Distance runner Laura Muir the latest in a fine Scottish tradition
The 25-year-old has hardly put a foot wrong, becoming a world-beater over 1,500m
Laura Muir of Great Britain winning the Women’s 1,500m final at the 2018 European Athletics Championships in Berlin last August. Ireland’s Ciara Mageean came in fourth. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
“For the record, Ian Stewart’s time was the second-fastest in history. Ian McCafferty’s was the third. Had it not been for that indecisive first lap, both may well have broken the world record. As it was, they broke every other record in the book: Stewart 13:22.8, McCafferty 13:23.4, Kip Keino 13:27.6. And, as every Scot at home went back to that forgotten glass of whisky to celebrate, they agreed. It was the best double Scotch of all time . . .”
Stewart: Edinburgh – from The Ten Greatest Races, by Derrick Young (1972)
Be careful about meeting your heroes, for they may not live up to expectations. Be careful about meeting the runner you’re named after, for he may ask you to buy him a drink. Now read on.
When you’re born on St Stephen’s Day you present your parents with two choices for a name: Stephen, or something else. My mother was veering towards Stephen only for my dad, who missed my birth while off winning the Waterhouse Byrne 10-miler in the Phoenix Park in record time, to gently suggest something else.
It was a little later, naturally, before I discovered the Ian I was named after was his close contemporary and his favourite Scottish distance runner. Ian Stewart, by the way, not Ian McCafferty, still the two hardiest Scottish distance runners of their time, and both named Ian after their Scottish heritage.
Stewart never liked being reminded he was the man to deny Pre that bronze medal
That one-two over 5,000m at those 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh was a high-point, although Stewart went on to bigger things. Already a European champion from 1969, at the 1972 Olympics in Munich he famously won the bronze medal over 5,000m ahead of the American Steve Prefontaine, who had led for much of the race. Pre, as he was better known, was killed in a car crash three years later, and remains a properly legendary figure in American distance running.
Stewart never liked being reminded he was the man to deny Pre that bronze medal. I know that because I mentioned it when eventually meeting him, many years later, at a glitzy bar somewhere in Monte Carlo. It was at the 2001 IAAF awards, immediately post-9/11, when many people were still afraid to fly and some free invitations were still too good to turn down.
He politely scoffed at the suggestion he’d denied Pre (“no f***ing way), reminding me he’d been pushed by the American earlier on that last lap, and these things happen “in a pure guts race”. Stewart also went on to win a European Indoor World Cross Country double in 1975. Then, when told I was named after him, he insisted with similar politeness that I buy him a drink. Which of course I did, burning a deep hole in my then-shallow wallet.
Stewart never lost any of that gutsy hardiness, always something of a trademark in the Scottish distance runner, later seen in women, too, such as Liz McColgan and Yvonne Murray, and to some extent in 800m runner Tom McKean. Indeed, the last time the European Indoor Championships were staged in Glasgow, in 1990, it was McKean who delighted the home crowd, winning the 800m with a pure-guts performance that saw him finish five metres clear in 1:46.22. McKean also won a World Indoor and European outdoor title, although some days he wasn’t quite as reliable, his last-place finish at the 1987 World Championships in Rome prompting one particularly cruel headline: “McFlop”.
McColgan’s Olympic silver in the 10,000m in Seoul in 1988, behind the Russian Olga Bondarenko, was one the gutsiest races she ever ran, as was Murray’s bronze in the 3,000m – behind another Russian, Tetyana Samolenko, who later failed a drugs test, and the Romanian Paula Ivan (both hardy women in every sense). McColgan also went on to win the London, New York and Tokyo marathons.
Now into this long and hardy tradition of Scottish distance running we find Laura Muir. The impossibly slight 25-year-old has spent the last five years in Glasgow completing her degree in veterinary medicine while also becoming something of a world-beater over 1,500m, winning the IAAF Diamond League title in that event in 2016 and again last summer.
Born in Inverness, Muir was no standout junior, beyond winning a European Cross Country team medal with Great Britain, back in 2011. But her rise through the senior ranks has been escalating ever since – gutsy hardiness always being her trademark too.
Some of us in the press seats here in Glasgow have been trying to recall Muir’s first proper breakthrough: in 2014, she ran 4:00.07 for the 1,500m, breaking Yvonne Murray’s then 27-year-old Scottish record; in 2015, she won the 1,500m at the Oslo Diamond League, her front-running tactic stunning her stronger opponents; by 2016 she’d also improved Kelly Holmes’s British record to 3:55.22, but showed a little too much guts on the third lap of the Rio Olympic final, fading to seventh. Take out those former Russian times, plus nine faster times run by Chinese athletes, and Muir’s 3:55.22 may well be one of the fastest ever.
Turning to indoors, and Muir’s progression has been even more impressive, winning a European Indoor double over 1,500m/3,000m two years ago in Belgrade. She was denied a similar double at the World Indoors in Birmingham this time last year, when the Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba took double gold, despite the fact her coach Jama Aden is still under investigation for the alleged distribution and possession of performance-enhancing drugs.
So much about Muir’s progress to date has been based on pure guts and hardiness
Muir’s face in the aftermath of those defeats said it all: she’s also been careful to maintain her sense of credibility and, last April, quickly backed out of a decision to start working with David McHenry, the strength and conditioning coach at the Nike Oregon Project, under Alberto Salazar, who was at one point being investigated by the US Anti-Doping Agency.
In an interview with The Guardian last October, Muir claimed she could count “on one hand” the number of paracetamol she’s taken in her life, such is her aversion to even legal medication, and she can’t even stomach a cup of coffee. (“I tried it once but it made my heart race.”)
No modern athlete is beyond some level of scrutiny when it comes to world-beating performances or times like 3:55.22, but so much about Muir’s progress to date has been based on pure guts and hardiness. And if she does complete another 1,500m/3,000m double here it will certainly make for the best double Scotch of the weekend.