Growing up in the countryside just outside of Inverness, where she was born, with its farms and vast open spaces, Laura Muir is very much a product of her environment.
She might be a cliché of it, too. If there can be such a thing when talking about a qualified (and practising) veterinarian who this week will be angling for 1,500m gold.
One time, she was helping out a farmer during lambing season. With so many ewes giving birth to so many lambs, farmers keep track of who belongs to who by spraying a lamb’s wool with the colour that corresponds to its mother. The tricky bit is lambs, even when only a few hours old, are pretty fast.
“We had a great system, me and the farmer,” she began explaining during a briefing with journalists out in Tokyo. “He would drive the quad bike and last minute I’d jump off. I’d catch lambs because I was quick, then we’d spray them and hop back on and be off again!”
It’s a sweet story, especially relayed in Muir’s Highland tones, carrying a whiff of Rocky in the walk-in freezer, tenderising some beef with his bare hands. Obviously, her actual training was a lot more serious and far less wholesome. But it speaks of Muir’s disposition, her willingness to help out and the distinct lack of ego.
It is important to hold on to that because, since Rio 2016, Muir has had to change her tack. After a disappointing seventh-placed finish in the previous Olympic Games, the 28-year old has made some changes. She has demanded even more from coaches around her, brought out a ruthless streak few had seen before and even allowed herself to be a bit more selfish.
The results were reflected in medals. Golds across 1500m and 3,000m at the European Indoor Championships in 2017 and then again in 2019. Gold at 2018’s European Championship at 1500m, and then silver and bronze in 1500m and 3,000m, respectively, at 2018’s World Indoors in Birmingham.
“I’m such a different athlete to where I was in Rio,” says Muir, still with those tones but with less cheer and more business.
“Physiologically, I am able to deal with so much more than what I was able to do back then. I’ve had an awful lot of more training in, doing a lot more in altitude and running in heat as well. I’m a much more different athlete, a lot more developed and a lot stronger.”
Indeed, Muir goes on to state, “I’m in the greatest shape of my life,” which is a bold claim at the best of times, and not always one to believe. Athletes have a way of saying things in the media that they need to hear or believe themselves.
Muir is consoled by Jennifer Simpson after the 1500m at Rio 2016
While there is probably a bit of that at play here, as Muir details the work she has done, you start to believe her. There have been more “nasty” training sessions, which have tended to revolve around race situations. Where she used to train at a singular pace, now she is challenged to maintained greater speeds for longer, as well as perfecting how she shifts between the gears – up as well as down. Occasionally, her coach will call an audible and change a session halfway through, just to shock her.
All of this on top of the warm-weather training she has undertaken over the years to get used to the heat she will experience on the track of Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
“I think certainly tactically and learning what your body can do,” she says, having talked us through the tweaks made, and their positive effects. “As much as you’d love to do something, sometimes your body won’t allow you to do it. I think I’ve learned an awful lot about that race in terms of what I need to get more out of my training field to cope with what the other women can do.
“It’s being prepared for all different eventualities. As much as I was prepared for lots of situations in Rio, unfortunately it wasn’t the one that came out in the end. It’s just about trying to cover all your bases.”
All of this comes from the bitter disappointment in Rio, along with fourth and fifth placings in the 1500 at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships. For all the seasonal success, there is a glass ceiling she has not quite broken through.
If you want to know how focused she is on smashing it to pieces, she has decided against entering the 800m as well, despite the fact she registered the second fastest time by a woman at the Diamond League meet in Monaco at the start of July.
Muir at the Gateshead Diamond League meet in May
(AFP via Getty Images)
Muir’s time of 1min 56.73sec was just 0.52 seconds off the British record set by Kelly Holmes, who secured both 800m and 1,500m titles at the Athens Games in 2004. But Muir’s drive for gold has seen her take the economical decision to focus on one event – her best.
“My best chances of a medal are the 1,500, it’s my strongest event and I want to be 100 per cent for that final,” she states, matter-of-factly.
“We wanted to give ourselves the option of the double. The more we looked at it, it would be physically and mentally tough. The rounds are back-to-back days. Especially with the heat and the conditions as well. It would have made it really challenging on the recovery side of things.”
Had she doubled up, she would have had 800m heats on Friday, the semi-final on Saturday, the 1,500m heats on Monday, the 800m final on Tuesday, the 1,500m semis on Wednesday and then, finally, the 1,500 final on Friday. With the heats in the morning and the final stages in the evening still taking place at 30 degrees Celsius, it feels like a wise move to focus on one.
One might argue that putting all her eggs in one basket may increase the anxiety on Muir in a race that comes naturally to her. But she feels better equipped to deal with that extra pressure, and more determined than ever to win an Olympic title that will confirm her as a top-level runner.