Nat Muir winning the Luddon Half Marathon in 1988
By any measure, Nat Muir has to be one of Scotland’s best ever distance runners: possibly also one of the country’s unluckiest in that he never had the success at the very topmost level that his ability and dedication deserved. The tables below tell some of the story but by no means all of it.
|1975||1st Youth||1st Youth|
|1976||1st Junior||1st Junior|
|1977||1st Junior||1st Junior||1st|
|1984||1st Senior||1st Senior||1st|
Why include the club championships? is it not a great drop from the internationals? Maybe, but the point is to emphasise that even when he was one of the best in the world, even when he was getting invitations to races all over the continent every winter, he found time and had the desire to run in the club championships: the motivational effect on all club members of seeing him running on their own turf must have been considerable. I asked one of his old friends about him and the reply was that he just got on with it without any pretensions. That might of course be why he didn’t seem to get on with Andy Norman, the ex-policeman Mr Big of British Athletics at the time. His track times stand any comparison you care to make – despite the fact that it has been 30 years and more since most of the marks have been made he tops the 5000 metres lists for both Junior and Senior men. His place in the all-time rankings for various events are as follows.
Nat Muir, born 12th March, 1958, took up athletics in 1970 while a pupil at St Aloysius Primary in Chapelhall, near Airdrie, and was encouraged to go along to the Shettleston Harriers club by two schoolmates – John Mulvey and John Blair In his first race – the Lanarkshire relays in 1970 – he had the fastest individual time in his age group and ‘caught the bug’. He won the Midland District and was third in National Junior Boys Championship in February 1971. As well as doing club training, he ran as much as possible, encouraged and supervised by his Dad, Hugh, who had marked out a measured mile in a field near the family home in Salsburgh. The combination of natural talent and hard work helped him to the National Youths (Under 17) title in 1975.
The 1975-76 season started with the McAndrew Relays and as the official club history (‘One Hundred Years of Shettleston Harriers: An East End Odyssey’) says “In his first full season as a junior Nat Muir quickly established himself as a regular member of the club’s senior teams. At the McAndrew, running the second leg in the fourth-placed team, he ran the second fastest time of the 16 Shettleston runners, only one second slower than Jim Burns. The following week he beat Jim by two seconds to record the club’s fastest mark at the Lanarkshire road relay. Wresting the Allan Scally Trophy from Edinburgh Southern was the challenge presented to Nat, Davie Lang, Jim Burns and Lachie Stewart at the seventh running of the race but both Edinburgh outfits proved too strong and the club was third and once again Nat had the fastest time. Stewart, Lang, Burns and Muir got their names into the history books when they won the inaugural senior relay of the new Western District in which Nat’s fastest time of the day was vital in the 29 second relay over Clyde Valley. Another fastest time from Nat at the National four-stage relays in Edinburgh was not enough to beat the Edinburgh Southern quartet and Shettleston finished second.” Nat missed the District Championships at Coatbridge but when the cross country season ended, Nat won the first of three Junior Championships. Selected for the International Cross-Country Championships at Chepstow in Wales, he was third finisher but with the next Scot being 35th the team was well out of the medals. Perhaps his best run though was his victory in the English Junior Cross Country Championship at Leicester leading the club team into third place.
1976-77 was one where Davie Lang, Lawrie Spence, Lachie Stewart and Nat Muir showed how good a team they could be when they won the County relays, the District Relays and the Allan Scally relay and were half of the team that won the Edinburgh to Glasgow Relay and then won the National four-man relay. A year later at Glenrothes in deep snow, Nat again triumphed by almost a minute from John Graham leading the Shettleston team to victory in the Junior race. The 1977 International Championship was held at Dusseldorf in Germany and Nat was unable to replicate the previous year’s result, finishing eighth to lead the team home. What of Nat in other races that year? The Glasgow University Road race was to be a happy hunting ground for Nat in the years to come but the first time he ran (remember has still a first year junior despite his wonderful running) there were a couple of problems. The club history again: As one of the youngest runners in the record field of 213 runners at the GU Road Race, Nat Muir’s inexperience, if not his sense of direction cost him valuable time although it did not affect the race result. After taking the lead at the halfway mark, he twice went off the course only to be sportingly redirected by the second man, Dave Logue of Edinburgh Southern whose magnanimous gestures may have cost him the race since he finished only three seconds behind Muir on the Westerlands track.” Bearing in mind that senior men, especially the seasoned and grizzled cross-country specialists, do not like giving anything away to young juniors, and that they will use all sorts of wiles and tricks to keep their position, his results were astonishing. I remember a young start who as a first year junior was defeated by an older and slightly slower man in the University race being quoted as saying “Aye, Andy Brown knows how to run wi’ the heid!’ He was ninth in the Western District championship winning team and then in the National at Glenrothes won a second Junior title and led the junior team to victory.
