No woman ran the 1500m in 2016 as fast as Laura Muir. The British record holder tells us how she got to the top and why this is only the start.
Laura Muir began running at school in Kinross, north of Edinburgh in Scotland, when she “was about 11 or 12-years-old”. She hasn’t stopped since.
“I’d been running in cross country races in school and really enjoying it,” Muir, 23, tells SPIKES. “I wasn’t necessarily winning them, but I think I came top ten in a few. I joined a local athletics club and went from there.”
Yet running wasn’t the only sport Muir was involved in growing up.
“I got involved in a few different things like kayaking and rock climbing in the summer,” she says. She even got halfway to being a black belt in karate.
But around the age of 16 she began to focus.
“I just got the point where I wanted to go ahead with athletics, I enjoyed it a lot more.”
Keeping up the cross
Aged 18, after starting a course in veterinary medicine at the University of Glasgow, Muir began training under Andy Young. In 2013 the coach messaged a friend lauding her as having the endurance of marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe and the speed of Athens 2004 800m/1500m Olympic champion Kelly Holmes, "but without the injuries".
Muir – who admits that she’s “fortunate” to rarely suffer injuries – credits him with helping her improve from the get-go.
“It wasn’t really until I went to university when I joined up with my coach there, Andy Young, that I really saw a big improvement,” she says. “I had my first GB cap within two or three months of joining his group.”
Despite moving to the big city, Muir has never turned her back on her cross country roots. Her first GB team was for the European Cross Country Championships in 2011. Competing in the 2015 edition she finished fourth in the U23 race to help the Brits win team gold. Hitting the trails to build strength isn’t the only reason Muir likes to compete off-road.
“I just really enjoy it,” she admits. “It’s a totally different atmosphere. It’s somewhere where you can just race without all the other pressures to go alongside it.”
Muir's fourth place in the U23 race helped Britain win team gold at the 2015 European Cross
Muir scored her first big international win in the 1500m at the 2015 Diamond League in Oslo, sticking with the pacemakers and digging in to win in 4:00.39 ahead of Faith Kipyegon. She says her aggressive approach stems from wanting to make the most of the classy racing conditions.
“The Diamond League races are good races and good opportunities to run quickly and see what you can do,” she says. “I don’t want to think about it, really. I want to set a good time.”
A month later in Monaco, running in the wake of Genzebe Dibaba’s world record performance, she finished fifth in 3:58.66, the first time in her career she had broken four minutes.
In 2016 her fearless style was rewarded with a host of high profile wins. At the London Anniversary Games Muir came close to upstaging Usain Bolt and Kendra Harrison’s world record by winning the 1500m in a British record 3:57:49. Just like in Oslo the previous year, you could see her teeth gritted as she rounded the penultimate bend.
“I just had to keep working hard to make sure I brought it home,” she says. “Breaking the British record blows my mind a bit. […] I think the performance shows what I'm capable of.”
Later, at the Paris Diamond League, in swelteringly hot conditions and just ten days after running at the Rio Olympics, she cut her British record down to 3:55.22. It stands as the fastest time by any athlete all year, the second fastest time run this century (after Dibaba’s world record), and quicker than any Kenyan or American athlete has ever run.
“It was amazing. I couldn’t believe it at all,” Muir says. “Especially having just flown back from Rio, I was a bit tired and didn’t know what to expect. I just thought ‘right, let’s go do something’ and it happened. It was a really big shock.”
She followed it up in Zurich by finishing second in 3:57.85 – the third time she dipped under the old British record in 2016 – to wrap up the Diamond Race title and also secure a wildcard place for the 2017 London World Championships. “It’s good not to have to worry about qualifying,” she says.
Muir says she has no regrets about attacking at the half way stage of the Rio final, where she finished 7th
Muir’s success on the circuit has not been matched with medal glory. She made her world champs debut over 800m at Moscow 2013, bowing out in the semis.
At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, which were held close to home in Glasgow, she was clipped from behind and finished 11th in the 1500m final. The injury forced her to withdraw from the 800m later in the week. She admitted that it will “probably be one of the biggest disappointments” of her whole career. Yet it didnt have any lasting effects as she finished fifth in the final at the 2015 Beijing world champs, a result with which she was delighted.
At Rio 2016, she again made the final, which played out slow through the first half before taking off with 800m to go. The ever-aggressive Muir went stride for stride with Dibaba and Kipyegon. She put herself “in the best position possible” to charge for a medal, but with 200m remaining, the furious second-half-pace caught up with her and she dropped back to finish 7th.
“I was gutted with the end result,” she admits, “but that’s how I ran the race and I wouldn’t have run it any other way. I went for it and it just didn’t happen.”
Fifteen the focus
After the Diamond League season was finished, Muir raced in road miles in New York (where she finished second) and Gateshead (where she won). Does that mean she’s already looking to a future running longer distances?
“I think I could run a really good 5k,” she says. “I think if I keep on running as quick as I have in the 1500m – I mean, 3:55 is not bad for the 1500m – I might stick with that for a little while.”
Although Muir craved a place on the Rio podium, she will have a chance at getting there in front of a home crowd at London 2017, where she will be among the favourites.
“It’s really exciting,” she says. “The atmosphere was incredible when I ran in London this year and broke the British record for the first time. To have that at a championships next year will be pretty special.”