You might not realise it, but Guy Learmonth is one of the British Indoor Championships’ most decorated athletes. At this weekend’s edition he goes in search of his fourth title and a spot at his fifth European Indoor Championships. Guy spoke with James Rhodes about his goals and how his training set up is bringing new life to a long career.
Every athlete was impacted in some form by the disruption brought about by the COVID pandemic. Competitions cancelled, plans changed, dreams put on hold. As the world grounded to an abrupt halt in early 2020, Guy Learmonth was perhaps impacted more than most.
As 2019 was drawing to a close, he had made a life-changing decision. To move coach to Australian-based Justin Rinaldi and the Fast8 Track Club. A group of 800m specialists including Joseph Deng, Marc Reuther and Peter Bol were to become teammates. Moving to a coach on the other side of the world is a bold move in itself, but one Learmonth considered necessary.
‘I was at a stage in my career and in my life where I just wanted a big, big change. I’ve always spoken to Justin, going back to the Commonwealth Games in 2018. In 2019 I joined the group for a training camp in Florence and it just felt right. There was a really good energy and it felt like things clicked.
I waited until the end of that season and knew I had to make the change. It just felt very, very natural. I’ve always got on well with the guys in the group, they’re like really close friends’.
Plans on Ice
No matter how well thought through the plan was, the of COVID could not be anticipated for. Rather than flying to Australia, Guy found himself continuing to train in Glasgow, essentially being coached on paper. Supported on the ground by his younger brother Jack and online communication with his new coach, a makeshift arrangement was made. It worked well, however, with particular praise saved for the way Jack stepped in to assist.
This winter provided the first opportunity for a full training block in Australia. A three-month stint in Melbourne was interjected with altitude training in Perisher (“I’ve never seen snow like it in my life, and I never thought I’d say that being in Australia!”). Despite some fears from those close to him, the experience was an overwhelmingly positive one;
“The plans that we had in place in 2019 and 2020, which were completely ruined, are in place right now. I’m in a good place. Just being with the guys and my coach every day makes a big difference to training.
We came back to Melbourne [from altitude] and were totally flying. There was just a really sort of good energy and a good rapport with us all. When we’re all together, it’s amazing. It’s a big, big difference and I’ve never had it in my life before”.
Making a Difference
It is fair to say the new set up is working. A sub-1:47 season opener in Lyon preceded a 1:46.36 clocking in Erfurt (Germany) at the start of February. An indoor PB that moves him ever closer to Tom McKean’s longstanding 1:46.26 Scottish Record, a mark older than Guy himself.
Naturally, this mark is on his mind, as well as that of his coach and team, as well as a target to run 1:45 indoors:
“Justin puts all the links of when everyone’s competing in a group chat so we can all follow each other as best as possible. Even for the first race in Lyon, he just wrote Scottish Record. That’s all he wrote, Guy’s racing at such-and-such, and 1:46.22. That was it.
I’m not really thinking about McKean’s record, I know it’s going to happen as long as I just keep doing what I’m doing. We want those records, but at the same time I just want to feel good, not get injured and just run well”.
Indoors is Nothing New
That’s not to say good performances indoors are something new. Guy has lowered his indoor PB every season since 2014 (noting he did not race indoors in 2018). He has an impressive domestic CV also, with ten medals and three titles at the British Indoor Championships. Should an extra be added this weekend, he will have more than any other middle-distance athlete. One must rewind to his debut in 2010 to find an appearance that did not end on the podium.
The main goal of the competition, however, is securing a spot at a fifth consecutive European Indoor Championships. He would be the first British male to do so over 800m.
The last two editions of the European Indoors have not gone to plan.
The first, in Glasgow, ended with a fall and not finishing the semi-final. Not only that, Learmonth was racing with a broken hand alongside two intercostal tears in the muscles between the rib cage and hip tendonitis. It was a particular honour that saw him take to the startline:
“In Glasgow I really shouldn’t have run. I was literally moments away from pulling out and Neil Black [UKA Performance Director] actually called me. I thought he was ringing to tell me I had to pull out. But he rang to say that I’ve been named as captain and I just thought, oh ****, I need to run now! That was a huge honour, so that’s why I ran in Glasgow.
Then what happened, it was just unimaginable. That disaster happened on home soil and on my home track as well, it was rough”.
