scotland, she was used to there not being a lot of people in a race and it was a sign of how new top level racing was to her. That was just four years ago – one Olympic cycle.
“So we had to work on just getting her used to racing with so many people and staying out of trouble, then it was about working on pace and then on tactics. She has taken it all in her stride.”
The jostling for position remains an issue, confirmed by a comment on her Twitter feed after a gutsy fifth place finish in the 1,500m at the Diamond League meet in Stockholm a few weeks ago. “Note to self: sharpen elbows and use them!! Scrappy race tonight but still in one piece!” she wrote. But she is no longer daunted by it.
Relaxed and confident, she is now an Olympic medal contender, having come fifth at the World Championships last year and followed that up with one impressive performance after another. She set a new Scottish record for the mile at the IAAF Diamond League in Oslo, crossing the line in 4:19.12 to smash Yvonne Murray’s time of 4:22.60. That record had stood since Muir was just one-year-old, in 1994, but times are changing and if the progress is maintained more records will go, as more achievements are eclipsed. Muir then ran a supremely composed race to retain her British title and rubber stamp her place in the GB & NI Olympic team.
She now plans to contest an 800m in Italy in a couple of weeks and the 1,500m at the London Diamond League meet before heading back to Font Romeu. She will stay there until the eve of the Olympics, flying to Rio while the Opening Ceremony is in full swing, giving herself a few days to adjust before she gets to work.
The rise has been meteoric but it has only been possible with significant sacrifice, juggling training and competing with studying for a veterinary degree in Glasgow. A straight -A student, she has just wrapped up the fourth year of her course, heading back from altitude training in April to cram for a final module and sit her first exam. “She studies every day, or would if I let her. I have managed to get her to keep it to around six hours a day, six days a week, but credit to her, it has never prevented her from training. It does mean we have to work around placements and exams when we are scheduling training camps and competitions. When everyone else was on holiday over Christmas, we were warm weather training in South Africa and had to get an overnight flight from Johannesburg so she could be at a 1pm lecture in Glasgow.
“She is very focused and knows what she wants. The only time I have seen anything like it was when I was at Loughborough, 20 years ago. I was in my first year and Paula Radcliffe was in her final year and we would hardly see her because every day she would go for a run, then go to lectures, many go for another run, have a wee sleep, and then join in the training sessions in the evening before heading to bed and getting up the next day and doing the same thing all over again. It was the same for 40 weeks of the year. It’s not something that many people would fancy but we are seeing the results. Taking a year out just gives us a bit more flexibility and relieves some of the intensity.”
Before heading to South Africa at Christmas Young had to make a difficult choice of his own, taking a sabbatical from his job to allow him to travel and focus his attentions on helping Muir to the highest echelons. There is some funding from scottishathletics and a bit of financial help from private backers but it doesn’t amount to a full-time wage. He isn’t complaining and Muir has now followed his lead. Taking a year out from university, she now has tunnel vision.
At the end of the tunnel is an Olympic medal. That is eminently possible this time around but in a very strong field, if things don’t pan out, there will be disappointment but no disillusionment. Not when she is still so young and has proven how well she can progress.
Young looks at past GB medalists and says the average age for success is mid-to-late 20s and that figure rises to around 30/31 with endurance runners. It means Muir has time as well as talent on her side.
“As I’ve said, we are so far ahead of where we thought we would be, we weren’t planning for these Olympics, we were looking ahead to 2020,” he added. “But if things go her way on the day, she can win a medal. That is now an ambition – it is something we are targeting. It doesn’t mean she will do it but it does mean she has a great chance.”