In summer 1977 Nat started with a victory in the GRE Gold Cup at Liverpool he was the only Shettleston Harrier to win his event and turned out for the club in League matches. His best track running of the year was yet to come: Nat was second in the AAA junior championship 5000 metres in 14:05.8 and then took a huge chunk from that respectable time with 13:49.1 when he won the European Junior 5000m in Donetsk in Russia to beat Alberto Cova of Portugal, a future Olympic 5000m champion. The summer ended for him with second place behind Mike McLeod of Elswick in the Round the Walls race at Berwick in September
At the start of the 1977-78 cross-country season, he was in the teams which won the McAndrew at Scotstoun, the West District relays and was third in the Allan Scally race and then ran well in the team that finished third in the Edinburgh to Glasgow. Nat on his own won an international 4.5 mile race at Gateshead to defeat David Black of England and Steve Jones (Wales) and the later finished second to Steve Ovett in a 5 mile international race in Belfast. Many athletes called off from the District Championships on a frozen, rutted trail at East Kilbride, Nat was among them. Others who started and then dropped out included such notables as John Graham and Frank Clement. The International Championship was to be held at Bellahouston Park in 1978 and accordingly the National championships were held there a few weeks before. Nat had asked to be allowed to run in the Senior Race as preparation for the International but permission was refused so he ran in and won the Junior title for the third time. Then the selectors who wouldn’t let him run in the Senior race, picked him for the Senior team in the international. On a day of dreadful weather with rain, hail, sleet all making an appearance along with a strong wind, Nat started steadily and worked his way up to fourth and then dropped back to seventh, his finishing position: very good going for a slightly built 20 year old. Notable races that summer for him included an international against Greece in Athens where he was partnered by Lawrie Spence. The two Shettleston men ran together building up a lead before sprinting for the tape with Nat winning in 13:37.6 and Lawrie a mere tenth of a single second behind. A month later in the SAAA Championships the tables were turned with Lawrie winning in 13:45 to Nat’s 13:47. As a result of their good, consistent running, they were selected for the Commonwealth Games in Canada. The Games were not a success for either although Nat was sixth in 13:34.9; Lawrie unfortunately had been affected by a virus and finished thirteenth in 14:28.
At the start of winter 1978-79, Nat was again in winning teams in the County and District Relays and he also ran in the team which was second in the McAndrew road relay. At the end of the season the National Championships were held on a rock-solid, icy course at Livingston with more than its share of hills but that did not stop Nat, in his first year as a Senior taking the title by 26 seconds from Lawrie Spence. The International that year was held in Limerick in Ireland and under the management of John Hamilton for the first time. Nat was tenth and first Scot with John Robson in 52nd being the next counter. Summer 1979 started with Nat winning the 800m/1500m double at the first League Match at Coatbridge in 1:52 and 3:56 and then he did the ‘double-double’ when he won the same two events at the second match at Meadowbank. He won the SAAA 5000m in 13:57.3 and followed with two fine international races. In a Mile at Gateshead he was third, first in the 5000m in a GB v France B International in Wales and then third behind Rod Dixon (NZ) and Brendan Foster in the Phillips Gateshead Games in 13:27.4.