Catching COVID put end to making the final in Torun. Banishing these memories provides added motivation looking forwards Istanbul. His goals for the competition are clear.
“I’ve never shied away from anything like this, I really want some medals. I want to come home with a medal. If I qualify, this will be my fifth European Indoor Champs in a row and I’m yet to come home with any medals, so it has to happen now. I’m getting older, so it’s got to happen!”.
A Closing Chapter
Most athletes are lucky to race at a major championship in their home city. Guy’s been lucky enough to do it twice. This could increase to three, as Glasgow will host the 2024 World Indoor Championships. Does a chance for redemption from 2019 provide a motivator?
“I’d spoken to Justin and we actually said, and I’ll happily say it, that this is going to be my last indoor season. We wanted to focus on a one-peak season, finally qualifying for the Olympics and having big training camps in Australia over the winter.
Then Glasgow got announced for the World Indoors and he knew straight away that we might have to readdress that!
I think if it was any other country, even if it was in England, he would be like ‘no’ – but he knows being in Glasgow I’ll be wanting to do it. I think we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Right now, it’s one race at a time, but it’s going to be tough to say no to that one. I’ll wait to see how this indoors and the summer goes and then we’ll take it from there”.
Post-indoors, the plan is to be based in Australia for six or so weeks from the end of March before the group travels to Europe in May. Come the summer, Guy will be based with the training group in Germany. It’s an environment intended to help maximise performances, recognising the group perform and train best when together.
With a World Championships on the horizon, the main goal is consistency in racing.
“Justin always teases us, he says we’re not a world class group until one of us runs 1:43. So that’s the aim, and it always has been. I want to run 1:43, and I believe I can do it.
That’s what we’re shooting for, but it’s about being consistent. I want to run 1:44 consistently this year, not just once. I want to start running 1:44 and for the bad races to be 1:45s. That’s what we’re working towards”.
The depth of talent in British middle-distance racing, across both genders, means making championships can be just as hard as the competition once there. Alongside his training team, this spurs Guy on.
“Seeing how well everyone runs really motivates me. It’s exciting, male and female 800m and 1500m is stacked and it’s really good to see. It’s great to be a part of it, and this year I want to get right back on top. I know I need to run super quick, and that’s what keeps me going, 100%”.
Not Without Difficulties
Guy is the first to admit his career has had its challenges. He has always refreshingly open on social media, on both the good and bays days. Recently, there is an emphasis on how good things have been going. He credits a large part of this to the training set up and environment it provides.
“I’ve always used the athletics and training as an escape from everything that’s going on. There’s been a lot of bad stuff that’s going on in my life and I’ve never really wanted that to define me. I never wanted to let it let affect my career, but there’s been times where I shouldn’t have raced. There’s been times where life was just too crazy, there was too much going on and I should have taken a step back, but I didn’t.
I went to Melbourne, and I think my mum and dad might been a bit worried this time. They knew it was all in for me this year now, and they probably didn’t know how it was going to go. But Justin and the boys just looked after me, we all looked after each other”.
A New Person
“Since I’ve come home it’s been unbelievable, I feel like I’ve come home a completely new person. I just came home completely revitalized. I feel like I’m 21 again, it’s such a nice feeling. I don’t know what’s happened, but I feel at complete peace now with everything that’s gone on in life, in my career.
I’m enjoying my athletics again. I’m enjoying training, I’m enjoying racing. I went through a phase of hating it, of not wanting to be out there. I was just running for the sake of it and I didn’t care how well, how fast or slow I ran.
Now I’m just loving it. I love the life I’ve got; I know I’m very lucky, I mean I’m training in Melbourne with the best guys in the world. I feel calm with everything, and I think that’s why my races so far have gone so well.
I’m going to credit all the boys, my whole team around me, Justin and all my friends and family. I feel completely different and I’m enjoying running and racing. I really feel like now I’m going to reach my potential, which should have happened years ago, but here we are!”.
A Simple Approach
Big goals, but a simple philosophy sits at their heart:
“I just want to keep dropping these times, keep running faster and keep having a good laugh out there. That’s what it’s all about, it’s as simple as that. I just hope we can keep progressing and the next few years are exciting”.
Enjoying what you do can help bring out the best in performance. It will be an exciting year ahead.