There was just something about Mary, Laura Muir proclaims. Five-year-olds are infinitely impressionable, but the first pet rabbit that she cradled in her arms instilled a fervour that has carried on unstoppably into adulthood.
“I loved being around her,” she says. “But I suppose most of my love of animals came from when we got a dog when I was eight. He was called Moss and I grew up with him around. Pretty much everything I remember involved him. He brought so much love into our family and knowing what enjoyment he brought me made me want to help others who had animals.”
Which is why Muir, now 24, is currently living the most demanding of double lives – as a trainee veterinarian who is also one of the rising stars of British middle-distance running, with designs on securing at least one medal, if not two, at the IAAF World Championships in London.
She plans to compete in both the 1500m – where she’s the British record holder – and the 5,000m. Her reputation now precedes her, following a string of victories on the Diamond League circuit plus a golden double in the 1500m and 3,000m at the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade in March.
Beating the best is gratifying, she acknowledges. So too, however, is nursing someone’s prized puppy or cherished cat back to health.
“Animals are just so important to me,” says Muir. “They don’t judge you, they just take you as a person. And that’s why I love being around dogs the most. When I thought about what I’d want to do in life, I guess there was probably a feeling that I’d love to be helping them or their owners.”
When she graduates in veterinary medicine from Glasgow University next summer, she has tentatively ear-marked a new dog as a reward. Before that, however, she is due to hop straight from the cauldron of the World Championships into a local vet’s practice, where she’ll be performing small operations.
She says she relishes the contrast this twin occupation offers, plus the chance of anonymity away from the increasing demands of media and fans. Or at least that was the case until recently.
“I have a little name badge that says ‘Laura Muir – veterinary student’. Quite often, when I’m at the vet’s on a placement, I’ll get someone who recognises my name and starts asking about athletics. So now, I’ll take the badge off – otherwise the consultations run over time.”
Laura Muir with quadruple Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah
If she lives up to expectations in London, not even hiding the name tag will save her from being recognised. Picked out as the Next Big Thing for her improving form over recent seasons, she – or one of her peers – is desperately needed to emerge from the World Championships and become the new face of British athletics.
Of the golden generation that basked in the glow of London 2012, heptathlete Jessica EnnisHill has long retired and Olympic gold medallist Greg Rutherford, despite his performances on last year’s Strictly, has been out of step with an ankle injury and withdrawn from the long jump. Only Mo Farah, intent on defending his world 10,000m and 5,000m titles, remains. But, at the age of 34, this will be his final championships. The 400m great Christine Ohuruogu has also declared this is her final season on the track. How much they would all love Muir to grasp the baton and follow their lead.
The pressure won’t faze her. She’s calm, highly grounded and extremely modest. The small Kinross-shire town of Milnathort, where she grew up, does not encourage braggadocio. And although she began running before her teens, it has helped that she was a late bloomer, developing in local cross-country races and schools championships rather than as a prodigy hyped to the max. She takes her success in her stride.
“It gradually kept creeping up. When I made the World Junior Championships in 2012, that was a big eye-opener. I’d already got my first cap for Great Britain and Northern Ireland at cross-country and came 31st. But making the Worlds team made it feel pretty serious.
Competing in 2012
“It all spiralled from there. I went to my first senior World Championships the year after. Then came the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. It’s continued to get better and better, but I’ve never really stopped and thought, ‘What can I make of this?’ I’ve just enjoyed running from the very start.”
If not, she reflects, the huge sacrifices that are required to chase her twin ambitions might seem like a chore rather than a pleasure. Nights out with friends are strictly limited. Indulgence is to hop in the car and drive down to Ayrshire for a stroll along her favourite beach. To harness a body that has an unusual aptitude for both speed and endurance, it takes diligence at meal times, and in between.
“I’m quite strict in the summer when I’m not training as much as I do at other times of the year and I have to be very disciplined,” she confirms. “But during the winter, when I’m running a lot, I have what I call my ‘Fat Sunday’ when I allow myself a treat, which is pizza or chocolate or ice cream. Whatever I fancy.”
Of late, there has been an indulgence of another variety, she coyly confides. A budding romance. Name withheld, but a fellow athlete. “It’s quite recent,” Muir smiles. “But I warned him at the start: ‘I’m a bit short of time’. He went, ‘That’s quite all right.’ It’s good because he runs as well and he’s been out helping with my training.”
Commonwealth Games 2014
She runs 55 miles a week while juggling her studies and it’s that training regime that she hopes will deliver the glory that has too often eluded her. In 2014 there was crushing disappointment: tears at the World Indoors after a first-round exit in the 800m, then heartbreak in the 1500m at the Commonwealth Games when a medal seemed to be within reach but she finished second last after a collision.
At the 2015 World Championships in Beijing she came fifth in the 1500m, while at last year’s Olympic Games in Rio, she was poised for the podium with a lap remaining before her gamble to go for gold failed and she finished seventh.
Stronger and wiser now, she has two shots at a gold medal in London. The 1500m, which comes first, will be her best opportunity. Any success in the 5,000m will be a bonus.
Muir has time on her side, for sure. But this is the rare treat of a World Championships on home turf. And after watching the Olympics in London 2012 on television, the leader of the new pack appears ready to prove she’s a primetime performer, with a wave of support urging her on.
“I’m very lucky I’ve had a home Commonwealth Games in Glasgow – that felt like my home Olympics,” she says. “But to be racing in London at a home World Championships is pretty rare. You don’t get the opportunity that often in your career.”
Laura Muir runs in the 1500m: the semi-finals are on Saturday 5th August at 7.35pm on BBC1