The McAndrew relay in 1979 was again won by the club and again Nat was part of the team. He missed the County event and in the District his fastest time of the day assisted the club to second place. In the Allan Scally relay, Nat not only had the fastest time but was faster than any Shettleston runner had achieved in the ten year history of the race. 1980 and into a new decade and Colin Shields in his centenary history of the Cross Country Union said: “The Eighties decade started well for Scotland when they won the team contest in the ‘Round the Houses’ road race at Madrid on Hogmanay. Nat Muir finished runner-up to Carlos Lopes (Portugal), future world cross-country champion and Olympic gold medallist with Jim Dingwall 4 and Graham Laing 8 completing the Scottish team…. Muir won the Belfast International Race, then finished sixth in the Villamoura event in Portugal with Jim Brown close behind. Muir stayed training for a week in the sun after the Villamoura race and the benefits showed when he won the San Sebastian race in Northern Spain with Brown 5 and Lawrie Spence 15 for Scotland to finish second to England in the team contest.” The National Championships were held at Irvine and Nat won by 17 seconds from John Robson with Allister Hutton in third. The World Championships that year were held at the Longchamps Racecourse in Paris and the course had several barriers set out to test the runners – Nat hit the first such hurdle with his heel and had to drop out soon afterwards to be taken to hospital for an operation to his Achilles tendon. John Robson finished fifth in a superb run and the team was seventh.
He recovered in time for the track season and won an International 5000m against Northern Ireland and Luxembourg in May at Meadowbank and at the Amoco International Games at Crystal Palace he defeated Henry Rono and pushed Filbert ayi to the finishing line to make the meeting’s headlines. But 1980 was Moscow Olympics year and everyone wanted selection for the Games. The selectors had decided that two would be chosen from the trial at Meadowbank plus one other to make up the quota of three runners. That was of course dependant on the runners having done a qualifying time. Several other runners had done the time, Nat hadn’t. He was also returning from altitude training at Kenya and although he said he ‘ran like a donkey’ there were extenuating circumstances attached to the race. Due to the proximity of the selection date he had to either be in the first two or do the qualifying time in that race or, ideally both. It was a dreadfully windy afternoon at Meadowbank, at least two others had done the time and there was no incentive for them to push the pace along, they were content to sit and go for the places late on in the race. So Nat had to take the pace along earlier than he would have liked on a day that did not help fast exposed front running. Despite running the fastest time by a British runner that year for 5000m of 13:17.9 (a Scottish record) and regularly beating two of the chosen three in other races, he was not selected. In the Oslo race he had beaten multi-world record holder Henry Rono, Suleiyman Nyambui, Craig Virgin and many others of very high quality.
Nat in Oslo, 1980
In the 1980-81 season, he had a series of hard races on the Continent but not before running the McAndrew (where he was ten seconds faster than he had ever run on that trail), the Lanarkshire relays, the Districts and the Allan Scally where he also broke the course record.. At Denderhouton in Belgium he won from a high class field on a snow covered course, he was runner-up at the ‘Almonds in Blosson’ race in Portugal an at San Sebastian in Spain on successive weekends and then won at Chartres in France. The Scottish Championships at Callendar Park couldn’t have been more different from Spanish and Portuguese weather – sleet, snow and a quagmire underfoot did not however stop him from winning his third title and he won from Jim Brown. The World Championships that year were held at Zorzuela in Spain and a mystery illness affected the Scottish team for whom only six runners actually finished the race: Nat Muir was twenty sixth and second Briton to finish, only 45 seconds behind the winner. finish third to Allister Hutton and John Robson. Despite the disappointment of his non-Olympic selection he had a good season in 1981 as was shown in the ranking lists:
800 in 1:53.5; 1500 metres in 3:41.75 (ranked second to John Robson and above Frank Clement); Mile in 4:03.24; 3000 metres – three of the top five times with a best of 7:53.98; 5000 metres – five of the top seven with a best of 13:31.77 He competed for Scotland at Gateshead in the Mile against England, Hungary and Norway and finished fifth, against Denark and Eire at Edinburgh in the 5000m and won in 13:52.73, against Greece, Wales, Israel and Luxembourg where he was third in the 5000 metres and in the SAAA Championships he won the 1500 in 3:41.75.
