For readers d’un certain age, the arrival of the Victor on the newsagent’s shelves of a Friday afternoon signalled the availability of the latest instalment in the unlikely life of athletics’ great working-class hero. Alf Tupper, otherwise known as “The Tough of the Track”, was the outlier made good, working as a welder by day but burning off his running rivals the night before by rewarding himself with a healthy helping of fish and chips rather than a refreshing power shake.
Guy Learmonth, judging by the chisel of his jaw and the manner in which his pristine British Athletics kit neatly clings, does not appear the sort heading for the Berwick Burger Bar for his supper. But the unrefined approach that has led him to a training camp in Paris, and soon into the 800 metres fray at the IAAF World Championships in London, is cut decidedly from the same jib.
Now 25, the Borderer has spent most of his adulthood to date based in Loughborough, undertaking his degree but also profiting from the largesse invested by the sport’s governing body in a vast indoor facility that encompasses enough sports science and analysis to leave Professor Brian Cox befuddled.
Home was where the heart is, he thought last summer, when a failure to make the Rio Olympics and the irritation of injuries and inertia led him back to the Borders. The nearest track, at Tweedbank, is almost 45 minutes away. Ditto the physios who keep the niggles at bay. Where once he only had to roll out of bed to get all the assistance proscribed, Learmonth, his father Mark and his long-time coach Henry Gray conspired to construct the kind of alternative that even the Victor’s cartoon curators could scarcely have dreamt up
“I love that Alf Tupper stuff – but it’s true,” he proclaims. “People think I’m crazy. But down the Tweed Estuary, there’s this 1000-metre straight under the Lauder Bridge and that’s my home track. Henry will go to the end of it and my Dad will stand at the start and they’ll both be on the phone so Henry knows when to hit the stopwatch.
“We have every 100m marked out so we can train without the use of a proper track. I go up to Tweedbank a couple of times a week to use the one there but even our circuits in the winter take place on our street – on the concrete with cars coming past. It’s mental. I did that when I was younger and I missed it. And it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
There is a lot to be said for happiness and aspirations that extend beyond the competitive sphere. Balance is under-rated and although some flourish inside the Loughborough bubble, others find the myopia stifling and counter-productive. A European indoor finalist two years ago, it was not as if resources were denied Learmonth in a push to excel. Experienced coaches George Gandy and Rob Denmark, both from within UKA’s ecosystem, were allocated to nurture his ascent. Gray, his mentor since childhood, remained a central influence. Too many voices speaking at once led to confusion, Learmonth concedes. Plus he is a homebody at heart. “It became a case of forcing things to work and when I got injured last summer, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Still, there have been knocks since his repatriation. A back issue threatened this summer before he recuperated just in time. Qualifying for London was a two-fold process. Coming second at the trials ticked one half of the box. Lowering his lifetime best to 1:45.77, inside the required standard, at the recent Anniversary Games ticked the other.
Everything takes a little longer now. Inconveniences must be suffered or circumvented. Worth it, however, for the chance to emulate Tupper and take on the world. “That was something I knew I’d have to cope with moving home, not having the luxuries on my doorstep,” Learmonth says. “But I’m not moving back to Loughborough for that. I have the gym in the garage now. My Dad built it up. It does get freezing in the winter but I just do more to stay warm.”