Moments after a world 1500m final so brutal it could have carried an 18 certificate, Laura Muir flopped to the track, closed her eyes and began swallowing vast gulps of oxygen. She was still on the floor five minutes later – longer than the race itself – waiting for the fire in her lungs and legs to extinguish, when a kindly official slipped a bronze medal around her neck. Then she began to smile.
The toughest race of her life, she called it. But in truth it was less a race, more of a slugfest between three of the greatest female middle distance runners in history. There was no room for in-race subtleties, or tactical niceties. Instead it became an all-out war from tape to gun: the 1500m equivalent of Marvin Hagler v Tommy Hearns with Ken Buchanan also wading in.
The pace was so extraordinarily high from the start that after 800m there were only three women left chasing a medal: the double world champion Faith Kipyegon, the world indoor champion Gudaf Tsegay and Muir. Everyone else’s dreams had been blasted to smithereens.
The three legends continued to scrap it out until Kipyegon broke her rivals’ spirit with 200m to go, to quadruple-plate her greatness with a fourth global title. The Kenyan’s time, 3.52:96, was as breathtaking as the race itself.
Tsegay held on to take silver in 3.54:52, with Muir third in 3.55:28 – her second fastest time ever. Astonishingly the fourth-placed finisher, Hirut Meshesha, was six seconds and about 40 metres back. “Everything hurt,” Muir said afterwards. “The last 100m my legs were just on fire. I felt like I couldn’t lift them, I was running in treacle. Everything was burning. Even walking around afterwards, Faith [and I] we were like ‘We are not OK, this is not good, everything essentially feels on fire’. But I knew if I got to the finish line, it was going to stop.”
What made Muir’s performance even more remarkable was that she was unable to run for two months earlier this year after suffering a stress fracture of her right femur in February. “It was the most significant injury I’ve ever had in my running career,” she said. “Two months I couldn’t run, two weeks on crutches. It was the longest time I’ve had off running since starting.”
But she rebuilt herself. First in the pool and in the gym, then on anti-gravity treadmills and tiny runs on the grass. Gradually a season that looked a write-off began to go sunny-side up. “We were lucky we caught it early,” she said. “We knew something wasn’t right. We got some advanced imaging. Had it been a fracture it would have been me out for a long, long time.”
The uncompromising mood of the race was established from the gun, with Tsegay charging to the front like a Pamplonian bull eyeing its first victim. But Muir had the smarts to go with the break, and the lungs to stay with it.
The first 400m flew by in an unfathomable blur – and when the stadium clock wrongly flashed 55 seconds instead of the correct 58.05 there was an audible gasp. By then two groups had already formed with two Ethopians, Tsegay and Meshesha, alongside Kipyegon and Muir, in front.
By 800m Meshesha had been burned off and the only question for Muir was the colour of her medal. Not that she necessarily saw it that way. The 29-year-old has been gazumped so many times before at major championships she half expected disaster to strike again.
“I was so scared someone was going to pass me,” she said, recalling how in 2017 she was in second place in the final lap only to come a heartbreaking fourth, beaten by Caster Semenya by 0.07 sec. “I was like ‘this isn’t happening again’. I was going to give absolutely everything until I got to that line.
“I was very, very tired. But that’s what you want to be, knowing you’ve given absolutely everything. If I’d got to the finish having not given my all and lost I’d have been absolutely devastated.”
The taste was made even sweeter by the fact that her parents, Alyson and Crawford, were there to see her win a global medal for the first time. They had been due to come to the world indoors in Birmingham in 2018 before the Beast of the East struck, while last year’s planned trip to the Tokyo Olympics was aborted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. No wonder Muir hugged them long and hard on her victory lap.
Now she only needs a podium place at next month’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham to complete the set of major medals. And she received some welcome news afterwards when Kipyegon promised to give it a miss in favour of celebrating with her husband and daughter, Alyn.
“My daughter means everything to me,” said the Kenyan. “When I look at her every morning I work hard and believe in myself. This morning I asked her if I should bring chocolates or gold for her. She told me to bring home the gold, I am proud I can give it to her.”
But there was no one more proud than Muir in Hayward Field on Monday night after a performance of staggering intensity and heart. Not that she is finished yet. “When I started in my running career I wanted to run all six champs, I’ve done that,” she said. “Then the goal was to make the final of all six, and I’ve done that. Now I want to win a medal at all six.”
And who would dare bet against her now?
July 19, 2022 at 01:15PM Sean Ingle in Eugene, Oregon