He started the following season (1981-82) with the fastest time in the McAndrew relay and the District relays but at the end of the year in the ‘Round the Houses’ New Year’s Eve race in Madrid he was hit by a trolley-car and missed the entire period up to the National Championships. He did run in the National Championships however but the lack if training showed itself and he could only finish third behind Hutton and Robson. In summer 1982 he ran for Scotland in an international in Luxembourg and won the 5000m in 14:06. The cross-country season started with a victory in the Glasgow University Road Race for the fifth time in six years, won the Bellahouston Harriers open cross country race and finished third in the Presto International in Gateshead after leading for three of the five laps. . He started the New Year with two more victories on consecutive days – the Nigel Barge which he won in record time and the James Flockhart cross country race at Coatbridge – before going on to win the Springburn Cup from Lawrie Spence and then the International race at Cumbernauld. Five races in the New Year so far and five wins. He made it six when he won the National Championships at the Jack Kane Sports Centre in Edinburgh by six seconds from George Braidwood. The World Championships were held at Gateshead on a traditional kind of course with twists, turns hills and everything else associated with the sport. Nat finished eleventh and was second Briton but the team could only finish a poor eighteenth. In summer 1983 he started by winning the 800 and 1500m in the second Scottish League match with a pb in the 800 of 1:50. By the end of the year he was ranked thirteenth in the 800m; fifth in the 1500m; first and sixth in the 3000m with a best of 8:00.05; in the 5000m he had the top six time (from a best of 13:34.42 to 13:46.09) and another two in the top twenty. In the men’s international in Luxembourg against Luxembourg and Belgium he won the 5000m, at Meadowbank against England, Poland and Norway he was fourth in the 3000m with 8:00.05 (race won by Steve Cram in 7:57.80) and at home he won the SAAA 5000m in 13:42.7 and the West District 1500 in 3:52.5. Having been selected for the Commonwealth Games team he went to Brisbane, Australia, and finished sixth in the 5000m with a time of 13:40.
In 1983-84 Nat did not compete as often as before but he ran in the West District Championships, held in the grounds of Leverndale Hospital, he won comfortably from Eddie Stewart and Alex Gilmour of Cambuslang Harriers. Competing only twice in Scotland during the season he returned to the Brach Park in Irvine for the National Championships and, taking the lead right at the start, he won from Allister Hutton by an astonishing 43 seconds. The World Championships were held in the United States for the first time. British runners ran well in the race but Nat was not one of them. Having had a good season against them all there were hopes of a medal but unfortunately at the time of the race he was in bed with a temperature of 103 due to a bronchial virus. Having run in eight races on the Continent with a record of two wins and five second places it must have been a galling experience for Nat. His own take on the situation was quoted in the Shettleston history – “It was Catch-22 – the fitter I got the more susceptible I became.”
It took almost a year for him to recover from the illness. Nat was a member of the teams that were second in the McAndrew, first in the West relays and second in the Allan Scally relay. He had a record breaking run in the Edinburgh to Glasgow sixth stage to indicate how fit he was with several good runs on the Continent in 1984-85 he went into the National Championships, held again at the Jack Kane Centre, in good shape and after a hard race in rainy conditions, he won by over 20 seconds from John Robson. He went straight into a programme of races on the Continent starting with Birbeck in Belgium where he was second 24 hours after the National finishing ahead of Carlos Lopes and Emiel Puttemans. According to Colin Shields this was one of six major races Muir competed in between New Year and the World Championships at Lisbon, winning two, being second three times and being fifth in the other one. Again the World Championships were another bad experience for Nat: running fourth in the leading group after a mile he had one shoe ripped from his foot by the spikes of another runner. He tried to retrieve the shoe but eventually just took off the other one and ran on in his socks. There was a 300 yard stretch of gravel to be negotiated on each lap and he finished back in forty third with bleeding, lacerated feet. The first Scot was John Robson who was six places up on him. In the summer of 1985 he won the West District 10000 metres championship with a time of 29:26. The following week he went to that happy venue for so many Scots runners (Frank Clement, Graham Williamson, John Robson, etc) – Oslo for the Bislett Games. He again ran the 5000m and was timed at 13:22. This was his fastest time since the outstanding victory in 1980.
