There’s a glorious madness about running damn near two miles indoors. You can only do it by turning an athletics stadium into a sort of toy-train set. The track in an indoor arena is an ultra-tight oval of 200 metres, with twin hairpin bends banked up like a wall of death, so that athletes seem to be running with their left ear close to the ground.
The 3,000m is the longest race attempted under a roof: any longer and the athletes would go mad, like hamsters on a treadmill. It’s still 15 laps, each one reeled off by the elite women in a little over 30 seconds.
The European Indoor Athletics Championships are taking place in Belgrade, Serbia, this weekend and the athletes will be doing what they must to cope with the cramped circumstances of running, jumping and throwing things indoors — which is not far from an unnatural act.
Laura Muir of Great Britain is planning to contest both the 3,000m and the 1500m, a mere 7.5 laps. Bringing athletics indoors changes the nature of the sport. For a start, you can’t throw the javelin or the discus, which might be a tad dangerous. The sprinters cover only 60m, barely enough for Usain Bolt — never an indoor man — to get out of second gear. At the finish they crash into a padded wall, like eight trains hitting the buffers.
But indoor athletics has an intimacy this sport of open spaces usually lacks. The roof keeps in all the noise of partisanship and the competitors are right under the noses of the spectators. In an Olympic stadium there are plenty of quiet places where an athlete can prepare or meditate between efforts, as Jessica Ennis did so memorably at the London Olympics in 2012.
But indoors the audience is inescapable. It’s so intimate it’s almost personal, like watching a play at the Dorfman Theatre in London or the Crucible in Sheffield.
Sometimes that intensity is an inspiration. Back in 1986 I watched Zola Budd breaking the world record for 3,000m indoors: her slight frame and preternatural length of stride seemed perfect for the banked-up boards. It seemed that her bare feet scarcely touched the ground.
A fortnight ago Muir set a British national indoor record, knocking nearly a second off the time set by Kelly Holmes for 1,000m. In doing so, she revealed herself to be a classic British middledistance runner: one for whom pain is no barrier, rather a comforting message that she is doing her best. The crowd cheered every footfall: “I couldn’t hear myself breathing,” she said afterwards.
Muir goes to Belgrade in the best form of her life. She’s only 23 and, as Steve Cram said, “proper world class”. All she has to do now is to convert form into results: not something every athlete finds easy. We’ll learn more about her as she runs those eternal hairpins: 30 in all between the start and finish of the meeting’s longest race.
Laura Muir is racing in the Women’s 1500m (final Saturday 6:45pm, BBC2) and the Women’s 3000m (final 3:30pm Sunday, BBC2)