1985-86 proceeded as before for Nat. His first race of the winter was in the Allan Scally relay where he had another record breaker to help the team to victory. A successful programme of international races – third or better in six of eight races in the first half of the season – and a break from racing before the National at Irvine and won again, getting away from runner-up Neil Tennant on the feared Dragon Hill and winning by 30 yards. Came the World Championships at Neuchatel in Switzerland and Nat withdrew because he had ‘flu. For a man of his ability and experience his luck at World Cross-Country Championships was terrible. Cross-country was his forte and the surface where he had some of his best competitions and to be robbed of a fair chance at the top meeting was cruel luck. John Robson was first Scot to finish in 122th position. The following season it was announced that it would the last time that the four home Countries would compete as separate teams: in future only a single UK team would be allowed to run. This had been coming up for many years but now it was a reality. In summer 1986 he was asked by the selectors to double up the 10000m and the 5000m in the Commonwealth Games to be held in Edinburgh. he declined their offer and ran only in the 5000m where, due to an Achilles tendon problem he ran his slowest 5000m of the three Commonwealths he was in – 13:40.
The World Championship in 1987 would be the last for Scotland. In the National Championships preceding it, the race was a duel between Nat and Chris Robison with Nat winning by 22 seconds to equal the record of five consecutive victories by J Suttie Smith between 1928 and 1932. Colin Shields: “Although it was not known at the time, Muir’s victory was his final appearance in the National Championships as injury prevented him competing again. Except for Allister Hutton’s win in 1982 when Muir was injured after being knocked down by a car in a New Year’s Ever race on the Continent, Muir had won eight of the nine National Senior titles between 1979 and 1987. These honours, together with his three wins in the Junior Championships 1976-78 and his 1975 Youth win, gave him a total of 12 National titles – a performance which is unlikely ever to be equalled, let alone beaten in the future. He dominated cross-country in Scotland as comprehensively as his list of championship honours indicated, and his love of cross-country running, and his consequent concentration on the winter sport could have been the reason for his lack of success on the track in the summer that his talent indicated he might have achieved.” In any event, the World Championship was held that year in Warsaw in dreadful conditions with sub-zero weather. Nat was first Scot to finish – in fortieth position and Shields suggests that the dismal performances by the Scottish runners, men, women and Juniors, was down to the fact that it was at least partly due to the fact that it was the last ever appearance in the event for Scotland. In 1988 he ran a fast half marathon of 65:34 in the popular Strathkelvin race.
Up to this point, Nat missed almost every District Championship because he was racing on the Continent but in 1988/89 he ran in Houston and won by two seconds from Tommy Murray but because of a viral illness could not run at the Nationals.
I am going to digress from the narrative a bit here. Nat is on record as saying that athletics is essentially an individual sport with a team element coming second to that. No one can gainsay that. But let’s look at the reality.
He went on racing for his club as he had done so often in the past at every opportunity. There were many of his rivals over the previous decade who either omitted club commitments from their schedule or went through the motions by turning out and running over the course. Nat was a good club runner and he turned out as often as he could for it. Have a look at this list of appearances from 1975 to 1992:
Scottish Four Stage Relay: 1976, 1977, 1981, 1990, 1992. District Relays: 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1984, 1990, 1991, 1992. County Relays: 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1988
Allan Scally Relays: 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992 In the McAndrew Relay at the start of the cross-country season he was in three winning teams: 1976, 1977, 1979
Then there was the Edinburgh to Glasgow Relay: He ran in 1975 (2nd stage), 1976 (4th stage), 1977 (2nd – fastest on stage), 1978 (6th – fastest on stage), 1979 (2nd), 1980 (2nd – fastest), 1982 (2nd – fastest), 1984 (6th – fastest), 1986 (6th), 1989 (4th – fastest), 1992 (2nd). Eleven starts.
From 1988 he became more and more prone to injury but turned out as often as he could. At the start of 1989-90 he had a good run in the Allan Scally relays which were his first of the winter wit the best time of the day but his next serious season came in 1991 when the club history says: On the road, Nat Muir began his spring/summer season with a win at the Tom Scott in April and ended with a victory in the Aberdeen Half Marathon in September. He competed in at least ten 10K races, won seven, was second in two and fourth in a race at Keighley in Yorkshire with a best time of 30:09 at Stranraer in May. He won the Monklands Half Marathon in 67:59 – three seconds slower than his mark at Aberdeen, the Monklands 7 and was part of the second-placed Shettleston team at the Jock Semple Relays at Clydebank with John Mackay and Billy Coyle.’ The 1992-93 season started with Nat, Peter McDevitt, Andy Little and Billy Coyle taking third in the McAndrew relay. Nat’s time in the Scally relay was his club’s second fastest of the day but the fact that it was two minutes slower than his own record combined with what he called ‘susceptibility to injury’ made him think seriously of giving up the sport. His final race for the club was on the second stage of the Edinburgh to Glasgow where the team was seventh.
Bayi leads from Henry Rono in a 3000m in 1980 in London with Steve Jones, Steve Binns, Gordon Rimmer and of course Nat.
Graham Williamson’s hair can be seen above Nat’s head.
In their comments on his career, the club historians included the following remarks: “One of the highlights of his track career was winning the European junior title at Donetsk in the Soviet Union in 1977, where he beat Alberto Cova, later European, World and Olympic 10000m champion. Five years later Nat experienced the downside of the sport, or as he put it – ‘was cheesed off’ – after he failed to be selected for the British team for the Olympics in Moscow. One of the ironies of Nat’s career during the eighties was that though he was Scotland’s supreme middle-distance runner and the early part of the decade coincided with the running boom, the club itself went through one of its poorest periods. Nat was very aware of the situation, described by him as ‘being in lio’ because of the number of talented young Shettleston runners of his generation who left the sport at a comparatively young age. For him however even though he always wanted the club to do well especially in relays, athletics was essentially an individual sport. It was a relay that convinced him that he should end his own career and it was nothing to do with the team’s performance. He had always used the Allan Scally relay in November as an indication of his fitness and a gauge for the coming year, so when his slowest time ever in the 1992 race coincided with a recurring Achilles tendon injury he could see retirement beckoning. His last race for the club was on the second stage of the Edinburgh to Glasgow later in the month.’
For a view from outside the club, I will quote the remainder of Colin Shields’s review of his career quoted above after the final cross-country international. We have already seen the laudatory comments on his cross country career, this is on his track running: “His track distance running talent flowered early when he won the 1977 European Junior 5000m title in Russia clocking the excellent time of 13:49.1 at 19 years of age. The following year he recorded a personal best of 13:34.9 when finishing sixth in the Commonwealth Games 5000m at Edmonton. His outstanding International success came in 1980 when he defeated a top class 5000m field at Oslo in the Scottish National record time of 13:17.9 – a time which was third fastest in the world that year – bit it was recorded too late to gain him a place in Britain’s team for the Olympic Games in Moscow. In a track career which never flowered to the same extent as his cross-country one, he never gained a medal in any of the Commonwealth Games he competed in or gained selection for the Olympic Games or European Championships in the Eighties. He won Scottish titles at both 1500m and 5000m but never achieved the high honours that Ian McCafferty or Ian or Lachie Stewart did in the Seventies.”
What Colin says is true. BUT …. I would contend that Nat was unlucky (see the problems that dogged him in the International Cross-Country Championships all of which were unforeseeable) and that the lack of others of equal or near-equal talent within Scotland at the time (compare with Lachie, Ian McCafferty, Andy Brown, Dick Wedlock, etc racing each other frequently on all sorts of surface: something denied Nat) and that these combined to rob him of the rewards that his talent deserved. It would also be unfair to end without mentioning Alex Naylor’s – Big Daddy of Scottish Endurance Coaching for so many years and Nat’s coach from the very beginning. They made an impressive partnership.
A final word. The last time I spoke to Nat was at a National Cross-Country Championship at Irvine. He was watching the race and runners, parents, coaches and others were walking, jogging or running past not knowing who he was. I don’t think he was even asked to present the prizes after any of the races and he was certainly not interviewed over the tannoy as others have been on occasion. We spoke for a minute or two and then we went our separate ways. Another who could be a first-rate example for our young athletes wasted. It would be good to speak to him again now that he has had time to reflect on his career.